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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Rhodri Davies
Telyn Rawn
Amgen Records CD001

Rhodri Davies
For Simon H. Fell
AMPLIFY 2020 Online Series



An ongoing thread in Rhodri Davies’ music has been the exploration of settings for solo harp. Over the course of his recordings, he’s periodically returned to solo releases, each one zeroing in on a specific set of approaches. Two recent recordings document decidedly personal endeavors. The first, Telyn Rawn (a Welsh term that loosely translates to horsehair harp) is the culmination of Davies’ research into the traditions of a 13th century instrument and the inaugural release on his Amgen Records label. The second is a solo for concert harp, available for free download as part of the AMPLIFY 2020 Online Series, which Davies recorded this past June, days before the untimely death of friend, mentor and long-time collaborator Simon H. Fell. Each display Davies’ singular approach to improvisation and to the harp.

For many, their first exposure to Davies’ solo improvisation was the release of Trem on Mark Wastell’s Confront label. Recorded live at All Angels, St Michael and All Angels Church, West London, in 2001 Davies utilized pedal harp to delve into the interactions of burred and abraded overtones and string treatments and the natural resonances of the church. This was followed by Over Shadows, recorded in 2004, an exploration of methods for extending the natural duration and decay of the harp through treatments of the strings and the use of EBows, resulting in a salient piece of oscillating harmonics. For 2011’s Wound Response, Davies drove his lap harp through transducers, overdrive and two amplifiers for a set of cycling patterns driven with a blown-out intensity that brought to mind the African harp and lyre tradition filtered through the harpist’s restless abstractions. The lap harp returned in 2014s’ An Air Swept Clean of All Distance, but this time for an all-acoustic set of 14 short pieces, each a distilled study of plaited lines that loop and layer across each other.

Which brings things to Telyn Rawn, recorded in January 2020, months before the world veered into pandemonium. But the back-story goes back to Davies’ childhood, where he had heard about the historical instrument with its carved out wooden soundboard strung with horsehair and utilizing horse bone pins to hold the strings. While there were references in poems and stories, the last reference to an actual telyn rawn was from the early 1800s. Davies continued to be drawn to the history of the ancient harp and spent a number of years conducting research; exploring early Welsh writing to understand its physical design along with any information he could glean about tunings and techniques for playing it. All of this culminated with his commissioning of a harp maker and leather worker to create a 21st century interpretation of a traditional telyn rawn. Davies talks about the process of preparation for the recordings from designing and building a long-forgotten instrument, experimenting with horse hair strings, learning techniques from ancient manuscripts, and attending local folk sessions. “All these interventions were means to attempt to improvise historically informed music and re-evaluate the legacy of the harp in Wales but ultimately as a jumping off point so as to create new possibilities.”

Like An Air Swept Clean..., Telyn Rawn is comprised of short studies ranging from 2 to 5 minutes long. Over the course of the 18 compact improvisations, Davies investigates the unique timbres, harmonics, and overtones, informed, but never constrained by the traditions he had studied. One is immediately struck by the sound. The horse hair strings have a shorter decay than the steel strings of the lap harp while the hide-bound body adds a warm resonance. On a piece like “Gorchan Sali,” an initial, sparely lyrical line slowly builds velocity, patiently looping back on itself interspersed with sections of surging cascades of notes. On a piece like “Afon Dewi Fawr” Davies bows the strings, accentuating the burred harmonics as the piece builds with insistently layered waves. Davies is astutely keyed into the nuances of the harp, letting notes ring out against sympathetic overtones, damping strings and playing off of the buzzing vibrations. “Lwc i’r Ceffyl Melyn” bursts out with torrents of notes spilling over each other with a resolute drive, maintaining a potent focus until the final pool of resolve. On “Waunceiliogau” relentless bowing across groups of strings brings out a sound reminiscent of a hurdy-gurdy as microtones beat against each other while maintaining rich clarity throughout. “Gorhoffedd Rhisiart” stands out with a simple motif that is teased apart and fit back together with bristling resourcefulness.


Simon H. Fell                                                                                                       Brian Slater ©2020 HCMF

Davies’ concert harp solo, “For Simon H. Fell” provides a different, though wholly complementary view of how he operates as an improviser. He had been invited to participate in the ongoing AMPLIFY 2020 Online Series, a “quarantine festival” organized by Jon Abbey, Vanessa Rossetto, and Matthew Revert to present works by sound artists around the world during the COVID-19 global crisis. Davies recorded the hour-long improvisation on June 26, 2020, thinking about Simon H. Fell, a phenomenal bassist, improviser, organizer, and manager of his own record label who had been hospitalized with advanced cancer. Fell died two days later and the piece is dedicated to his memory. Davies first encountered Fell when he went to see him play as a student. He recounts that “I was young and felt I had nothing to lose, so I plucked up the courage to talk to him after the gig and ask if we could play together. In a typical instance of his generosity of spirit, he said yes and the next day we met and played: it propelled me into twenty years’ engagement with improvised music.” He concludes “Simon was dedicated, rigorous, virtuosic and I will miss his friendship, conversation, humour and his music terribly.” Davies and Fell, along with Mark Wastell, went on to form the trio IST and the two played together in a wide variety of other contexts. A fuller account of Davies’ memories of Fell can be found online here.

“For Simon H. Fell” stands out in Davies’ discography in that, at an hour long, it is the most expansive of his recorded solo improvisations. (An archival 48-minute solo recording from 1998 is available on Davies’ Bandcamp site but that was not initially intended for release.) Listening to the piece, one is struck by how he structures the overall trajectory of the improvisation. Utilizing a full arsenal of extended techniques, preparations, and bows Davies conjures up a wide string palette across the full sonic range of his instrument eliciting the sounds of everything from harp to prepared piano to groaning bass to guitar to string group. But for all of the technical mastery and timbral breadth, there is an overarching sense of structure and pacing which never flags for a moment. Like his other solo work, his intentful deployment of rich resonance along with the resultant attack and sustain of the strings is in full evidence. While dynamics are relatively even throughout, the unflagging attention to the transitions of density and velocity are riveting as he seamlessly moves through sections of the improvisation.

Starting out with plucked notes that bring to mind the brittle angularity of Derek Bailey (with whom Davies and Fell played a number of times), he winds in plaintive bowed strings and low-end reverberation. Waves of arco, sections of resonant, plucked prepared strings and spare placement of abraded crackles and crinkles begin to accrue with contemplative attention to detail. Active, percussive attacks lead to rumbling bass strings shot through with damped, high register plinks and pings. Chiming harmonics ring against each other creating skeins of overtones. Quietly plucked patterns softly patter like rain and then recede into dark arco pools. Davies weaves these together, letting each section slowly unfold before transitioning to the next. It is that even sense of trajectory and unwavering focus that holds the listener’s rapt attention over the course of the piece. The improvisation moves toward conclusion with a series of tolling, chimed notes that surface and recede against striations of shuddering arco; a fitting conclusion to this tribute.
–Michael Rosenstein


Hat Hut Records

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