Clive Bell remaps the city with third generation improvisers Mark Wastell, Phil Durrant, Rhodri and Angharad Davies


Originally published in The Wire issue 260, October 2005.

mark wastell, photo by anna schori

Bobbing like a cork on the rumbling ocean of traffic that is the Archway Road, Sound 323 is a little shop full of records, a north London oasis of edgy sonic art. Next door is a welcoming Turkish café with Polish waitresses, and across the road looms Highgate Woods, home to sparrowhawks, woodpeckers and seven species of bat. Walking south, two venues lie within a few metres: the Jacksons Lane theatre (“North London’s busiest arts centre”) and newcomer The Red Hedgehog, which an estate agent would describe as full of potential. In spite of permanently having the builders in, the Hedgehog has already hosted several concerts, including a whiskey-fuelled Erik Satie recital last January by larger-than-life minimalist composer John White. Both venues, as well as the Sound 323 basement, are regularly used by the shop’s proprietor, Mark Wastell. Taking refuge from a summer downpour in the shop’s (relatively) cosy basement, we discuss my view of his shop as a kind of hub, an epicentre of much of London’s improvised music.

“Well, I didn’t set it up as an epicentre, but this November we’ll have been here for five years,” says Wastell. “That’s some kind of achievement on the part of the worldwide scene as a whole.” So you’re not clinging on by your fingernails? He grimaces. “I don’t want to talk about the hardships of retail. You see all kinds of shops offering seventy per cent off, and in music it’s made all the more difficult by MP3s, and people downloading this, that and the other. But we’ve got 1500 customers on our database, and the customer base is growing all the time. Thankfully there’s still a tough nucleus of people who want to buy records.”

Since February 2001, over a hundred concerts have filled the tiny shop basement, usually occupying the footballer’s slot of three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. It’s wonderfully quiet down there, although, in a strange reminder of how cities cram us all together, I have heard someone singing in a distant bath during a performance. Guitarists Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe and Taku Sugimoto, and musicians from points in between, have all performed. Usually brief, informal and intimate, the series is currently taking a sabbatical, but Wastell plans more next year. Several concert recordings have been released on the three-inch Sound 323 label, and one particularly magical encounter, between Akio Suzuki and David Toop, was issued in its entirety on Wastell’s other label, Confront. Confront also produced the award-winning Foldings, Wastell’s 2002 dust-up in Tokyo with Sugimoto, Tetuzi Akiyama (turntable, air duster) and Toshimaru Nakamura (no input mixing board).

Which brings us to Wastell’s music. When I say dust-up, nothing noisy is implied. Foldings, which was a Wire Record Of The Year in 2003, is sonically understated almost to the point of vanishing, and for the last five years, like it or not, Wastell has been associated with Reductionism, New London Silence, lower case improv and other such labels. He plays several instruments according to context: double bass and cello; tam tam (large gong), Nepalese singing bowls and other tuned percussion; and a landscape use of electronics that he terms amplified textures. Mark’s contribution to a group can be mighty subtle, so you find yourself asking afterwards, what did he actually do? Yet the chargrilled sizzling of his laptop or tam tam sits firmly at the centre of many performances, and the carefully timing and multiple timbres of his string bass can dictate the atmosphere of a whole piece. 

Starting out with no formal musical training, Wastell’s road to Improv hell was at first paved with good composers. In an email following the interview, he listed them: “Around 1996 I was listening to the chamber string music of Morton Feldman, Helmut Lachenmann, Luigi Nono, Mathias Spahlinger, Giacinto Scelsi and Salvatore Sciarrino. Lachenmann's solo cello piece “Pression” was especially important, with its abstract, fragmented use of bow on string pressure. It was seemingly detached from time, sounds existing only in space. I admired Scelsi's use of the single note through layered harmonics and concentrated, repeated figures. Most of all I devoured Feldman, and still do. His beauty in the notes, each one cared for and cherished, cushioned with soft dynamics. Through these composers I began to understand the capabilities of my own instrument. I began to realise how to truly project my sounds, not with force through propulsion and volume but with careful placement of notes, be they loud or soft. How to use and incorporate time and space. I was also listening to AMM a lot and was taken with their use of sounds in silence.”


Entering a mid-nineties London Improv scene essentially run by folk a decade or two older, Wastell and harpist Rhodri Davies played a number of concerts with bassist Simon Fell under the group name ist. Mark and Rhodri were subsequently headhunted by pianist Chris Burn, “an unsung hero of English improvised music,” says Dan Warburton in Paris Transatlantic magazine; “through his groundbreaking work mixing improvisation and composition with his Ensemble. Chris Burn was displaying his knowledge of the inside of a piano when Andrea Neumann [Berlin-based piano experimentalist] was playing with Barbie dolls.” Burn invited both Wastell and Davies to join his Ensemble, and it was there they encountered the pivotal figure of violinist Phil Durrant.

Wastell: “The core for London-based music was Phil Durrant, most definitely. His violin work was very influential on my cello. Through his association with [Austrian trombonist] Radu Malfatti and Thomas Lehn [German analogue synths specialist], he had begun to develop a music that was dynamic-less, played with attention to detail. It was quite linear, with no peaks or troughs, but lots of detail within a low-activity music.”

derek bailey at sound 323

Before hearing from Phil Durrant himself, let’s lurch back in time to the 1970s London scene. In the blue corner the ‘first generation’ of improvisers, featuring Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. In the red corner, the second generation, let’s say (a little arbitrarily) John Russell and the Alterations group: Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack, David Toop and Terry Day. AMM seem to have always been there, glowing in the margins as an ongoing example of doing things differently. And then there was John Stevens. Jazz musicians shook their heads at why a real drummer like Stevens should choose to go out on a limb, playing with no rules and possibly no audience. But Stevens (who died far too young in 1994) knew exactly what he was about, and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble, or SME, was consistently one of the delights of the day. Always intense, often witty, SME wove a filigree of notes from a hundred snappy decisions and musical exchanges, driven by multiple detonations of energy.

Ah, that energy. So attractive at the time, and yet later to be a stumbling block for future development. Stevens led hundreds of workshops in how to improvise, influencing a whole generation, and writing an Open University manual on the subject titled Search And Reflect. Inevitably this became something of a Britprov orthodoxy. SME’s music, typically with a lineup of violin, acoustic guitar and tiny drum kit, was subdued, nothing like the rampage of free jazz, but that energy and fast response was always there.

One 1977 SME piece was christened “The Only Geezer An American Shot Was Anton Webern”. Now, when British musicians employ labels it’s usually tongue in cheek, but the affectionate shorthand for this style of improvisation is “Post-Webernesque Plinky Plonk”. One musician told me off the record, “That whole way of playing was John Stevens’s fault, him and his book. You have to respond instantly to what’s happening. Then some people became contemptuous of anyone who didn’t improvise like that.”

Phil Durrant makes no bones about using terms like Reductionism. “Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies were influenced by my trio with John Russell and John Butcher, which had played since about 1979. They became part of Chris Burn’s Ensemble with me, but I was fed up with that post-Webernesque way of playing. It was too fast, I just wanted to slow down. Seeing Axel Dörner do a whole London gig without playing a single natural trumpet sound was hugely influential. Morton Feldman is another huge thing; it’s Cage’s concepts and Feldman’s music. For me the big thing is not a reduction in material and volume, it’s a reduction in pace. The whole pulse slows down dramatically. Whereas the pace of the plinky plonk Webernesque thing is much faster. It was partly a reaction against the whole business of MTV, the soundbite and so on. Also Cage was anti-virtuosity. The Webernesque thing was virtuosic in terms of group interaction rather than individual players. Radu Malfatti started to find that as boring as individual virtuosity. Radu’s big criticism of the London players was that a piece would often start very quietly, but soon someone would start going [sings] “Beep bop bippetty badoom”, that New Complexity thing. So why can’t we do a whole piece soft and quiet without breaking into the old habits and clichés? Radu’s goal was to have music that was almost inaudible, and hugely long silences. His ideas were very important for me, and maybe I brought that into the London scene. Of course it’s all part of the inevitable evolution of a genre – the plinky plonk thing itself was a reaction against the machismo of free jazz, and the hierarchy of horns and rhythm section.”

Durrant identifies Navigations by the Chris Burn Ensemble as a pivotal album. It contained two ‘reduced’ pieces, contributed by Durrant and Dörner, and Wastell and Davies both took part. Navigations was recorded in 1997, the same year as Beinhaltung, Durrant, Malfatti and Lehn’s influential statement about putting the brakes on.

phil durrant & john butcher

Wastell had by now identified the crucial figures of his London generation that he would continue to work with up to the present day: Rhodri Davies, trumpeter Matt Davis and sax’n’feedback specialist Graham Halliwell. He met these last two at Eddie Prevost’s ongoing workshop series. Prevost, the drummer with AMM, has run these workshops, usually under the aegis of the LMC, for donkeys’ years, and a whole generation of currently active musicians has emerged from those sessions. It’s not going too far to say that Prevost occupies the same position vis à vis the new generation that John Stevens held for the previous one.

Wastell: “The Eddie Prevost workshops are a key part of what is London. That period three years ago was a very fertile scene: Mattin was here, Joel Stern, Anthony Guerra, Takehiro Nishide and Margarida Garcia. They came to London, often to study. They all met through those workshops and then formed themselves into their own groups.”

One such group was Sakada, assembled by Mattin, an unpredictable Basque electronics maverick studying art theory. Sakada, always including Prevost and sometimes Wastell, released recordings on Matchless and Antiopic. Mattin has recently returned to London after 18 months away; his spiced-up approach to the lower case agenda is one of the ways that the music is changing. Then there’s another extraordinary bunch of Prevost alumni, who play in the group 9! and organise events under the “Ongaku_Enjoy Sound” banner: Ross Lambert (guitar), Nat Catchpole (sax), Seymour Wright (sax) and Jamie Coleman (trumpet). One unforgettable piece of Ongaku programming resulted in five back to back trumpet solos at Hackney’s 291 Gallery in March 2004. Harry Beckett, Dennis Gonzalez, Matt Davis, Jamie Coleman and Guillermo Torres all dug deep in an superb, hands-across-the-generations celebration of trumpet extremity.

For Mark Wastell in the run-up to the Millennium, the German connection was becoming increasingly important. It rather seems as though German-speaking musicians, much given to discussing sonic concepts, thrashed out Reductionism during some red-eyed concert post-mortems, whereas the pragmatic Brits liked the sound it made and took it on board as something to mess around with.  Apparently it takes Berliners visiting London a while to get used to the fact that each concert is not followed by hours of verbal analysis. What continental musicians had approached via conceptualisation felt like a natural process to British musicians; an important new way of playing, but not a school or an ‘ism’.

Wastell: “I saw Axel Dörner’s solo at a small club in south London and was very taken with his style. In 1997 Phil Durrant formed his Sowari quartet with Burkhard Beins [percussion], Michael Renkel [guitar] and Rhodri, and toured Germany and the UK. This was a fabulous group, to this day I say it was one of the best ever. They never made a record. The big impact was seeing the different musicianship of Burkhard and Michael. You’d see Burkhard do anything but strike a drum. It was all about texture, tactile movements, rubbing – it was a fascinating music to witness. Burkhard and Michael have a long-standing duo called Activity Centre, and their music was very much about space: sounds placed in silence. The first time I went to Berlin was in 1998 with Phil Durrant, John Bisset and Rhodri. On that visit we played with Annette [Krebs], Andrea [Neumann], Burkhard and Michael. It was a fantastic broadening of my growing interest in something that was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it - I was just following my line really.”

A long-term collaborator with Wastell, London-based Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies sees the Reductionist tendencies in his own playing as having lasted for a few years up to 2002, at which point things opened up again. He feels the music has now been swept off in other directions, largely thanks to electronics. “I never saw Reductionism as dogmatic, but very much an organic thing. Phil Durrant’s playing never felt prescriptive. Our music came purely from listening, not from concepts; and from being disinterested in the busy, non-stop, energetic gesture playing. We associated that more with a link to free jazz, remnants of which were in Improv.”

Davies proposes an ecological analogy, a reduction of energy use. “I don’t see it in terms of restriction, but of invention. You’re using less energy, but you have to be more inventive with limited resources, so you’ve got to work twice as hard.”

rhodri davies

While living in west London, Davies ran a much admired concert series at St Michaels & All Angels church in Turnham Green. Since last year he has taken to staging informal performances by artists passing through the capital, inside his small north London house. “They were inspired by Annette Krebs, after I played in her house in Berlin. Hence the name: ‘Haus Konzerts’, and the cod-German invitations. We wanted to get out of churches, people were thinking we were religious.” So far Sean Meehan, Taku Unami, Michel Doneda, Nikos Veliotis, Paris-based Tom Chant and Burkhard Beins have entertained the crowds in Davies’s front room. As in Sound 323’s basement, the in-your-lap closeness feels entirely appropriate to a music concerned with minute examination of detail.

In 2001 Wastell took himself to Tokyo, where Taku Sugimoto’s subtle guitar records indicated an outlook that could link with new developments in Europe. He landed up at the little Off Site gallery, then in its prime as the venue for Sugimoto’s explorations of life’s quieter side, in the company of Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura. Wastell played at Off Site with the trio and released the whole set as Foldings on his Confront label. So what was different at Off Site?

“Absolute stillness. Although the Berliners used silence, space and time, same as we did in London, there was still activity in the music. It felt like a development had taken place in London and in Berlin; then going to Japan, it felt very connected. For me music is about a feeling and a moment. It felt like a movement and I felt very strongly about it.”

Off Site has now closed, and Sugimoto, stopwatch in hand, has moved into ultra-minimal composition. Nakamura now stands alongside Sachiko M as a master of disciplined, ultra-pure electronic music, while Akiyama is releasing a flurry of unpredictable collaborations and solo forays, challenging for the title of most interesting guitarist on the planet. More evidence of how this music is currently opening up.


Four years ago Radu Malfatti was outspoken in his condemnation of much contemporary music, calling the avant garde “a fossil carried around in a stinky bag.” In a 2001 interview with Paris Transatlantic, he accused Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey of stagnation, insisting that a true avant garde would take issue with its cultural surroundings: “We are surrounded by noises and sensory over-stimulation… What's needed today is not faster, higher, stronger, louder - I want to know all about ‘the lull in the storm’.”


By contrast, Wastell is at pains to stress that the ‘new London’ style of five years back was never intended as a challenge or ‘anti’ anything. It has been assumed that the new generation, in breaks from killing off music as we know it, must want to cart the oldsters to the guillotine. Here’s Dan Warburton of Paris Transatlantic again, writing about Still Point in 2003 (Wastell, Davies, Durrant and Burn on the Rossbin label): “In London, which boasts perhaps the largest community of free improvisers of any major world capital, reductionism has taken root partly in reaction as much to the continued towering presence of first generation improvising maestros such as Evan Parker as to the unwieldy and intensely busy music of the LIO [London Improvisers Orchestra].”

Wastell benignly begs to differ. “Not at all. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of playing with hundreds of musicians, first and second generation improvisers who made London the great place it was and still is. I’ve always adhered to modernist tendencies: you have to seek something new, you can’t regurgitate what’s gone before. I didn’t want to play karaoke improv, to play in a Derek Bailey covers band. For me it’s always about tomorrow, the next step. You’ve got to wake up in the morning and be you.”

Rhodri Davies agrees: “It was never a criticism of other people’s playing so much as of our own. Towards the end it turned into an idiom. Now it’s opened up, including an openness to visual material, not just sonic. I’m feeling very open and free at the moment.”

london strings cd cover

Just two years older than her brother Rhodri, Angharad Davies is a violinist with an instantly identifiable voice. She pursues a simple idea that makes you think, yes, this is what violins were built to do: bowing single notes to generate a hypnotic flux of shifting drones and half-harmonics. One of the best places in London to hear players like Angharad is the Bonnington Centre in Vauxhall, just south of the river and MI5’s striking spook HQ. Here the two Bohman Brothers preside gently if chaotically over regular sessions on the top floor. The audience tend to sprawl on beanbags, many of them (audience, not beanbags) fortified by dining in the ground floor café before the concert. One night in autumn 2003 I heard Angharad at a Bonnington event, playing with Wastell, Matt Davis, Graham Halliwell and the touring laptop of Taku Unami. It was a moment of epiphany for these ears, when I felt this still, focussed music was a hundred per cent convincing. More than the sum of its parts, like a Palestrina mass it felt somehow devotional, like it might as well go on for ever.

Angharad has a healthy suspicion of movements and pigeonholes, preferring to see the music as constantly changing, both in macro and microcosm. “Playing one note – it’s just a phase. I’m seeing how a sound evolves, because it never really stays the same, it develops. I’m trying to find lots of different layers within that sound, not hearing it as one note. That side of my playing has been influenced by [Greek cellist] Nikos [Veliotis].” Veliotis has his own solo, Radial, on Wastell’s Confront label, and plays with both Davies siblings in the trio Cranc (Welsh for crab). In fact Veliotis is yet another link to Radu Malfatti. Rhodri Davies: “Nikos was attracted to Radu’s concepts and his dissatisfaction with gestural playing, and they have worked together. Nikos’s answer to it was through drones.”

Angharad’s clearest recorded statement is her violin solo “Tri Sŵn” on the excellent London Strings (2004). Four solo three-inch CDs in a unique, large-format stitched sleeve from German label Absinth, London Strings has the extravagant air of a post-Reductionist manifesto: Rhodri Davies’s harp (played by eight hands at once), Durrant’s violin, and Wastell’s bass and Nepalese bowls (this last dedicated to The Who’s bassist, John Entwhistle). It’s light years away from regular Britprov. Armed with a couple of clothes pegs and a lot of persistence, Angharad draws a rich texture from tiny variations of bow speed and pressure – not much changes, but somehow it sounds lachrymose one moment and exhilarated the next. She is already moving on, these days exploring amplified violin and working with pre-recorded material. Like Malfatti and Sugimoto, she is drawn to the Wandelweiser group of composers. “Earlier this year in Zurich I was asked to lead an octet comprising a string quartet and a quartet of sackbuts, and I performed a new piece by Jurg Frey called “Unhörbare Zeit” (Imperceptible Time). We did a mini-tour in this country as well, where I played Frey's solo for violin called “Wenn”. It’s a ten minute piece with repeated double-stop chords played at specific intervals determined by a stop watch. This has had a great impact on my playing, and I am definitely aware of challenging myself as to whether what I'm about to play is absolutely necessary.”

So – whither Reductionism? Well, the party’s over, according to the no-nonsense title of Wastell’s forthcoming CD with Mattin, Reductionism Is Dead. Wastell describes the content as “Very electronic, very fast moving and noise-based.” One evening this August I was back at the Red Hedgehog, to admire the ongoing building work and marvel at how the exposed insulation fibre of next door’s staircase somehow projected down from the venue’s ceiling. While there, I also listened to an easygoing, free ranging duo of Rhodri Davies and guitarist John Bisset. While Bisset has admittedly never been a reductionist, I was struck by a new, loose-limbed freedom, a post-lower-case swagger perhaps, in Davies’s playing. The attention to detail and ready acceptance of silence was still there, but could it be that a purging had taken place? That the music had emerged from a strict, reduced phase into the sunshine of a reinvigorated freedom?

When I run my ‘freedom through purging’ theory past our musicians, Wastell couldn’t agree with me more, but Durrant is not so sure: “Radu Malfatti’s argument was that we never took it to the extreme. I imagine Radu would like to think that he and Taku Sugimoto did, in terms of playing maybe fortyfive sounds in an hour. It’s not a case of freedom, it’s just a natural evolution. I think the music is now in an in-between state, which is maybe always the best state for music to be.” Trio Sowari’s latest, Three Dances, was recorded last November by Durrant, Burkhard Beins and Bertrand Denzler (a Paris-based Swiss musician and member of Hubbub). Durrant continues his theme: “I’d call Three Dances an in-between record. It’s sometimes quite loud – being afraid to play loud has definitely been purged. Another important consideration is ‘cycles’, meaning cyclical repetition. We’re not afraid to repeat an idea over a longish time period, which of course is frowned upon by the more traditional London improvisers. For me it has a lot to do with AMM – not their actual sound-world, but their concept, as I hear it.”

And Rhodri Davies picks up on the same point about cycles: “It’s going back to what the first generation threw out. Repetition and drones are happening in electronic music, so we’re thinking, why not reinvestigate those elements, informed by where we’ve been?” Another CD illustrating the new tendency is Unwanted Object by the Sealed Knot trio (Wastell, Rhodri Davies, Beins), released in October last year on the Confront Collectors Series. This is an unabashed easy listen: ‘cycles’ on prepared harp, double bass and tuned percussion almost riffing – at times it sounds like an adagio jazz meditation, summoning words like ‘beautiful’ back into the critical lexicon. Wastell says, contradicting its title, it has indeed had a very warm reception.

Wastell also agrees that, if the music went through a stern, dogmatic phase, it is now emerging on the other side. “Of course you come to the end of needing to work that way. The principle players who were using those mechanics have taken the next step forward. They can still draw on the aesthetics of that way of playing, but create a new music. That’s exactly what’s happened – most of those people don’t play that way any more.”

As he prepares to set off to perform at this autumn’s ErstQuake Festival in New York (an annual grapple-in-the-apple between Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile label and Tim Barnes’s Quakebasket), Wastell feels the battles of the ‘New London Silence’ are a campaign truly in the past. “I remember [the LMC’s] Ed Baxter asking us, ‘What’s this new silence I keep hearing about?’ So we just inserted ‘London’. When The Sealed Knot (Wastell, Rhodri Davies, Beins) did our first UK tour we made a concert flyer that said, ‘New London Silence Meets Berlin Reductionism.’ Gino Robair said, ‘What was wrong with the old London silence?’”

And of course the new generation inevitably hands that title over to a fresh gang of upstarts, insisting on their own exasperating way of doing things. “At the Erstquake Festival I’m the second oldest player, behind Keith [Rowe],” laughs Wastell, “So that feels a bit strange.” “Young chaps working with electronics,” is how Rhodri Davies characterises what’s happening next; among whom he namechecks Ben Drew, and a Cardiff laptop trio rejoicing in another Welsh name, Traw. The men of Traw asked Davies to send them the sounds of his harp in advance – given that Davies caresses his instrument with Ebows, pie-trays and polystyrene balls, these sounds are not always harp-like – and then invited him to Wales to record. So all the sonic material originated from the harp, and Davies professes himself extremely pleased with the result. Meanwhile Wastell credits “post-digital sound” with much of the impetus behind the music of the past five or so years, affecting both Reductionism and its successors: “I don’t necessarily mean laptop sound and processing, but simply all the things you can do with a computer. The way small things can be writ large. I don’t use a computer to make music, and I have zero editing skills, I’m quite lo-fi in that way. But the knock-on effect of software has had a very great impact on new music.”

sound 323, the shop! opposite highgate tube station, north london

Within the next few months Wastell will oversee publication of a 350 page book and DVD, a survey of current music as it looks from the vantage point of Sound 323, involving an international roster of sixty contributors. The title is a mouthful: Blocks Of Consciousness And The Unbroken Continuum, referring on the one hand to Morton Feldman and on the other to Derek Bailey. The accompanying DVD will contain highlights from ten new music concerts recently videoed in the UK by film maker David Reid. Wastell’s ever-hectic CD release schedule includes a duo of himself and Norwegian noise artist Lasse Marhaug – “That will raise a few eyebrows”. Then there’s a duo with John Tilbury; Vibra 2, which is a new recording of solo tam tam; the ist trio (Wastell, Rhodri Davies, Simon Fell) live in an octagonal, sixteenth century Italian chapel, a delayed release from 2002; The Broken Consort (Wastell, Rhodri Davies, Matt Davis) on the Quakebasket label, another 2002 recording and “probably the only record that absolutely represents the principles of New London Silence”; and finally an eleven piece ‘reduced orchestra’ assembled by Wastell two years ago, on a day when simply everyone seemed to be in London: Akiyama, Krebs, Neumann, Nishide, Mattin and Norwegian Michael Duch, plus locals Ben Drew, Paul Hood, Halliwell and Rhodri Davies. There will certainly be further concerts at Jacksons Lane, and discussions are ongoing about possibly co-curating (with David Toop) a year-long series of high profile events at the Lisson Gallery.

I recall Otomo Yoshihide saying that the most interesting time in music is when a movement is finished, and no one quite knows what is going on. Mark Wastell feels the same. “I’m really looking forward to the next two years to see where things go. It’s the modernist principle, that it’s always about tomorrow. New day, new ideas, new influences.”