Will Montgomery - The Wire
The Sealed Knot: Silence is a rhythm, too
..."For a long time since the 1960s, it felt rebellious and avant gardistic to be loud and harsh in one way or another, but now most mainstream culture is loud and in your face," states Burkhard Beins, the Berlin based percussionist of an improvising trio whose fluent, tightly woven performances are anything but full on. Beins is talking by email about the quietness and space that have been "in the air", in his words, since the mid-90s. While The Sealed Knot´s music is related to the ’small gesture´ work of european improvisors such as Radu Malfatti and Axel Dörner, it has also evolved in the context of the panglobal lowercase scene and the sonic downshifts of Japanese musicians such as Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M. "Most of my material is breathy, white noise bowing, predominantly of the body of the instrument, but always with a tactile, textural approach," says the trio´s London based cellist Mark Wastell, when I meet him and harpist Rhodri Davies in a cafe down the road from Wastell´s North London record shop Sound323. "Most of what I play happens to be quieter because of the nature of the instrument and the way I want to present it," he continues. "But I think a lot of what´s different about The Sealed Knot´s music has to do with the pace of the music the pulse. It´s about a much slower paced unfolding of ideas, which some people have called a furtherance of the AMM aesthetic." "Part of what we do with The Sealed Knot is post-Industrial," adds Davies, opening another frame of reference. "We sometimes get into areas that are very loud. I see it not so much as silence as exploring the whole dynamic range of your instrument. From a whisper to the loudest noise you can make. A lot of that area hasn´t been discovered or explored it´s uncharted territory." Featuring two performances of eerie poise, their new Meniscus album bears out this claim. On the first, recorded in London´s All Angels church, delicate sound events hang and dissolve in the air; on the second, made in Huddersfield, the trio tuck abrasive passages into the folds of their music. Overall they give the impression of a gradual ebb and flow of layered soundfields over a bedrock of silence. Confronted with the trio´s intricately plaited tones, sometime it´s hard to tell the provenance of a particular sound like many musicians exploring extended techniques, they´re at war with their instruments. "For years I´ve been trying to get away from Romantic ideas of the harp and strip it down," says Rhodri Davies. "We´re all trying to find sounds that are there on our instruments but haven´t been discovered yet. You imagine a sound and try to find it." "I almost detest the sound of the cello," adds Wastell. "My sound comes from an anti-cello perspective. The sounds I want to produce are often sounds that have caught my attention outside the instrument, wether it be the wind in the trees or a high-pitched sinewave from Sachiko M." Both still in their early thirties, Davies and Wastell met through bassist and composer Simon Fell in 1995. They played with him in IST for several years, and they also play together in the Broken Consort duo, as well as outfits such as Assumed Possibilities (with Phil Durrant and Chris Burn), and Chris Burn´s Ensemble (with Burn, Durrant, John Butcher, John Russell and Matt Hutchinson). Both Davies and Wastell were initially drawn to free jazz and Impov, though other influences began to shift the direction of their work. Lachenmann and Feldman impacted on Wastell, Cage and Tudor´s electronic output did it for Davies. Beins came to Improv via a noisier aethetic dating from his 1980´s tape experiments. This industrial background is still evident in Perlonex, the trio he shares with Ignaz Schick on electronics and Jörg Maria Zeger on electric guitar. Davies and Wastell first heard Beins play in 1996. Soon after a dialogue was initiated between the London musicians and a generation of young Berlin players strongly influenced by British Improv, among them Beins, Andrea Neumann, Annette Krebs and Michael Renkel. The Sealed Knot went legit as a group two years ago with the release of their first CD on Confront. The trio has since toured in Germany and England. Gradual shifts and the kind of communication that develops within longstanding musical relationships are central to the group aethetic. The slow, deliberate movement of The Sealed Knot´s music often sounds semi-composed, a testament to the close bond that they have developed over the years. Though they have evolved a particular way of playing together, none of the members of the trio is happy to see it tagged ’the new silence´ or ’new Berlin reductionism´. "I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the so-called ’reductionism´, contests Beins. "Yes, the concentration on quiet sonic material did open up a rich and detailed microscopic spectrum within a low dynamic range. I think it was very important to go through that process of clarification. But now I feel it´s opening up again. The ideal would be: to be capable of the full range of sonic possibilities with just the same kind of focused intensity and concentration."