I’m not a big fan of the metal tin with a sticker on and vinyl-like CDr series of Confront releases. While I appreciate the flexibility they provide, and the way they allow the label to get releases out quickly and with little expense, I just don’t like the way they look and feel very much, and once you have a good few of them it gets difficult to tell them apart. Personal preferences on packaging aside however, much credit is due to Confront’s Mark Wastell for managing to get a solo CD out of the violinist Angharad Davies. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I seem to have periods of time in which I tend to see and hear certain musicians live a lot. Perhaps a period of concentrated activity from a musician may correspond with my listening interests at any one time. Although down the years I have always heard Angharad Davies play live a lot, I think this year alone I have heard her play some eight or nine times, so her music has been a firm centre of focus for a good few months. Over recent months, while I haven’t been writing at this blog I have come back to her Six Studies album frequently, such is its impact upon me, and with the new Rhodri Davies four album retrospective spinning a lot here right now also I figured I should spare a few words for his sister’s album first.
I have always found Angharad Davies’ solo performances a very different affair to her collaborative improvisations. Davies is an extremely strong improviser in group situations. She has the ability to fit neatly into a variety of musical environments and sound perfectly at home, neither standing out or getting lost in it all. Her contributions always have a certain balance to them, rising to the fore when they are required to, directing and changing angles when such an approach is needed, but also quite often acting as an enabler for others around her, adding rhythmic or textural patterns to music into which more dramatic marks can be etched. Solo, on the handful of occasions I have heard Angharad play alone, things are quite different. Whilst she uses a number of small simple preparations, springs, tiny clothes pegs, nail files which she attaches to the strings strings, and while on occasion she may amplify her violin via a tiny microphone, what we invariably hear when Davies plays are the sound of bow against string, or perhaps the wooden body of her instrument, with no special treatments, electronics or other trickery. There is something extremely simple and elemental about Angharad Davies’ playing and it really stands out a mile in her solo work. She explores the potential of her chosen instrument in minute detail, researching each sound carefully, sometimes landing on them by chance, sometimes through elongated study.
This new solo release of six studies highlight her solo approach- less a case of any kind of predetermined narrative, more a case of setting out with one approach, one set of string preparations per study, and exploring, listening to see what develops. Listening on a very close, intimate level. We don’t get sprawling aural stories with obvious beginnings and ends, rather microscopic, close-up studies of vibrating strings and how they respond differently with the slightest of adjustments. Somehow though, Six Studies manages to retain a certain vitality that I almost always otherwise find missing in solo recordings that seem to offer “catalogues of possible technique”. Davies’ doesn’t present us with a dazzling array of pyrotechnics here. Her approaches are focussed, simple, examinations of timbre, texture, counterpoints between dry extended lines and staccato plucks at strings, tiny events twisting around excited strings, each time slightly different with every pass of the bow. This isn’t music that sets out to impress, excite or worry about what genre it fits into. The music here is just a snapshot, albeit a very rare one on CD captured along the fascinating journey that Angharad Davies has been taking with the violin for the best part of two decades. In fact the recordings are more than two years old now, captured back in 2012 by the genius microphones of Sebastian Lexer, and while you know that Angharad’s studies have continued, exploring similar and yet different areas since then, you know that a further set of recordings made now would offer just as much life, energy and detail again.
The six pieces here really are then studies rather than stories. the album clocks in at a fraction over forty minutes and if listened to casually it is very easy indeed to let it slip by as something or nothing, just some pleasant rhythmic patterns at relatively low volumes. Six Studies really takes on a life of its own though when you really put your ear up close and delve down into the microscopic detail of the recording. In his Sunday Times review of the album the comedian and writer Stewart Lee pictured himself as some kind of Lilliputian figure stood at the end of the violin taking in every tiny detail and really it is difficult to get this image out of your head as you listen. The joy of these pieces is all in the minutae- the music doesn’t invite you in close, but if you make the effort required then its like exploring grains of sand up close on a beach. New worlds of detail are opened up and what sounded like a single swoop of the bow against a string reveals little bits of grit, flashes of unexpected colour, tiny discrepancies and chance events. Davies revels in the tiny flaws, appropriating them, trying to replicate them, tapping into unexpected sudden sounds to form new patterns in the music. The choice of the term “study” for the six pieces here seems apt. As Angharad Davies is best known as an ensemble musician, both in composed and improvised settings these works feel like a visual artist’s studies in preparation for other, more “finished” works. The six tracks here though do not feel like unfinished sketches, rather attempts to find the perfect palette of colours and textures that may then be set to use in later situations, but also stand up by themselves as framed examples of a work constantly in progress and perhaps never finished. Beautiful, extraordinarily skilled and focussed playing from the world’s most interesting violinist right now, and an essential purchase not only for those interested in the instrument but in the possibilities of exploring sound up close in general.