Rhodri Davies/Ko Ishikawa

June 3, 2007

Compositions for Harp and Sho

Traw & Rhodri Davies
cwymp y dwr ar ganol dydd
Confront Collectors Series CCS6

Hélène Brescand
Le Goût Du sel
D’Autres Cordes d’ac 081

Mark Wastell
amoungst english men
absinthRecords 012

Spaciousness invaded by antiphonal percussiveness is the underlying motif of these minimalist sessions, though surprisingly only one involves any items that are traditionally struck. Instead the CDs concentrate on how improvisers amplify and alter the characteristics of multi-stringed instruments in polyphonic communication with near-static electronic pulses.

Sonically, French harpist Hélène Brescand’s solo CD, Le Goût Du sel is probably the most traditional disc, in that there’s never a doubt that the manipulations heard come from her 47-string concert harp. However, even though she verbalizes some enigmatic poems on the CD, Brescand, who in the past has recorded with other committed improvisers such as saxophonist Michael Doneda and guitarist Franck Vigroux, merely uses the text to adumbrate moods expressed on other tracks.

In contrast, Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies transforms his 47-string instrument into a sound source from the get-go. Someone who frequently meshes sound timbres with British sonic experimenters like saxophonist John Butcher and cellist Mark Westell, Davies’ discs are distinctive collaborative efforts. Compositions for Harp and Sho is exactly that – exposing the mutual textures of his traditional European instrument and those of the sho, a venerable Japanese bamboo mouth organ, both of which are then manipulated with sine-wave signals. Although Ko Ishikawa, his partner here, is knowledgeable enough in traditional sho sounds to play in a gagaku ensemble, he’s experimental enough to also play other music, and often works with Japanese guitarist Otomo Yoshihide.

Perhaps closer to Davies’ ancestry, cwymp y dwr ar ganol dydd links the harpist with Traw, a Cardiff-based group of real-time samplers and processors for six interludes of conceptual soundworks. Consisting of Richard Llewellyn, Owen Martell and Simon Proffitt, Traw has worked with both Japanese drummer Shoji Hano and British so-called stereo guitarist Gary Smith. Welshmen like Davies, the CD’s multi-consonant title as well as the track names are in the Welsh language.

Davies associate Wastell is represented by the less-than-34 minute, one track, amoungst english men. However instead of playing cello, Wastell, who has recorded with many Japanese and British reductionist players, structures his invention around the tones that can be produced by sounding the nether regions of a grand piano and layering the results with textures from a tam-tam and tubular bells.

To start at the beginning in France – during the course of her eight compositions, Brescand often strikes her electric or acoustic harps straight on to bring out its buzzing percussiveness. This is particularly effective in extended instrumental passages. However elsewhere, where her legato string frailing and vocals bring these intermezzos into the realm of folklore imaginaire, her girlish voice is buried under the multiple string textures.

Consisting of back-and-forth glissandi and whispered phrases of which the odd word can be made out, the slow-paced “Fleur de Sel” suggests it may be a faux Nouvelle Vague soundtrack in the making. At least no one has recorded such extended whispering dialogue since Jane Birkin’s “Je t’aime”. Another track is evidentially an a capella pseudo children’s song.

More substantial are the string-snapping and reverberating all-instrumental selections. On “La Festin de Penethésilée” for instance, Brescand’s electric harp buzzes in such a way as to amplify the metal-ness of the strings’ construction. So extensive are her movements, in fact, that she could be playing guzheng. Each legato glissando meets a discordant staccato tone in a fashion that makes it seem as if the distortions are hanging limply like some Salvador Dali-like malleable clock. By the half-way point you sense that sampled variations of what she first created are being fed back into the mix so that Brescand can unite piezo pulses. As other split signals blend into drones, the output coagulates into a massive, high-voltage oscillation.

Taken presto, “Minotaure” unites underlying legato strokes with 12-string guitar-like resonances, then plays hide-and-seek between string scraping timbres and lighter-toned portamento sweeps. This chromatic guitar interface is taken still further on “Corps à Corde”. As multiphonic rhythms head every which way, blues-like note distortions share space with thunder storm-like drones. By the climax, imperfectly formed rain drop-like pulses and reverberating reed-like split tones are punctuated with under-the-breath cries and concentrated multi-string crunches.

If Brescand is satisfied to alternate the harp’s pacific and bellicose qualities, then Davies’ Onkyo-like experiments nearly dispense with the majority of the instrument’s traditional sounds. As a matter of fact, it could be that only on “Mellte” on the Welsh session is it indisputably apparent that he’s manipulating the multi-string instrument. Still with three electronica practitioners on-side, this interlude is shaped sfumato, with the perceptions of form, sonic color and transitions no more discernible than in other selections more closely linked to wave forms.

This particular track also exposes Big Ben-like chiming from blunt smacks against the lowest harp strings which shift on top of infinitesimally vibrating horizontal and almost static pulses. Contrapuntal undulations from the secondary electronics create grinding motor-like roars and kettle drum-like pulsations. When combined with Davies’ broken-octave buzzing, the output accelerates to fortissimo, drowns other humming tones and finally drains away in watery slurps.

Overall, despite individual track titles, it appears as if the CD is nearly one solid sound block, with the blurry grisaille from wave-form flanges and mechanized warbles pierced only irregularly. When that does happen, as on “Einion Gam”, it’s as if the concussive friction has been produced by a reed, with the string characteristics finally asserted when a glissando pulsates, followed by watery envelopes of grotty, disconnected textures. Earlier on, the reduced parameters electronically accelerate as peeping string tones intensify among unvarying jackhammer-like patterns reflecting the abrasion of a string stroke on an equally hard surface. Eventually, sampling, processing, electronics and harp manipulation concentrate into a singular reverberating tone.

When the conclusive “Llia” arrives, this solid tone block, reveals the single pitch’s additional spectrum colors, as Davies’ repeated scrapes are buried within a steady cloud of processed drones.

Puzzlingly more and less solipsistic than the quartet CD, the Davies-Ishikawa duet seems designed to reflect two compositional tropes. Toshiya Tsunoda’s “Strings and Pipes of the Same Length Float on Waves” faithfully follows the composer’s microtonal ideas, whereas Antoine Beuger’s three related compositions give the sho and harp players more scope for personal innovation.

Essentially “Strings and Pipes…” captures what happens when both instruments are sounded in parallel with different sound waves from 300 hz to 1500.8 hz and the signal is passed through a gate device at certain voltage to hear its ebb and flow. Unlike the Onkyo silences of the other piece(s), loops of fortissimo and screechy sustained pitches arise in counterpoint. As the hz levels increase so the gong-like multiplied signals become longer and louder, steadily pulsating at such a clip that any spaces disappears.

“Three Drops of Rain/East Wind/Ocean”, on the other hand, can be compared to the cliché of non-representational cinema where quote, “noting happens” unquote, but appreciation results from the power of the images. Although the musical pieces contrast the timbres of an Occidental and an Oriental instrument, at first distinguishing one from another is virtually impossible. If one prolonged vibration is heard from one, it’s immediately echoed by the other. Instrumental tones commence and conclude simultaneously or alternate broken chords that complement each other by multiplying sound band-like signals without electronics.

In contrast with the hypnotic, near stasis of the exposition, the second composition – or variation – introduces an allegro calliope-like timbre that likely comes from the sho. As the harpist twangs single-string tremolos, then full multi-note strums in response, Ishikawa’s mouth organ reproduces pipe organ-like swells.

Substantial pauses again characterize the final variation – or composition – with the note sounding so widely spaced, that the listener could probably make a sandwich while waiting for each subsequent one. Avoiding sustain at all costs, the minimalist interface becomes more low frequency and definitely ends when the silence isn’t broken after an extended period.

Davies’ long-time associate in bands like IST, Wastell follows the opposite strategy with amoungst english men. Pressing firmly on grand piano pedals, this nocturne is built around unspooling adagio chords that continue to reverberate as individual subterranean textures are heard. Besides wallowing in the stasis and depths of every overtone, Wastell occasionally shatters vibrating note clusters with singular sounds from tam-tam or tubular bell. The highly theatrical result suggests processional music for a monarch’s funeral. Initially concerned with prolonging the echoing keyboard vibrations, he concludes the piece with piano chords diminishing to silence. During the course of the CD, he downshifts from highlighting frequent percussive thumps and bell-chiming to framing the sound of single strokes.

Strings become percussion instruments in each of these notable outings, and each of the seven musicians involved seems to have reached his or her goals. Whether listeners follow and agree with them, depends on how much stasis and harmonic dislocation they’re willing to accept.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Goût: 1. Salomé 2. Au Bout de la Language 3. Minotaure 4. Fleur de Sel 5. La Festin de Penethésilée 6. L’Enfant Gâtée 7. Corps à Corde 8. Chair et Sang

Personnel: Goût: Hélène Breschand (electric and acoustic harp and voice)

Track Listing: Compositions: 1. Three Drops of Rain 2. East Wind 3. Ocean 4. Strings and Pipes of the Same Length Float on Waves

Personnel: Compositions: Ko Ishikawa (sho) and Rhodri Davies (harp)

Track Listing: cwymp: 1. Sychryd 2. Sgwd Yr Eira 3. Einion Gam 4. Mellte 5. Y Pannwr 6. Llia

Personnel: cwymp: Rhodri Davies (harp, electronic and accelerometer) and Richard Llewellyn, Owen Martell and Simon Proffitt (real-time sampling and processing)

Track Listing: amoungst: 1. amoungst english men

Personnel: amoungst: Mark Wastell (piano, tam-tam and tubular bell)