hcmf// 2010: String theories: Rhodri Davies Q&A

Davies / Duch / Tilbury © Anne Steenstrup-Duch

" I assembled the harp and set fire to it. All the strings melted into one another producing this ‘scrroch’ sound."

Rhodri Davies will be a familiar face to anyone attending Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in recent years. The experimental harpist led a massed gathering of 20 harps in 2007, performed for 12 hours with his group Cranc in 2008 and lent his sound to Richard Barrett’s fORCH in 2009. At this year’s festival he continues to challenge expectations of what a harp can do in several concerts. First, Davies teams up with pianist John Tilbury and double bassist Michael Duch for a mixture of improvisation and new works by composers including Christian Wolff and Fluxus artist Ben Patterson. Next, he appears with two violinists – Lina Lapelyte and his sister Angharad Davies – as The New String Theory, one third of a unique collaborative performance with Oceans of Silver and Blood and composer Claudia Molitor. Finally, he appears as a member of Apartment House for Schumann: Entropic Song Meditations and for a performance of John Cage’s music in Huddersfield Art Gallery.

Classically trained, Davies took a Masters degree at Huddersfield before moving to London, where he studied with Sioned Williams and immersed himself in the capital’s vibrant improvisation community, establishing long-running collaborations with musicians such as John Butcher and Mark Wastell. His other activities range from pop session work to sound art projects such as the three harps he built for Bangor New Music Festival in 2007 that were ‘played’ by the elements. He talks to hcmf// about how improvisation is no place for heroics, why people are scared to write for his instrument and the sound a harp makes when you set fire to it.

hcmf//: What first attracted you to contemporary and improvised music?

Rhodri Davies: In the early Nineties I was looking for something that was missing from a lot of music I’d experienced before that. And I found a visceral, exciting quality to free improvisation and free jazz when I first heard it. There was a directness and an immediacy to the music that I liked as well as a social awareness and critique of how certain kinds of music were being made and consumed. In the late Nineties some of the improvising groups I played with used semi-structured pieces or scores that incorporated improvisation. So I was looking at the problem from two angles, really, as an improviser working with scores, and interpreting scores that were composed in more open-ended ways.

Did exploring this kind of music require you to ‘unlearn’ any of your classical training?

No, I just found improvisation the most attractive way of making music, really. I suppose it was akin to how I made art when I was younger in the way I could lose myself in drawing or painting and that I had a tactile immediacy to what I was doing. I used to like working with acrylic because it is fast-drying and the results are instant. I viewed working with sound in a similar way.

Over the years you’ve commissioned and performed several new works for harp. Is expanding the contemporary repertoire something that is important to you?

I was frustrated by the conservative aspects of programming for a harp concert. Even though there were a few interesting composers writing for the harp like Takemitsu, Bussotti, Ton Tan Tiet and Bancquart, it seemed that very few harpists would play these pieces. And still today, the majority of harp recitals will only include one contemporary music piece – and by ‘contemporary’, they usually mean from the last century. To find an alternative to this staid conservatism I started looking elsewhere. I asked improvisers, visual artists, sound poets and people who would not generally be thought of as composers to write pieces for the harp. I also asked composers that had a more open approach to composition, that didn’t reinforce the hierarchy of composer-performer.

Tell us about the new Christian Wolff piece that you’ll be performing, for harp player, consisting of 12 short parts:

There’s one part in particular which is very interesting to me as it is scored in three staves, and I work my way through the notes, and I only play the next note as soon as one of the previous notes has died out. It will sound slightly different every time I play it as the higher notes on the harp resonate for a shorter length of time than the bass notes. As well as this, the dynamics are free, so if I play one note very loud then it’s going to last much longer than the one I play very quietly. So the pitches are set but the way one moves through them depends on that certain harp in that particular room, with specific acoustics, and on that exact person playing it. That epitomises what I’m interested in in a score.

Why do you think composers haven’t really embraced the harp as an instrument full of possibility?

In a way, the harp has many similarities to the inside of a piano but it is the pedal system that scares composers off, and this makes writing for the harp a challenge. But really, the best way of understanding the pedal system is to work closely with a harpist and to get to know the instrument.

Do you agree that the instrument carries a lot of cultural baggage, a kind of expectation that it has to sound ‘beautiful’?

Yes, it suffers a lot from stereotyping, partly because of the representation in literature and poetry, going back to King David in the Bible, and before that. The harp you find in an orchestra, the standard pedal harp, was invented by Sébastien Érard during the French Revolution. He was a royalist sympathiser and escaped to London. His harps were opulent, gold-encrusted, very romantic images, which served as the prototype for many harps today. Of course, there are many other different types of harps, like the folk harp or lever harp and you have harps in different guises in many other cultures: Africa, South America, Burma etc. I’m interested in all these other approaches too as an alternative to the dominance of the Western harp trajectory.

Can you explain some of the playing techniques you’ll be using at hcmf//?

For the Christian Wolff piece, for one, two or three people, that I’ll be playing with John Tilbury and Michael Duch, I imagine that I’ll prepare the harp to a certain extent, either by attaching crocodile clips on to some of the strings, playing the strings with a beater or I’ll use a cello bow. Basically I’m finding alternative ways of activating the stings. Maybe I’ll use an EBow, but as I’ve become quite dependent on the EBow, I’ve made a conscious effort to put them in a drawer and give them to friends so that I stop using them. The Ben Patterson piece is called Give Me a Break and is based on hip-hop culture, so I’m intrigued to see how the three of us cope with that. The piece involves fingerboarding, where we are asked to do tricks on miniature skateboards and there will be a ‘Battle of the Sand Rails’ and a Monkey Claque. I don’t want to give too much away but it will be anarchic.

Do you have total control over the sounds that you produce using these techniques, or is there always an element of uncertainty?

I’m more interested in the aspects of technique that are beyond my control. I don’t believe that I can be in complete control of every aspect of my performance, even if I think I am, it’s usually not the case. So I am interested in elements that disrupt the binary between technique and anti-technique. That’s partially why I’m interested in getting other things to activate the strings, other than my own fingers.

Does the harp still hold mysteries for you in terms of the sounds it can make?

Over the last fifteen years I’ve systematically explored the harp for as many possible sounds as I could. If I’m surprised by something now, it’s more a particular characteristic of a specific harp or string that interests me, something that’s non-standardised, that comes about because the string has a wolf tone, or a particular soundboard has a crack in it and gives the quality of sound a different warmth. So it’s more the acoustic phenomena that I’m drawn to.

On the subject of cracks and imperfections, can you tell us what happened when you exhibited the harps that were played by the elements?

The water harp event involved lowering a harp from a pier into the Menai Straits with a hydrophone inside the soundboard. It was a first experiment and it didn’t really work, as all the strings were in the water, and they need air to activate them and produce sound. I’m going to do more experiments with semi-immersing a harp in water in the future. The wind harp came about because my harp developed a crack in the soundboard and I had to have it taken out and replaced. I kept that soundboard and that’s what I strung up outside the University of Bangor with piano wire and cable. The fire harp was made up of three old harp parts that Alun Thomas, the harp-maker in south Wales, had in his workshop which were completely defunct and riddled with woodworm. I assembled the harp and set fire to it. It was a remarkable image, really. All the strings melted into one another producing this ‘scrroch’ sound.

How do you negotiate the relationship between composition and improvisation and working with them both?

When I’m improvising, I’m composing in real time. I see improvising as a compositional tool. I think the difference between a composer and an improviser is how the establishment seems to place a composer’s worth over that of an improviser. That’s a very real difference in my mind, even though in the end we conspire to make sounds that are happening in real time in front of people. So that’s why I’m very interested in exploring pieces that question what composition and improvisation are, and I don’t see them as very different things. The improviser will be coming to a situation with a vast array of experience and prior knowledge, just like the composer.

When you improvise, what kind of balance is there in your mind between listening to yourself and being detached, and just being in the moment?

Again, I come back to the immediacy of what happens when someone improvises. I don’t like it when people talk about improvisation as if it’s this heroic, creative, cutting-edge event. It can be very considered, slow-paced and sparse. The majority of the improvisation could be silent. I’m interested in looking at different ways of improvising, as well as this fast, on the edge of your seat, dynamic conversational improvisation.

From the audience’s perspective there’s sometimes the impression that group improvisation can be prone to a kind of one-upmanship...

Yes, and competitiveness in music is something that I try and avoid, whether it’s in a compositional context, where people try and play a piece as fast and as technically accurate as possible, or whether it’s in improvised music, where somebody dominates somebody else, either by playing loud and fast or even by playing very little.

What do you admire about John Tilbury and Michael Duch as musicians?

They both have an incredible depth and the quality of sound on their instruments is very attractive. Both have a robust, beautiful sound and approach and it’s a privilege to work with them. We’ve just brought out a CD of Cardew’s works, called Works 1960-1970, and the majority of the music comes from a live concert. It’s always difficult to replicate a live concert on a recording, but I think they did a good job. There’s a tenacity and intensity to John’s playing, as well as profound concentration and focus, which I really admire. And the two of them are very open in their playing; they don’t seek to territorialise the space that they inhabit.

Having improvised with so many different musicians, have you drawn any conclusions about the different ways in which it can work?

It’s not necessarily about making things work. If anything, it’s about finding a way of being together and sharing ideas; that’s all it is, really. It’s not about making this product, this perfect music and repeating it. It’s about sharing a space, sharing ideas, and even disagreeing in the music. It’s finding alternative modes and other ways of being together.

Rhodri Davies events at hcmf// 2010:

Rhodri Davies, Michael Duch & John Tilbury (Sat 20 Nov, 1pm)

Oceans of Silver and Blood & The New String Theory & Claudia Molitor (Mon 22 Nov, 10pm)

Schumann: Entropic Song Meditations (Tue 23 Nov, 7.30pm)

Apartment House (Wed 24 Nov, 2.15pm)