Ghost Notes
Bruce’s Fingers BF 28

A string trio with a difference, IST explores both notated and improvised music with a line up of cello, double bass and harp. But considering its members — cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies and bassist Simon H. Fell — have wide experience on both sides of the divide created by music paper, there’s no disconnect when it comes to the performances or instrumentation.

It’s often said in reviews that one can’t tell where the written music ends and the improvisations begin, but that isn’t a problem with this disc. The compositions by Phil Durrant, Stace Constantinou, Gusto Pryderi Puw, Carl Bergstrøm-Nielson, Wastell and Fell are clearly labeled, as are the four improvisations. What is more noteworthy, though, is that by using extended techniques and preparations, IST pushes its acoustic string instruments to the limit to create this thought-provoking CD, its third.

The temptation is also to write that this skill and experience has propelled the British trio into the top ranks of modern string ensembles. But considering that the booklet notes are — out of respect for Davies — in English and Welsh, IST should more properly be called an Welsh/English ensemble.

Davies’ arco and prepared harp techniques are used here and elsewhere to give the seven-pedaled Celtic instrument a new lease on life. He has exhibited it elsewhere in sessions featuring established British improvisers like guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonists John Butcher and Evan Parker. Davies also labors in soprano Charlotte Church’s backup group, but one suspects few advanced techniques are on display there.

Wastell, who explores extreme frequencies and pitch, plus the textural and sonic possibilities of his instrument and bow, has also played with Bailey, Butcher and Parker, as well as extensively with electro-acoustic composer John Wall. Fell, the most jazz-oriented of three, divides his time between free improvisation, contemporary jazz and chamber music. He has worked with other experimenters like Bailey, Butcher, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and American guitarist Joe Morris and is a founder member of the London Improvisers Orchestra.

Perhaps that’s why the improvisations here seem to have an edge over the written music. On “Fault Lines: Within Context”, for instance genuine harmonic counterpoint develops between the clicks, clanks, buzzes and pulls of the strings. Double and triple stopping are the just the beginning of the extended techniques. As each trio member seems to barrel lightening-quick from one side of his instrument to the other, new sounds are unearthed. Pizzicato movements appear to turn first into guitar flat picking then banjo frailing and finally — from Fell — what could arise from playing a steel-string Dobro. There are also aural suggestions that mice have taken up residence and are tearing the instruments apart from the inside.

Or take “Ust, Saif Nôs O’th Gylch” — at more than 9½ minutes the longest piece — and the one with the untranslated Welsh title. Almost completely inaudible in parts, even with your volume knob turned ‘way up, eventually the piece suggests ghostly sounds from far away. Soon, though, the instruments are transubstantiated into a menagerie of beasts, with mouse squeaks produced from fingers sliding down strings, aviary whistles arising from high-pitched strings and elephantine basso bellow escaping from the bass. Finally the bowed instruments begin buzzing together like the proverbial flock of bees.

Compositions call on both silence and noise as well. “Sowari for IST”, written by Durrant, is most concerned with the tension engendered by combining sine waves and thick clouds of noise. Here, the almost imperceptible timbres at the start of piece reappear throughout as sine waves intersecting with buzzes and squeaks that make up other textures. With so much happening just beyond the range of hearing, it’s almost no surprise when the track fades away to nothingness.

Fell’s “Composition No. 41 - Icons”, on the other hand, is described as an “ecstatic meditation on tonal and timbral relationship”, featuring Davies playing 77 jazz chords based on the key of C. Its genesis came in 1997, when the harpist expressed a desire to “learn to play jazz”. As Davies sounds chord positions with the regularity of a chiming clock here, the other two musicians provide eerie arco counterpoint. Mesmerizing up to the point, there’s also an unfinished feeling to the composition, as if the piece is building up to a denouement that never comes.

More challenging, plus bringing forth some of the most creative playing from Fell, is Gusto Pryderi Puw’s “X-ist”. Connected with a graphic score and written directions that certain notes and motifs must be followed, the trio is still allowed the freedom to exhibit its creativity. Words and phrases also act as creative stimuli. Here percussive tapping on the instruments characterize some of Wastell and Fell’s contributions, mixed with the two carefully plucking on each string as needed.

If the cello sometimes suggests a steel guitar, then the bass counters with straight pizzicato, while the harp supplies the underlying continuo. Often there are literal echoes of themes that have appeared before as well as tones that could be electronics-fuelled buzzes, if the presentation wasn’t completely acoustic. Finally after the bassist exhibits his highest-pitched notes, the coda features all three playing faster and looser.

IST may not fit the profile of the conventional string trio. But its performance here and the compositions it inspires, means that it definitely will be part of future of that trio grouping.

— Ken Waxman

Mark Wastell (violin); Rhodri Davies (harp) and Simon H. Fell (bass)