Confront 11

Discussing how the freedom of electronics can be translated to acoustic instrumentals, AMM guitarist Keith Rowe once said he was waiting for musicians to make a breakthrough on certain instruments, citing British saxophonist John Butcher and German trumpeter Axel Dörner as having done so with theirs.

Longtime followers of experimental sounds may be able to add other names to his list, but on this exceptional solo CD it’s pretty obvious that Welsh musician Rhodri Davies has dragged the concert harp into the 21st century. Just as stylists like Dörner and Greg Kelly manipulate the trumpet to remove its most typical sounds, so Davies uses preparations, detuned, bowed and e-bowed strings to create a new approach to an instrument that goes back to antiquity.

Nationalistic enough to provide bilingual (English and Welsh) liner notes, one spur to Davies’ imagination may be that traditional Welsh and Irish ballads are sometimes accompanied by older harps that can be chromatic rather than diatonic. He has also improvised with other sound explorers, including having a longtime relationship with Butcher and associations with cellist Mark Wastell and pianist Chris Burn.

Although there aren’t many signs of the harp’s pedal action here, slaps and plucks are much more common than glissandos. Sonic output on this live concert, recorded on three different occasions in London, ranges from the near inaudibility of what could be tissue paper being crinkled, to resounding protracted buzzes that resemble bicycle gears being stripped.

Davies proclaims his individualistic approach as early as the first track, which begins with what you would swear is a trumpet blast. As “Cresis” rotates to almost nine minutes plucking sounds get doubled and expanded as an extended string drone turns into guitar-like finger picking. Mixed among the definite tones produced by the strands are those that could have come from two piccolo trumpets, a flute and banged from percussion. The ending finds the instrument converted to a buzz saw with abrasive tones shrilling until the end.

“Beres” suggests Oriental textures and silences so much so that the tone produced could come from a guzheng or another traditional, non-Occidental instrument. Alive with the whistle of high-pitched tones likely created by the bow scratching against the strings, Davies then crashes the strings full force. Probably detuning as he proceeds, he produces a hollow echoing sound, then after some e-bow scratching, a loud reverberating pluck and what is either a real cymbal sound or harp percussion.

Occasionally, throughout, there will be snatches of speedy arpeggios or perhaps traditional harp glissandos. But anyone yearning for the vaporous arches of sound produced by legions of symphonic harpist — not to mention Harpo Marx — are urged to go elsewhere. More common is the rasping tone that resembles furniture being moved or a large machine being scraped on concrete. At times it sounds as if he prepared the instrument by inserting sticks of various lengths horizontally between the strings. Most impressively, he seems to be able to produce these unique aural designs not only with bows, but also by merely stretching the strings back like a crossbow, or barely touching them individually for the precise grating tone.

If Davies can be faulted for anything it’s that he devotes the title track to percussion and tape. Although the execution is impressive enough, creating colored horn resonance and factory floor-spinning machine-like buzzes, why do so? Others have made that breakthrough.

TREM’s other six tracks prove that the translation of his insight is best —and impressively — done via his harp strings. Which is why many should hear this album.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Cresis 2. Undur 3. Trem 4. Beres 5. Plosif 6. Berant 7. Atam

Personnel: Rhodri Davies (harp, percussion, tape)