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ist | anagrams to avoid | mark wastell | rhodri davies | simon h fell | consequences (of time and place)

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Anagrams to Avoid
Siwa / SIWA #3

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Consequences (of Time and Place)
Confront / FRONT04

Mark Wastell / cello, Rhodri Davies / harp, Simon H Fell / bass

The Improvising String Trio is a group which sets out to explore extended techniques within the territory of the extreme avant garde classical tradition. The combination of harp, cello and bass may have been a matter of accident rather than design, but the concentration on acoustic stringed instruments lends both an unusual range and an enviable specificity to the group sound. They eschew fully notated pieces in favour of either indeterminate systems or completely free improvisation, largely because conventional notation has not a hope of capturing their individual vocabularies. In concert they can be heard performing aleatoric works specially commissioned for the group; here, the focus is on sponteneous group interaction.

Davies is probably the only player around making such extensive use of preparations on the harp; and he proves that such an approach can bear fruit in an improvising context. Wastell’s cello is a source of some beautifully-controlled harmonic clusters, while Fell, who is rapidly becoming one of our most respected composers for improvisers as well as one of the finest British bass players of his generation, has a hundred ways to make a noise with his bass aside from actually playing notes. For much of the time, however, these noteworthy individual voices are surrendered to the greater cause of the group sound. All three are often immersed in an anonymous scratching-and-rattling which superficially implies that their instruments are under attack from hungry chickens, but which actually contains a wealth of detailed melodic and rhythmic information relating directly to its larger musical context.

Each piece seems to begin with one player’s gesture, which it proceeds to explore, elaborate on and ultimately move beyond. The group cover the whole spectrum from near-silence to high-energy screaming, normally in a controlled but organic way. Although influenced by Cage’s anything-can-happen philosophy, at their best they maintain a logic which holds the interest in a completely different way. That this is something which the group has fostered, knowingly or otherwise, is evident when comparing these two releases, which derive from sessions eighteen months apart.

Anagrams is a studio recording, and it succumbs occasionally to the kind of self-absorbtion avoided by Consequences, a more recent live document. If things aren’t always so focussed on the earlier disk, though, the context allows much more delicacy to the players and much of it is extremely quiet (ist, apparently, is Welsh for hush). Nearly half of Anagrams is given over to Wastell and Fell in duet, which is fine but one does find oneself missing Davies’ top end input. Consequences is the more approachable record, but Anagrams has its own qualities as the more abstract of the two. It is something of an acheivement that the level of intensity of the group’s playing has not in the least diminished in the period between these two recordings — in fact, if anything, the added impetus of the live setting seems to have made the music even more hair-raising. Richard Cochrane