Both of these albums feature music that evolved from harpist/composer Rhodri Davies’ interest in Neolithic ‘cup and ring’ rock art, examples of which can be found near his home in North East England.
Cup and ring marks typically feature concave hollows with surrounding concentric circles carved into rock. Davies both translated these mysterious patterns into a graphic score, and took them as inspiration for a location-specific collaboration with saxophonist John Butcher that also incorporates field recordings by Chris Watson.
The collaboration with Butcher culminated in a performance recorded in Gateshead in March 2014, which is now released on the Japanese ftarri label as Routing Lynn. Davies, Butcher, Angharad Davies and Lee Patterson, aka. Uncommon Objects, then recorded “Cup and Ring” at Newcastle’s Mining Institute the following evening. It is paired on Whitewashed with Lines (Another Timbre) with a group improvisation captured in Durham ten months earlier.
Of Chris Watson’s recordings of “Davies/Butcher and environments” that are heard on Routing Lynn, some were made at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, others at a re-diffusion of the Newcastle recordings at the Routing Lynn rock art site. So the final document presents a distillation or condensation of multiple sonic strata.
The album’s single track, “Routing Lynn”, which lasts 35 full minutes, begins with the sounds of birdsong and a muffled background roar that could equally be water or traffic noise. Then butcher enters, producing both soft swells and phooms of feedback, keypad riffles and imitative avian trills. Davies’ harp strums are sometimes as deeply resonant as a contrabass, otherwise tensile, but mostly he doesn’t strum, preferring to generate motoric and otherwise percussive sounds, presumably by applying devices and/or preparations to the harp’s strings.
Both harp and saxophones are multi-tracked, so there’s no way to tell which parts were recorded at the final concert. Butcher is free to overlay feedback and thoughtfully restrained blowing; Davies to lay shimmering e-bow drones over percussive contact sounds.
Watson’s field recordings drop in and out of the soundfield. The sense of nature they convey is sometimes bucolic, sometimes elemental, raw and untrammelled.
There are some surprisingly harsh sonics along the way. In the tenth minute, boundary-testing feedback spills over into distortion, and Davies thickens the brew with wind harp before laying hands on strings again to pluck out subtle, steadying chords. At other times he bows, setting up deep currents of resonance against which Butcher often plays astringently.
Occasional moments of unalloyed beauty are replete with tension, and only provisional.
At one such moment, at 23:30, Butcher and Davies both yield momentarily to birdsong, then Davies starts up a steady tanpura-style drone that he shores up with low register bowing, while Butcher adds carefully modulated feedback sustains. A later injection of birdsong suggests dusk, but Butcher breaks into flurries of circular breathing, looping in and out of complicity with a steadily amplified mechanical drone.
And the piece ends like that too, with natural and man-made audio overlapping in beguiling but uneasy contrast.
Of the two live recordings on the double CD Whitewashed with Lines, one is an ‘open’ interpretation of Davies’ “Cup and Ring” graphic score, the other a group improvisation titled “Repose and Vertigo”. On the former, Butcher and violinist Angharad Davies play both acoustically and amplified. On the latter they play only acoustically. On both pieces, Lee Patterson plays “amplified devices and processes” and Rhodri Davies electric harp.
“Cup and Ring” (57:10) begins with echoic struck harp and soft flutings of saxophone. It’s mostly, but not always possible to identify the source of the many inputs. This is subtle, deceptively quiet music, rich in detail and variegation The underlying blueprint of the score is both explicit in the occasional silences signalling transition, and implicit in the brevity of the ‘movements’ or events through which it unfolds, as the quartet is variously broken down and reconstituted.
One way-marker of a moment’s silence comes at 04:30, after which Butcher’s saxophonics combine with Angharad Davies’ curt bow strokes to introduce an acoustically sere passage of music. It ends at 10:25, when a static or mechanical whirr patterned by short, high-pitched sounds that could be violin or saxophone signals another transition.
Later passages are distinctly different. 22 minutes in, and drones combine with contrastingly pitched mechanical whirs and fluting multiphonics, the music’s former openness become darker, heavier; more claustrophobic.
By 38th minute, the sound has worn down to a trickle and gentle hollow rattle of stillness, another passing silence pending renewal in a still, shimmering suspension of chimes and vibrations.
This is music as texture to get lost in. You can tell, sometimes, which sounds are derived from physical contacts (the rub of skin on resinous gut, or breath forced through spittle and reed-clamped lips), from those that are processed (a sine-tone shimmer, for instance, that continues beyond the limits of breath or gesture), but it’s best experienced holistically, either as pure sound or as a summoning or ritual of evocation.
The earlier, more acoustic and fully improvised piece, “Repose and Vertigo” (43:55) is scarcely less immersive, although a particularly sere acoustic creates an extra frisson of edginess. The string instruments, in particular, sound brittle and abrasive under tension. It is, however, relatively static. With no score to act as framework, the onus is on each individual to intuit the collective mood, to listen closely, and to work within the texture of the moment; and this they do superbly.
Playing as close as possible within the grain of entirely abstract sound, as they are near the end, each input can, and does emerge sounding rawly vital, wired and interconnected.
On Routing Lynn: Rhodri Davies pedal, electric and wind harps; John Butcher acoustic & amplified saxophones; Chris Watson prerecorded quadraphonic playback.
On Whitewashed with Lines: John Butcher acoustic and amplified saxophones; Angharad Davies acoustic and amplified violin; Rhodri Davies electric and pedal harp; Lee Patterson amplified devices and processes.
fORCH/FURT – spukhafte Fernwirkung (feat. Rhodri Davies and John Butcher).
Toshimaru Nakamura and John Butcher – Dusted Machinery.
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, John Tilbury – Exta.