What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable are the member of The Sealed Knot:

Burkhard Beins Burkhard Beins a Berlin-based percussionist and composer, who explores the use of percussion instruments in combination with selected objects and electronics. Since the late 1980s,  Beins has performed at such internationally festivals as Donaueschinger Musiktage, Musique Action (Nancy, France),  and Maerzmusik (Berlin). He is a member of several groups in addition to The Sealed Knot, including Perlonex, Polwechsel, and Phosphor. Beins also works with a wide range of artists like Keith Rowe, Sven-Åke Johansson, and Charlemagne Palestine. He has recorded more than 30 CDs and LPs on labels  including Erstwhile, Hat Hut, and Potlatch. His first solo CD Disco Prova (Absinth; 2007) combined field recordings and percussion material with digital multitracking; his second is "Structural Drift", (edition künstlerhäuser worpswede;2009), documenting a residency at Künstlerhäuser Worpswede, and employing e-bowed and propelled zither, analogue synth, objects and small electronics. For updated information, visit: www.burkhardbeins.de.

Rhodri Davies Rhodri Davies, a Newcastle Upon Tyne -based harpist, who, in addition to playing conventional instruments, plays electric harp, employs live-electronics and builds wind, water and fire harp installations. His regular groups include a duo with John Butcher, Broken Consort, Common Objects, Cranc, Portable, SLW, Apartment House, The Sealed Knot and a trio with David Toop and Lee Patterson. In 2008 he collaborated with the visual artist Gustav Metzger on ‘Self-Cancellation’, a large-scale audio-visual collaboration in London and Glasgow. He also performs and researches contemporary music. He has commissioned new works for the harp by: Carole Finer, Catherine Kontz, Michael Parsons, Christian Wolff, Ben Patterson, Mieko Shiomi and Yasunao Tone. Current installations include room harp, a series of harp sculptures played by mechanical fans, on exhibit at the all art is, is rhythm - AV Festival 10 exhibition in Newcastle until 22 May. Davies will be featured on a slew of forthcoming CDs, including Cranc’s copper fields (organized music from Thessaloniki, carliol with John Butcher (Ftarri), and Wunderkammern with Lee Patterson and David Toop (Another Timbre). For more information, consult:  www.rhodridavies.com.

Mark Wastell Mark Wastell, a London based musician who has been working in contemporary music since the early 1990's. His work over the last 18 years or so can roughly be broken down into three sections; the first decade was with the Cello, an instrument he utilized with groups such as IST, Assumed Possibilities, Quatuor Accorde, Chris Burn's ENSEMBLE and Derek Bailey's Company. In the early 2000s he developed a collection of low-fi electronics and preparations he chose to call “amplified textures” and put them to work in groups like +minus, The Scotch of St. James, Broken Consort and Belaska. Since 2004 his main instrument of choice has been the Tam Tam, with which he has recorded a highly acclaimed trilogy of solo CDs. He is currently performing with groups such as The Sealed Knot, Oceans of Silver and Blood and The Seen. He also runs the Confront record label and Sound 323 mail order store www.sound323.com.

Recent releases by The Sealed Knot: and we disappear (Another Timre); and the reissue of Unwanted Object (confront).


Bill Shoemaker: There’s an enormous ratio in improvised music of one-off gigs to ongoing concerns – working bands, if you will. Even if you play infrequently, you’ve beaten the odds on a couple of counts, not the least of which is that the collective identity of The Sealed Knot has taken hold throughout the improvised music community. You’ve each played in any number of situations where the music is fine, but you leave it there. What is it about this trio that has motivated you to continue?

Burkhard Beins: Actually I’m working mostly in regular groups. Some of them have existed for quite a long time. The Sealed Knot has a 10-year history, but also the Berlin septet Phosphor – Perlonex has existed for 12 and my duo Activity Center for 20 years. By contrast I rarely do ad hoc playing these days. And if I do short-term projects there is usually a specific conceptual idea behind it.

But of course with each long-term group there has also always been a first time meeting. I think in case of The Sealed Knot it was pretty evident for all three of us the first time that we should continue. In fact, as far as I remember, we were all pretty convinced that this trio is going to work well already when we agreed on trying it out. We were all mutually aware of each other’s music in the late 1990s and have also worked together a few times in different groupings in Berlin and London before.

Some of the groups I’m in are working quite regularly, some of them more on and off. The Sealed Knot sometimes doesn’t play for one or even two years. But each time we come back to it again it feels like picking up where we had left off in a very refreshed way. Sometimes the instrumentation has changed – Mark had changed from cello to double bass once and now the entire trio changes from all acoustic to electro-acoustic. Or we agree on a new focus to center the group playing – for instance, on our CD Unwanted Object we have deliberately introduced repetition as a prominent parameter. But despite all those transformations there remains a specific chemistry that is very much The Sealed Knot. I think it’s especially due to those shared experiences we make that the trio continues over such a long time. The fact is that this particular constellation of three individuals allows us to enter new territory again and again.

Mark Wastell: Echoing Burkhard's response, nearly all my projects these days are regular groups. Oceans of Silver and Blood, Broken Consort, The Seen, duos with John Butcher and Jonathan McHugh etc. Group performance is my priority. A big part of my past too; IST, +minus, Assumed Possibilities, Belaska, The Scotch of St. James. I like the continuing challenge in the development of a group music, finding the identity and molding over time as your material changes and that of your colleagues. Ad-hoc collective performance has its place within improvised music but I find it just that, ad-hoc, a makeshift solution. The experience can be rewarding on its own terms. But my preference is for groups and/or regular collaborators. Regards The Knot, well, I think we all recognized right from the beginning that there was a force, a spirit within the group that made it stand out as something that could possibly be extraordinary. It had a special language somewhat unheard of at that point in time. Maybe even to this day. I certainly felt we were making incredibly unique music right from the start. What also enhanced our music was the fact that each of our musical personalities was open to concepts and suggestions, compositional elements and regulation of material. Again, this gave us a focus, a function within “our” group that can only come about through regular consultation. 

Rhodri Davies: I’m still interested in one-off gigs as they often incorporate elements that are outside of my control. Despite the sometimes predictable nature of ad hoc situations, they continue to throw up many interesting elements. This is not to say that playing in working groups is a safe and easy option, but that in a group, there is a history and an accumulation of shared responses to situations. Sealed Knot has its own identity but each member also has a long history of making music together outside the group. Burkhard and I have played in many different contexts: in duo, SLW, Phil Durrant Quartet etc. Mark and I have also played in many musical situations: Derek Bailey’s Company, IST, Broken Consort, Assumed Possibilities, Evan Parker with strings and Chris Burn’s Ensemble. Mark and Burkhard have played together in duo and in Necessaire as well as on many other occasions.

I can think of many motivational reasons for wanting The Sealed Knot to continue. Aesthetically, we have a mutual interest in each other’s music and in what each of us brings to the group. We have a strong friendship and a shared experience of making music together in often trying and tiring situations. We enjoy each other’s company on the road. On a practical level, all three of us are proactive organizers and are able to put together a short tour, concert or recording relatively quickly. Given that we’re not having concert offers thrown at us, it’s mainly down to one of the group picking up the baton and organizing the next meeting. Often groups are held together by the energies of one person, sometimes two. We are lucky in this trio that all three can inject life into the group.

Shoemaker: What do you point to as the distinguishing features of The Sealed Knot’s music?

Beins: Musicians are probably not the best people to ask about the characteristics of their own music. They are too close to the subject. If it’s possible for me to say anything significant about it then only in retrospect, because the specifics of a group aesthetic are usually emergent rather than designed. And in this respect ten years is not such a long period of time.

Wastell: You would have to be careful with any such description; once you think you may have defined it, it will have changed and become something else completely. This happens all the time with commentators and critics. They're always 12 months behind the flow due to the time it takes to publish and distribute recordings. It is a good question to ask, specifically at this time, as we have not played together for a very long time. When we do, in a couple of weeks’ time, it'll be a very raw and open experience. We will each be utilizing very different sound making devices from our “usual” set up of acoustic harp, bass and percussion. Any distinguishing features we thought we once had will no longer be either apparent or necessary. We start afresh.

Davies: The Sealed Knot has had a consistent drive towards regeneration and renewal. As Burkhard mentioned earlier, this has included instrumental changes, material changes (textural to repetition) or a move from acoustic to electronic and all these factors have a bearing on the music. It is difficult therefore to single out distinguishing features of the music and indeed this would be antithetical to how the group approaches making music. Although the group discusses these aesthetic considerations beforehand, I am not setting out to perform a fixed, preordained piece. I think all three of us contribute very strong musical material that is understood by each other in the moment, especially when it comes to playing and not playing, silence, introducing a new musical idea, timing and dynamics. Sometimes we have a consensus feeling that we have mined a certain area in enough depth and we do not wish to replicate something however successful it may sound to us. 

Shoemaker: It’s been nearly three years since and we disappear was recorded, so your memories may have dimmed as to what decisions were made prior to the performance, and what just happened in the real-time give and take. But, there are several points where pronounced changes in direction are made in what seems to be a very closely coordinated manner, and really contribute to the overall shape of the performance. If such moments are the result of planning, does that planning rise to the level of a compositional process?

Wastell: My recollection is pretty clear. We had played a concert in Strasbourg two nights previous, one which we all felt was less than successful (by our own standards at least). We spent all of the following day travelling by car to Switzerland. We certainly discussed the pros and cons of the most recent gig, concluding that certain areas of the performance had been a little rough around the edges and out of focus. But we made no concrete plans to rectify anything specific for the show in Biel. The following day we were afforded a nice long sound check and spent a relaxing time around the town. Maybe this played its part in our confidence for the show later that evening. We simply played one of those memorable shows where everything fell into place. No plans, no blue print, no pre-conceptions. What is evident from the recording is the closeness of our group language. Our timing, use of dynamics, density versus space, push and pull. Where and how these elements manifest in a performance is informed by prior engagement with one another musically, but also very much part of the “then and there'” aspect of a live show.

Beins: We analyzed our previous concert to a certain degree on the way to Biel, but usually we don’t compose before we play, we compose while we play. Since we are the composers and performers of our music at the same time, we can leave all decision-taking to the actual process of playing. Nevertheless a group is establishing its own specific fields of possibilities over the course of time and it can achieve a certain degree of stability by doing this. Not in the meaning of fixing a status or form once and forever, but in the sense of being able to process all sorts of fresh input or irritation within the group. This can be surprises members of the group come up with or unexpected results emerging from the musical interaction itself. It can be disturbances coming in from the outside or just the specifics of the site. The collective process of constantly revisiting, challenging and refining such fields of possibilities can lead to a group interaction which sometimes appears pre-composed, because it strongly bears the character of necessity. I always take this as a compliment though.

Davies: The changes in direction in the music were not the result of detailed planning prior to the performance. To say that we made specific decisions about the music beforehand would be misleading. At the very most we discussed our thoughts about the concert that had just been and the possibilities of the next performance. I remember that Mark and Burkhard were discussing the music in the car but I was still exhausted from another tour. I didn’t contribute much to the chats. In fact, it would be impossible to coordinate such changes in advance. These changes were the result of the interaction between us, close listening, and composing in real time.

In fact, I’m not sure I would agree with the suggestion that compositional process operates at a higher level than planning for improvisation. Although we do not write or map out a specific composition in our pre-concert chats, this is not to undermine the importance of these chats in a subtle way in influencing the music. And of course there were many other contributing factors which formed the conditions of that particular concert including, the warm welcome we received at the Ear We Are Festival, my exhaustion, the food, drink and accommodation, the advertising for the festival, fee, audience and room, other musicians on the bill and the music we listened to in the car on the way between Strasburg and Biel, which as I remember was An Sook Sun & Ensemble Ji-eum and the Paul Motian Trio.

[At this point, the Roundtable was suspended to accommodate the musicians’ performance commitments, which included Sealed Knot performances in the UK, the first to utilize an electro-acoustic set up.]

Shoemaker: Let’s stipulate the inadequacies of labels, but also acknowledge that, in their inadequacies, labels do tell us something, even if it is limited to how they are inadequate. The Sealed Knot has been identified as exponents of EAI – Electro Acoustic Improvisation – by commentators and supporters. Opinions vary about the state of EAI; some say it is in full bloom, while others say it has run its course. Is EAI acceptable shorthand to describe The Sealed Knot’s music? How does it fall short? And, have the benefits and problems of being so labeled changed with the maturation of the EAI community?

Wastell: Firstly, if The Sealed Knot have been identified as exponents of EAI, then the description is factually incorrect. Up to a few weeks ago we have only ever played as an Acoustic group, no Electro whatsoever. However misleading the label regards our past (but most widely recognised) group sound, I do understand how, as three individual music makers with a number of electro-acoustic projects between us, we would/could be bracketed as such. Then spin in the fact that our last two concerts as The Sealed Knot were indeed electro-acoustic then I don't really think we can argue against it. To my mind it's only a tag, a marker. It's doesn't really mean anything - to me at least - in the wider sense. I don't consider myself an "EAI musician", a member of some kind of club or elite. I very rarely use the term "Improviser" even, when describing my work. Again, I find that too limiting. I am first and foremost a "Musician", equally at ease with improvisation and composition, whether electronic or acoustic.

I couldn't possibly comment on the current state of the EAI community, I don't know the boundaries. In my opinion, one of the greatest EAI groups of all time was the Music Improvisation Company, but by all accounts they don't qualify … they would most likely be labelled, by the keepers of the faith, as EFI. Confusing isn't it?

Davies: I don’t find the term particularly useful. The first time I came across it was in 1997 when Graham Halliwell used it to describe the music of a group he played with called VHF along with Simon Fell and Simon Vincent. At the time I thought of it as a descriptive term and nothing more. Whenever I come across discussions of the term it seems to be used as a vehicle to define the boundaries and scope of a music: who is in, who is not, who are the precursors, who is not conforming to the set criteria, and as you say, has it run its course. It is as if a new history is being written with a defined start, middle and end. I’m certainly not adverse to critique, analysis and disagreement about music, which is much needed. But I dislike it when a view is presented as the only truth, and this seems to be a dominant trend when discussing the music associated with this term. There is little appreciation for the messy actuality of much of what is being pinned down. This is antithetical to how many of these artists and musicians approach their work. They don’t care about what subsection of a subsection they are perceived to be working in and are actively trying to find a line of flight away from narrow and problematic categories.

Beins: Some people eagerly tried to coin EAI as a label a few years ago within certain notorious internet music forums, but I have to say it never really made it into my active vocabulary. Regarding The Sealed Knot, we are EA only for a few months, as Mark has already said, and we might not be EA anymore in another 2 or 3 years time. Who knows? And I guess, concerning the I, it already came across that we don't think it exhaustively describes our methods of working.

Within the worldwide scene of "experimental music" that tries to survive predominantly outside of academic structures as well as the pop market there is actually one aspect all musicians seem to have in common, and which is clearly distinguishing us from academic composers or interpreters as well as from, not all, but many musicians in the pop world. It's the fact that we are all dedicated performers of our own music. So probably a label which tries to convey the fact that this is music by composer/performers would be more adequate, regardless of our specific methods of working or the instruments and equipment we use. But maybe this would include a much too wide circle of musicians again and wouldn't match at all what those people who invent labels like EAI are after.

Shoemaker: Regardless of what you call it, your area of music has the virtue of being non-atavistic to an appreciable degree, in that there is no genealogy stretching back generations that frames, let alone dictates the discussion about this area of music, as is too often the case with jazz. Given that the Great Men – or Persons – model has real limitations in discussing this area of music, particularly within its emergent historical context, what concepts or threads should be emphasized in articulating your music and that of your colleagues and contemporaries?

Beins: I was suggesting the composer/performer notion as a kind of lowest common denominator for this whatever-we-call-it scene, because apart from this it seems to encompass quite diverse fields of work, instrumental or technical set-ups, methodical approaches and also esthetics. Some of which might be widespread, but I have the feeling that not one of them can be really seen as universally valid. Certain trends are temporarily coming up and become fashionable for a while, but the moment they become much talked about they have usually already seen their better days. Reductionism and silence around the turn of the century, the extensive use of repetition and cyclic structures, or a new tendency for drones and laminar textures, it comes and goes. But also when the focus is shifting towards other parameters all those possibilities will certainly not cease to be there (and to be deployed) as they will all remain to be essential elements within the wide field of options for experimental music.

Nevertheless one ongoing prominent topic seems to be the general interest in sound exploration which becomes manifest in the development of extended techniques and the preparation of instruments. But after all I think it’s the suspension of the composer-interpreter-audience division we are all working on to a certain degree, or the division of the temporal succession of composition-score-performance if you want. Some are working mostly soloistically, but there is also a lot of group work. Whether there are pre-composed or conceptual elements applied or not, such a group of composer/performers can be seen as an experimental field for interactive non-linear musical processes.

Davies: I can only talk about some of my own concepts and threads. I’m interested in social interaction and notions of sensitivity, vulnerability and contradiction. I try to disrupt definitions of, and assumptions about, music or sound and question the conventional roles of the performer, composer and audience. I’m concerned with exploring and offering alternatives to dominant modes of making music or sound: music that is used purely to make money, for competition, self-promotion, virtuosity or entertainment. I hope in a modest way that I can re-address some of these imbalances. And of course I should add that there may be other themes that come out in my work that I might be oblivious to, that I don’t consider important or that are so obvious to me that I don’t mention them.

Wastell: Actually, I feel very much part a thread or a lineage of some sort. I, nor the others in this group, arrived fully formed and complete and stayed thus. We are changing each day. Every thought - however fleeting - I have had about how I see my own material and working methods has, in a great many ways, been informed by exterior influences. By becoming a musician in the first instance was informed by musical, and other, experiences to that point. It is something we cannot excape from. To this day my work is influenced to a high degree by the work of others from the past as well as that of those from the contemporary arena. And in turn, my output will no doubt have influenced others, both positively and negatively I'm sure, thus the thread continues. Regards my own concepts and theory, this is a question I find impossible to answer as I am never quite sure as to what they are in the moment. Retrospectively it may be possible for me to address what I was perhaps striving for during a certain period but even then it is never that clear cut. There is a tendency in others to be able to articulate the purpose of their work that I admire greatly. But regretfully, it is an ability I do not possess. Maybe that's an ability in itself. I don't have to waste energy asking why because I am already doing it?

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