. . . as if the sounds in the space implode . . . 

Rhodri Davies

OCCAM I for harp

At first, Rhodri Davies was just a name on the back of the CDs I loved and obsessed over. He was, therefore, a legend. He was a model of someone experimenting on an instrument that, itself, had a long history of non-experimentation. I have always considered him a somewhat magical creature; what he was doing with the harp felt uncommonly brave.

When I first heard about the OCCAM pieces—long before I had any inkling that I would one day be occupied with Éliane Radigue herself—I had a premonition that Rhodri would be involved. The first time I heard him play her music—at a two-evening festival in Paris—the collaboration seemed preordained, almost banal; it was just common sense, regardless of how changed I felt from the music that night. 

In speaking to Rhodri about his collaboration with Éliane, that feeling of predestination remains. It almost seems as if a lifelong hand of fate guided Rhodri to her music. There are too many connections—some personal, others aesthetic or musical—for me to shake the feeling that their relationship had its preparations in two lifetimes of study, immersion, and joy in making sound. I spoke to Rhodri from his home in Wales on December 16, 2020. 

NW It seems like a lot of us found Éliane at the right time to make—at least in my case—some major decisions in the ways we think about music. Your trajectory was perhaps a bit more linear, so maybe we can start by talking about how you first encountered her music.

RD It’s interesting, because there are multiple points of connection along the way, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I first heard Éliane’s music; certainly, I would have been exposed to it at Mark Wastell’s shop, Sound 323. He played Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort for me there, and Graham Halliwell, the saxophone player who played with Mark and Bernhard Günter in the group +Minus, was heavily into Éliane’s music. After hearing Adnos, I was totally entranced and mystified. I couldn’t work out how she was doing it. There was something happening structurally, but it was ineffable. There was an enigma hidden inside her music beyond the instant aural attraction. How is this being made? That was my initial engagement.

But there were also strands of my earlier solo and group work that later provided points of contact with Éliane’s music. For some time, I was interested in finding ways of sustaining a note on the harp, and I was working with EBows [a hand-held electronic bow typically used to sustain sound on guitar]. My album Over Shadows, which I recorded in 2004, was a culmination of that research. I was also working with the group Cranc—with Nikos Veliotis on cello and my sister Angharad [Davies] on violin—on long sustained tones, but as one development of reductionism. We didn’t start out playing like that; at first, we played hyper-virtuosic, plinky-plonk music, but my interest in silence and quieter music later combined with Nikos’s interest in drones and Angharad’s textural detail to create a distinct group sound.

NW I think we both came to Éliane’s music through that door of the composition and improvisation dialectic.

RD Yes, how composition and improvisation interact; how they rough up against and disagree with each other. That was another element.

NW For me, working with her really opened up a way of thinking that was outside of that tension between those two poles. How were you thinking about that relationship at the time, and did it change after you started working on
OCCAM I for harp?

RD It’s difficult to unpack; at the moment I’m not interested in the arguments about composition and improvisation. It may be because I’ve gone through it [laughs] and also rejected it in a way. Coming back to the work with Cranc and reductionist music, we were challenging ideological stances that came from the hardened binaries of composition and improvisation. But I didn’t see that opposition being played out in reality; mostly things were far messier and blurred. For instance, Taku Sugimoto’s playing would throw up questions: Is he playing his composition while we’re improvising together? Am I performing his composition when I am improvising with him? Does it even matter? Playing with the Sealed Knot [with Mark Wastell and Burkhard Beins] was another example. We would talk about compositional ideas and strategies before a performance, but the music was improvised. And, although the group discussed aesthetic considerations beforehand, we were not setting out to perform a preordained piece.

In the end, reductionism lost its interest for me because it became an idiom. Obviously, that work still informs what I do, but it had come to a natural end. And that feeling of ending sat side-by-side with wanting to inject the solo harp repertoire with compelling new pieces, like some sort of guerrilla warfare. The interesting repertoire was very limited when I started out in the early 90s. You’d have solo harp pieces by [Luciano] Berio, [Alain] Bancquart, [Franco] Donatoni, [Goffredo] Petrassi, [Toru] Takemitsu, and Ton-That Tiet and that was kind of it. So, I wanted to give it new life, while steering clear of what I would call “career” composers. (I know that’s a bit of a derogatory term, but I mean the kind of character who in the past would have harangued me to play one of their pieces.) I started my enquiry with Fluxus musicians and artists, Scratch Orchestra musicians and artists, and composers like Christian Wolff, Phill Niblock, Yasunao Tone, and of course Éliane. And now there are about fifty of these new compositions for the harp that I have commissioned, some of which are being played by harpists, and I want to see them infiltrate the standard harp repertoire.

One of the first people I asked was Mieko Shiomi in 2006 and she sent me two new pieces that blew me away: Wind Music for harp and Falling Music for harp. I sometimes become fixed about certain things, and it takes time and some self-awareness to question why they have become fixed. And one of those prejudices was New Age music or, specifically, the ethereal sounding wind harps with beautiful tuning that I would encounter at harp festivals. Mieko’s piece Wind Music really questioned that notion. She asks the musician to “Go outside and feel the wind. To observe the changes of the wind’s velocity and to try to memorize the patterns.” After some more instructions, it ends by asking the performer to “perform as if the improvised music was a natural phenomenon” and adds that any preparations or electronics could be used. It’s a classic Mieko Shiomi piece in many ways and receiving it was so exciting. It invited me to question my assumptions, but also gave me permission to go outside and do the things that I was slowly incorporating into my practice. When I took my electric harp out to record the wind it sounded like feedback and not at all like the pretty wind harps I was accustomed to. It would have taken much longer to get to that point of questioning and permission had she not written that piece for me; maybe that’s how the Radigue piece was for you. It was a similar epiphany in a way.

NW It also sounds like Mieko’s music lives in that grey area between composition and improvisation, in the same way that Éliane’s does.

RD Yes, in that she asks the performer to behave as though the improvised music was a natural phenomenon, yet she states, “It would be better to plan the sequence of random clusters in advance.” And in a similar contradictory gesture Éliane categorically states that her music is not improvised yet she encourages a performer to move through a section quicker if the partials are not activating as they should and stay with a section for a longer duration if they are working.

NW I was reading an interview about a composition [Trans­versal Time 2017] that you wrote for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF).1 It seems to me that one of the connections you have with Éliane as a composer is the manipulation of time; the feeling of compression or expansion. Is that a specific concept for you, or just a fascination with the possibilities of creating a different space?

Rhodri Davies
© La Huit Production 2012

RD As a child I was surrounded by watches and clocks all stating different times. My grandfather repaired and sold watches, as does my father, and I wanted to write a piece that dealt with different conceptions of time. For Transversal Time I used different clocks which adhere to three different time systems: standard time, using 24 hours per day; decimal time, where there are 10 hours per day; and hex time, a system where there are 16 hours per day. When playing Éliane’s music, time can sometimes feel stretched, or, compacted and the same can happen with some improvising situations. I wanted to explore the three time systems more fully in Transversal Time as well as seeing how an individual’s unique time transverses with others. So, the piece also contrasted the feeling of body time with clock time, as well as some other ideas such as waiting, anticipating, meditating, repetition, and boredom.

Going back again to the work with the Cranc trio: we were also pushing duration as another element of compositional form. We performed a 12-hour concert at Huddersfield in 2008 that incorporated solos, duo, and trios as well as a quartet. We invited Radu Malfatti to be our guest and he also wrote a piece for us. In a way, that concert turned into a kind of installation. I was also really excited by MIMEO’s 24-hour-long concert in Vandouvre, France in 2000 which I attended: I fell asleep through some of it and had an intense experience through another part of it. I was fascinated by this element of duration and time.

And that connects with Éliane’s music for sure. I think it has something to do with the fade in from silence and fade back into silence. Her pieces often appear imperceptibly from silence and as that happens, it draws the room sounds in and they become a part of her sound. At the end of her piece, as it fades back into silence, all of a sudden you become aware of the room again. This is a phenomenon that is perceived, not only by the performer, but by the audience as well; it’s almost as if the sounds in the space implode. I have this feeling that her sounds envelop the sounds in the environment and then at the end of the piece she slowly lets them go again. I don’t know if that is an actual thing [laughs], but that’s the feeling I get. And becoming aware of the sounds in the room again jolts us out of the internal time of the piece. The listener often has no idea how long the piece lasted and, as you say, they experience a feeling of compression or expansion
of time.

NW Fading in and out is one of the most difficult things you can ask a trumpet to do, and I imagine it’s similar on harp. Did working with Éliane force you to add anything to your technique toolbox, or did the pieces come from what you already knew how to do?

RD OCCAM I called on me to refine techniques that I had already developed but to a greater extent than had I been left to my own devices. For example, I had already been using bows on the harp for a long time when I met Éliane. My sister, Angharad, had shown me how to use the bow on the harp when I started experimenting in the early 90s. I had been improvising with two bows and had experimented with three. By working with Éliane we found this parallel motion bowing technique [with both bows moving in the same direction]. I had already worked on my right hand bowing technique on the harp but, for OCCAM I, I realized that, by changing to a German bow hold, I was able to bow the very low notes on the harp with greater ease. I also had to work on my left hand to achieve control, strength, and a smooth crescendo and decrescendo. I worked for hours on my bow technique and even more on the crossfade.

Initially, Éliane thought OCCAM I might be around a 50-minute piece, but I had suffered from a bad back so she decided that it should be about 30 minutes. (She also had a bad back and knew the implications.) I was practicing OCCAM I for an hour anyway at the beginning just to explore how far the piece could go and to build stamina. I’ve since played a 50-minute piece duo piece called OCCAM River XVI for birbynė and harp with Carol Robinson. You have to work on building the stamina, because it’s one thing practicing in this study and yet another projecting it in a concert hall. These technical aspects, and the discipline to focus on the specific techniques in particular, have come from Éliane—not that she’s asked it of me, but I’ve asked it of myself in order to be able to play her pieces.

NW I know the breadth of the work that you do—that you are well-versed in the tradition of the harp and mainstream classical music—so at what point did that experimental fascination with sound turn on for you?

RD That question about sound reminds me of a time when I was at Trinity College of Music, London studying as a postgraduate in performance with the brilliant harpist Sioned Williams. I was playing a lot of contemporary repertoire, and one of the other tutors was being derogatory about my playing; the best she could say was, “well, you know, you’ve got a lovely sound on the harp.” It was a double-edged comment. She was saying it because my fingers had more flesh than the other students. You know, my lovely sound was not really down to me but was just a by-product of my having thicker finger pads. [laughs] But at the time I felt that the sound was the most important aspect and more important than being able to play some fiendishly difficult and God-awful 19th-century harp piece by Parish Alvars for instance. And that’s one reason that I was sick of the repertoire because those pieces didn’t provide any space for focusing exclusively on the sound.

And that personal connection to sound is intrinsic, really. My dad is a trumpet player and plays in brass bands and trad jazz bands, and his sound is instantly recognizable: light and playful with a rounded tone. My sister also has a very recognizable sound on her violin. But what you’re talking about is maybe more relevant to reductionism which, possibly, fetishized sound—when the sound becomes the thing. And, yes, textures are as interesting to me as notes. That came from loving live electronic improvised music like John Butcher and Phil Durrant’s duo which can be heard on their Secret Measures CD and trying to recreate those sounds on an acoustic instrument. It also grew out of playing with improvisers—like Phil, who talked about pink noise and white noise and the subtle difference between those bands of filters—and then asking myself how do I do that on the harp? These were difficult challenges that I was giving myself, but I think that’s when I went deeply into the sound as the sound itself.

NW That engagement with sound seems so vital in all of Éliane’s music, but especially so in the acoustic pieces.

RD But, even more importantly, the thing that is often passed over when looking at Éliane’s music is the emotional aspect. I’ve already touched on it a little bit in a sleeve note,2 but it was quite an emotional time for me when I went to Paris to work with Éliane on OCCAM I because my daughter was about to be born and my grandmother was dying. I was also a man who was 39 at the time and her son who used to play the harp, had died at the age of 35, I believe. We also finished the piece on Éliane’s 79th birthday, so there were all these strong emotional registers around that piece.

Those experiences are still a part of a big connection I have with her music, and every time I start working on one of Éliane’s pieces—with the first fade in from silence—I am instantly thrown back to that emotional state and start welling up. That emotional depth is part of the music. A lot of people who listen to her music have an emotional connection, and of course emotion was one element that reductionism eschewed, that was totally thrown out. And my work at the moment is looking again at some of the things that I threw out: emotion, but also humor—which I’m exploring now with the experimental pop group Hen Ogledd.

NW I didn’t know that about your experience, but it seems like everybody I’ve spoken to has some sort of emotional attachment to playing Éliane’s music. Of course, I’m speaking to the people that have chosen to remain engaged with it. But it’s something that I want to explore with everybody to the point that they’re comfortable because I think there are an uncommonly high number of particularly heavy experiences like yours.


2 Éliane Radigue: OCCAM Ocean I (shiin, 2017)

. . . as if the sounds in the space implode . . .