When cellist Mark Wastell founded the Confront label in 1996, music from a new generation of London-based improvisers was just starting to get some visibility. From the first handful of short-run cassette and CD-R releases, Wastell zeroed in on the documentation of live performances of an evolving pool of musicians, capturing groups like IST (the trio of Wastell, bassist Simon H. Fell and harpist Rhodri Davies), Assumed Possibilities (Wastell, Davies, and multi-instrumentalists Phil Durrant, and Chris Burn) and The Sealed Knot (Wastell, Davies, and percussionist Burkhard Beins). Even when he moved to digipack releases like Rhodri Davies’ phenomenal solos Trem and Over Shadows andFoldings, Wastell’s collaboration with Japanese musicians Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Taku Sugimoto, the label was still committed to micro-released CD-Rs, some packaged in small aluminum round boxes and others in distinctively colored plastic snap packs. The label, along with Wastell’s London shop, Sound 323, which served as distributor as well as a venue for intimate performances, were seminal in spreading the word on the burgeoning scene. Things were going full-bore through 2010 and then went silent for a bit. All that is over now and Wastell’s Confront label is back with a startling flow of reissues and new recordings.
IST was a formative group for Wastell, providing him with some of his first gigs and, more importantly, his initial introduction to Rhodri Davies. The group was relatively active from 1995 through 2002, though during that time, they only released a handful of recordings. In an interview with Tomas Korber for the online ParisTransatlantic Magazine, Wastell comments that “We were concerned with a way of listening that required more attention to the microscopic level, so to speak. We were taken to task so many times by the audience: ‘I couldn't hear what you were doing!’ – ‘Well you've got to adapt your listening you know, because I can hear perfectly!’ ... So yes, there was much attention to detail in the sound, but we were still far away from what today you'd call ‘lowercase sound’.” It was how they rode that edge that put them in settings like participation in series of Company performances with Derek Bailey and Will Gaines as well as a performance at the 2001 Total Music Meeting in Berlin, the complete recording of which has now found the light of day in this new batch of releases.
An excerpt of the concert appeared on a sampler from the festival and their approach jumps out against most of the other groups whose roots were still drawn from the European Free Improvisation tradition. The setting seems to bring out a sterling focus as the three plumb a collective timbral investigation. The first section draws on a give and take between percussive groaning bass, wispy arco cello, and the damped attack and abrasions of harp, stretching the intrinsic elements of their instruments with a sense of tensile concentration. But as the improvisation unfolds, it morphs from contrapuntal angularity to confluent planes of gesture and textural detail. Skittering micro-lines, ratcheted semaphores, and scrubbed activity play off each other, building active densities without falling into the all-to-often requisite rise in dynamics. It is this reciprocated balance that carries through the performance, which culminates in a keenly detailed web of spontaneous invention.
Eight months after the IST session, Fell joined Derek Bailey at Sound 323 for a duo performance, a segment of which Wastell released as a mini-CD. Here, Wastell presents the entire 60 minute set and it is splendid to hear the two dig into the set of four improvisations. Bailey is in his usual voluble form here, slashing out shards of steely guitar imbued with his incomparable sense of skewed phrasing and time. It is particularly intriguing to hear Fell in this setting. Fell has always moved seamlessly around a panoply of settings, working in micro-detail and then jumping readily into caustic intensity with groups like his pummeling trio with Alan Wilkinson and Paul Hession or the full-on blast of the group Descension. In company with Bailey, he entertains a parallel linearity that complements his partner’s attack. But he is also willing to pull back a bit and provide some space to the proceedings. The intimate recording effectively captures the acoustic sound of Bailey’s fingers and plectrum scrabbling away against the resonant strings in concert with Fell’s low-end rumbles, string scrapes, craggy percussive pops, and muscular arco. After a break for tea, the two dig in to the 21-minute “Post Tea 1” which bucks and bristles with particularly spirited attack, restlessly moving across sections of agitated activity, and then diving back into the fray, and opening up, particularly during the final third of the improvisation. The final piece is one of the strongest, finding the two settled in and opening up the densities a bit more. Here, in particular, there is a sense of considered pacing by both partners that holds things together. Previously unissued recordings by Bailey have been slow to surface and this one, with such an able and fitting partner is particularly welcome.
The newest recording of this recent batch is a previously unissued performance by The Sealed Knot, Wastell’s trio with Burkhard Beins and Rhodri Davies, captured at the Another Timbre festival at Café Oto in London from January 2009. This trio formed around 2000, overlapping a bit with IST. But with this group, Wastell and Davies extended the micro-focus of IST into areas which became known as “New London Silence” (a term coined from the title of a UK tour The Sealed Knot did in 2001.) Like most other labels, the term lost any real meaning by the time it became popular in the mid-2000’s and a listen to this concert recording shows how much the group had evolved its approach since their initial recordings. (For those who missed them the first time through, Wastell has also reissued their initial recording from 2000 along with “Surface/Plane”, their recording from 2001 on the Meniscus label.)
First off, all three musicians introduced electronics into their arsenal, and additionally, Wastell utilizes a tam tam as a sound source rather than cello. But instrumentation is really secondary to the form and sonic density of their collective playing. Their placement of timbre and gesture against an open sonic ground has morphed. Rumbles of low-fi electronics become the ground for Beins’ amplified mechanical flutters, Davies’ subtle manipulation of amplified string resonances, and the resonant shimmers of Wastell’s tam tam. And the sounds themselves are stretched out, letting the interactions of electronic and acoustic sounds meld into mutable layers that oscillate against each other into subtly shifting fields. The three also allow the sounds to accrue into denser sections which they masterfully resolve into pools of hushed pulses, crackles and static before building back up again. Of course this recording is now four years old so one looks forward to recordings of their recent work like a performance last May in Berlin.