Interview with Rhodri Davies
Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Rhodri Davies’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 253–259. Copyright © 2009
The work of the group of the younger genertion of improvisers subsequently labelled New London Silence has been important to my own development as a composer. Their interest in quiet, carefully placed sounds came at a time when I was beginning to engage with similar material in my own notated work, and this was reinforced by knowing Rhodri Davies from his time as a postgraduate in Huddersfield in the mid-1990s. His interest in improvisation developed from around then – I was at his first improvised performance – and grew into a music which has been extremely influential over the past decade. His response to the prevailing conditions was to do the opposite, initially looking to small gestures and silence as a way of reassessing conventions, but more recently exploring a wider palette of sounds, expanding the scope of his instrumental preparations. He describes this as a gradual process, one which developed organically: it is mirrored by his approach to group work, where his strategy is to challenge himself to work against the grain. This is not to say he is deliberately reactionary: these trajectories are creatively necessary to stimulate change. Davies also works regularly with notated music, and has commissioned much new work for the harp. He draws a clear line between his work as an improviser and his expectation of notated music written for him however. The music’s identity must not be reliant on a mining of his resources as an improviser, a view echoed by other practitioners concerned about the appropriation of their work by composers.
The interview was conducted by telephone on 9 October 2007
Given that the harp is your instrument, I thought I’d begin by asking about its role in your work as an improviser. Do you feel, as Derek Bailey said, ‘the instrument is man’s best friend, both a tool and a helper, a collaborator’, or that it intrudes ‘between the player and the music’?
Derek mentions in his book two distinct attitudes to the instrument amongst improvisers: pro- and anti-instrument. He later states that the division between the two views is not as distinct as they might seem at first, and says, ‘at one time or another most players investigate both the pro- and the anti-instrument approaches. Some oscillate continuously between them and some contrive to hold both views at once so there is no clear division into two groups of musicians’. That is closer to how I view things – that there is oscillation or constant flux between the instrument as friend and as something that comes between the player and the music. There is no one solidified stance. Furthermore, I play different kinds of harps, and it’s worth discussing them individually because they propose different challenges. I play a 47-string pedal harp, 32-string lever harp and a 26-string electro-acoustic harp. I also build Aeolian harps that are suspended via strings attached to trees and I suspend various harp parts to the walls and ceilings of buildings.
In relation to that, what pushes you one-way or the other? You say you oscillate between the two positions: is there something that drives you more towards the instrument or more towards the point where the instrument gets in the way almost?
Perhaps this idea of oscillating between two poles is ultimately unhelpful: it’s better to think of it as a multitude of approaches. Often a specific instrument presents explicit limitations. For example, to facilitate travel I perform with my small lever harp. And of course this instrument imposes different restrictions to what the larger pedal harp would. There are fewer strings, individual levers on each note instead of pedals, and it has a quieter dynamic range. The lever harp presents limitations, which for me, being used to playing the pedal harp for so long, makes it difficult to improvise. These constraints eventually push me into discovering other harp sounds that I wouldn’t necessarily have found if I only performed on the pedal harp.
So the instrument was really a helper in that sense?
Yes, but at the same time it is an obstruction and a difficulty to surmount. When I go back to play the pedal harp I find it somehow easier because it has a louder dynamic range and deeper resonance. This renews my playing and my approach to the instrument. Recently I’ve started playing a small electric harp, which I place horizontally on a table. Placing it on a table challenges my own technique and the electric harp opens up a wider dynamic potential. It immediately requires another approach to the standard harp technique.
Do you make a clear decision to move from one harp to another for a particular concert to put yourself at a particular starting point?
I’m always weighing up which set up would be most appropriate for each situation. And by appropriate I mean what I find appropriate to stretch me artistically. For instance one of the loudest concerts I have participated in was Otomo Yoshihide’s group Core Anode at the ICA Theatre as part of the London Musicians’ Collective festival in 2006. While it would make sense and seem more appropriate to take my electro-acoustic harp to such a context, I felt it was more of a challenge to try and play acoustically. And as a result, I was surprised by my response, which was to essentially scrape my harp strings with Mark Sanders’ cymbal as this was the loudest sound I could produce on the acoustic harp for a sustained period of time. I doubt many people heard my sounds amongst the intense barrage of noise in the room. It became a very performative action – though I didn’t set out for it to be.
You mentioned the electric harp, and technology has become part of your setup recently. I wondered how that links to your harp playing firstly, but also how you’ve developed a setup with electronics?
It’s an extension of my harp playing and I approach both in the same manner. The combination of experimentation and playfulness that I apply to the acoustic instrument carries through to the electronics. In the same way, I explore what happens when I put a preparation in different places on a harp string. It is rather akin to the differences between saxophones such as soprano, tenor, alto etc. Certain techniques can be carried through and played on each instrument and then each instrument has techniques that relate only to that individual instrument and suggest unique approaches. I try to keep my electronics stripped down, so I’ll use an electric harp, prerecorded harp sounds, and lo-fi electronics. My prerecorded harp sounds are now mostly made up of close mic’d harp, e-bowed harp or Aeolian harp sounds, and the rest of the material consists of field recordings relating to a concert space or day-to-day sounds around me.
Following that on one stage further, do you ever play without a harp?
I have done a couple of performances and recordings using only electronics, which I found liberating, but at the same time I felt slightly vulnerable. Pushing myself into uncomfortable or exposed situations is an aspect I’ve been working on in my performance for some time, going back to the All Angels concerts that I co-organized with Mark Wastell. Back then, I was working with the harp and positioning percussion instruments around the floor of the space. This was a way of confronting a situation where I sometimes felt tempted to hide behind the harp. It could come between the audience and me, and I felt the need to push myself to get away from behind the harp, and minimize the barrier between the audience and me.
Obviously you’ve done a lot of solo concerts as well as playing in groups and I was wondering how your approach changes between those two situations? How do you adapt what you do?
It completely depends on who, and how many people, I’m playing with. If I’m playing with a large ensemble I’m less inclined to play very much as I think it’s very easy to overplay in that context. But it all depends on the circumstances, the room, and the audience. I can only say that I use my solo work to explore a very personal space which references and cross references my previous solo work. In my ensemble work the challenge is to work with or against the other musicians whilst listening.
The quantity of what you play differs in larger groups, but does the quality of what you do change in any way? Do you deliberately do different things when you do make sounds?
Part of what I enjoy is exploring the unexpected. So in very simplistic terms, when I share a space with a loud instrument, I tend to explore quiet areas, and vice versa. There’s a multitude of strategies I employ depending on how interesting or relevant I feel it is at the time.
Could you perhaps give some examples of what those strategies might be, or the sorts of approaches you might take?
This example is less of an approach and more of an obsession. I got quite fixated for a few years with the precise placement of a harmonic in time. This particular type of harmonic was difficult to achieve and was produced by holding the edge of an eraser against a top octave string and plucking the string with a plectrum. I would force myself to find what felt like the absolute right time to play the harmonic and it had to be articulated cleanly. Perhaps this was the result of exhaustion from too much touring! One strategy I use is to discard certain preparations from my palette and this affects my habits and sounds. There are many preparations that dominate an improviser’s palette such as bows, e-bow, wire wool, fans, and crocodile clips. I often get sick of hearing a certain sound and this will affect my approach and I will drop the offending preparation out of my palette, or sometimes, I will continue working with it for this very fact.
Going back to playing in groups, what differences do you find when you’re starting to play with somebody new for the first time? Obviously it’s going to be somewhat different, but does it change how you work at all?
There is a potential for openness in the first meeting but it can also be prone to a tiptoeing politeness when players don’t know each other’s sound world. And I don’t particularly enjoy rehearsing improvisation. There is something about performing with an audience that I value. However, when I started I used to rehearse in duo with Phil Durrant and Mark Sanders and I used to record everything and listen back to it and that was an immensely valuable experience. When I was starting out especially it was important to analyse and revisit a playing situation.
I suppose the flip side of that is for the people you have worked with for a long time, how do you keep those relationships fresh musically?
I’m in three or four long-term groups such as Cranc, The Sealed Knot, and Broken Consort. We’re all living in different places, I’m currently in Newcastle upon Tyne, Mark Wastell and Angharad Davies are in London, Burkhard Beins is in Berlin, Nikos Veliotis is in Athens, and we probably only get to play as groups once or twice a year and that in itself actually keeps things fresh. We might be doing a six date tour for instance, but with a year between playing, and we come back refreshed and have all possibly moved on into different areas. Obviously within a tour it is not always easy, but that depends on so many variables, on the venues, acoustics, PA and basic factors like how tiring the work is.
In those situations do you ever discuss what you’re doing?
I tend to gravitate to improvisers who do discuss what they are doing, such as the Berlin musicians like Burkhard Beins, Michael Renkel, Andrea Neumann and Annette Krebs, who I first met in 1996. And from England, Robin Hayward, Matt Davis and John Butcher, who are all very articulate in discussing the music. Generally when I first moved to London, I got the impression that musicians would rarely discuss the music. Maybe they’d come up and say ‘well done’ after a gig if they really liked it. However, a small group of musicians would discuss what the music could be before and after we played which was a change from what had been the trend on the London scene. I got the impression that it was almost considered contrary to the spirit of improvisation to discuss the music in advance. And of course there is a strong argument that there is no need to talk about the music, as it is all being worked out in the medium of sound.
I suppose you’re also talking about previous generations of players and how improvising works for them and I was wondering what your view was on guided improvisation and compositions which have a degree of indeterminacy in them is, particularly given that you also play composed music as well?
I’ve been commissioning solo harp pieces for the last three or four years and I’m interested in composition that takes me to areas that I wouldn’t necessarily arrive at if I were left to my own devices. I’m not interested in pieces that get me to improvise freely because I do that already. I’m very open to compositions that include indeterminacy and certain elements of improvisation. I also think a composition should have a certain identity and not borrow too heavily from my own vocabulary and improvising palette.
Where do you draw the line there though? If someone’s heard you play and wants to write a piece for you, what sort of things specifically do you not want them to write for you?
If I feel that a composer is being naïve or lazy, by simply giving me a text that gets me to improvise, or perhaps offering too loose a framework, then I feel I may as well improvise my own music without the composer claiming credit for the work. However, if we look at a piece like Tea Ceremony by Catherine Kontz, she uses graphic notations of around fifty-two different little sections and it remains heavily improvisatory but within clear parameters. When I perform her piece I get a sense that it has an identity of its own, and I like that.
Does playing composed music affect how you improvise, or the other way round for that matter?
I can become very attached to the sounds that I make and throwing them out of my vocabulary can be a wrenching act. I might be happy to introduce a composer to some of my techniques that I’ve developed over the years when I no longer feel I have any use for them. I’m happy to pass on that knowledge so that other people can use the techniques in a different way and in a different context. And by passing those techniques on, it exorcises them out of my vocabulary because once they have another life, I feel I don’t have to go back and use those techniques again. In a way I’m renewing and renegotiating familiar techniques and the vocabulary evolves in a continual process. I’ve found that commissioning new pieces can be a way of invigorating my playing. For example, I asked Fluxus artists Mieko Shiomi and Yasuano Tone to write pieces for harp, and they obviously approach the harp completely differently to how a composer would or I would.
It’s interesting you’ve said that, and earlier you were talking about changing instruments or performance setup as a way of refreshing things. Are there any other ways you find you can reinvigorate your own playing, as an improviser particularly?
Yes, playing with other people. It is possible to learn such a lot from listening to other musicians whilst in the process of improvising together. Such a lot of information can be gleaned from listening to other people’s approaches and strategies in the moment.
We talked a bit about your previous playing, and when you first started to become known as an improviser it was in relation to very quiet, reduced ways of playing and you’ve moved away from that now. I just wondered if you could say a bit about the process of moving from one style of playing to another one, that movement of reinvigoration if you like?
I don’t see it as moving consciously from one style to another but rather as adopting a whole host of approaches. I don’t wake up one morning as a reductionist and then the next day I’m a noise artist: the change – if there is one – is slow and organic. Regarding reductionism in London, in the late 1990s I was working with Mark Wastell, Matt Davis, Robin Hayward and Phil Durrant. We were all searching for something, which was not necessarily the same thing, and we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for. It was a messy actuality and we were all playing in different contexts and not necessarily in a reductionist way all the time. There was something there to be explored that caught my attention. It was challenging the unspoken value systems that were held by improvising musicians, and more importantly it was challenging my own value system. In a way I was engaging with what had been by deciding what I didn’t want to do. I view reductionism as a form of reassessing and critiquing improvised music itself. I think it’s a healthy critique. And of course this has been happening throughout its history. If you look at people like Steve Beresford who came along after people like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey and said if I’m free then I’m free to play tunes and cut and paste and all this sort of stuff and maybe try and get away from virtuosic improvisation.
I’m just trying to keep things interesting and I’ve moved into other areas like the electric harp and amplifying the acoustic harp, building wind harps, setting fire to harps and all that kind of thing! I’m working with Aeolian harps, where I suspend a harp soundboard or sound box and attach the strings to various parts of buildings or trees and get the elements to activate the strings. This is an attempt to distance myself from my playing. This is an investigation into random occurrences. There are many random factors in my playing and many things outside of my control and it’s an acceptance of this and an investigation of the unknown, which I try to pursue to different extremes.
Linked to that, do you ever feel constrained by your previous work?
No, no. I think if anything I’m constrained by all these different labels: Welsh harpist, improviser, composer, reductionist etc. and when people have a fixed idea of how music should be or how a musician should perform.
You’ve already said about how you don’t like to rehearse in the context of a group, but on your own, what do you do away from a concert situation? Do you do any sort of work on your harp; is there any sort of sense of technical development in what you do? Do you try and hone sounds outside of the performance situation?
Of course I work on my material. I have been lucky to be invited to a few residencies recently, at Westwerk, Hamburg, for Q-02 in Brussels, and then a week with contact dance improvisers and Zolt Sores in Budapest. I used that time to woodshed and work on my electric harp and the wind harp. It’s good to have that focused time away from everything else. When I get the time back home I’ll do the same, but obviously not in such a long block of concentrated time.
What do you do when you have that time to work on your own? What are your aims?
I’ll explore and experiment with unknown things as well as reappraise things. I investigate technical and practical aspects such as ‘what does this do and how is the sound affected if I change a certain parameter’. Also a lot of the bigger jumps in what I’ve done come from art, film or literature, away from the harp.
Where do you see your work progressing at the moment and what’s coming up?
I’m excited because I’m living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the moment and this is a real opportunity to focus on my work. It’s not so easy to pop down to London to do a door money gig. In the past the financial implications and difficulties of living in London for twelve years meant that I had to accept work that I was sometimes at odds with artistically. Hopefully I’m reaching a stage where I can pick and choose a little more and work more on my own projects. But perhaps this is just wishful thinking!
 Derek Bailey, Improvisation (London, 1992), pp. 98-99.
 Ibid., p. 102.