April 2014

A Process of Finding

Angharad Davies
By Jennie Gottschalk

Angharad Davies has been active as a violinist, an improviser, and most recently as a composer. She has an ongoing interest in sonic instability and the use of objects as preparations on the violin. After completing her classical violin studies, first in the UK and then in Germany, Davies began collaborating with other musicians as an improviser. She is currently a member of The Set Ensemble, Cranc, Common Objects, and Skogen, as well as Apartment House. She plays a great deal of experimental music, including much that has been composed and presented by members of the Wandelweiser collective, and is a regular performer on the annual Music We’d Like to Hear series in London. Frequent collaborators include Rhodri Davies, Matt Davis, Lina Lapelyte, Dimitra Lazaridou­-Chatzigoga, Dominic Lash, Tisha Mukarji, Lee Patterson, and Mark Wastell. She has just released her first solo CD on Confront Recordings, called Six Studies.[1]

From early on, several of her collaborators would give her objects—springs, scraps of iron, clips, bones—to explore in relation to her instrument. For Davies, performance is most effective as what she terms a “process of finding.” It is important to her that no discovery becomes too much of a known quantity over time. “Sometimes that can get in the way of a piece, when you’re improvising, because you’ve chosen a safe choice. I can fall back on certain sounds, because I know they’ll work, rather than this other exploration. When I use preparations that I’m not used to using, sometimes they start to speak on their own. They start to open up something, and there’s no way that I could have practiced it.” In her work as an improviser, she delves deeply into these found sounds, finding whole landscapes within them. Even the objects she has used the longest will continue to yield new surprises, as I witnessed a number of times one morning in July 2013 when she demonstrated them for me.

A small collection of powerful objects

This little box fits within Davies’ violin case. In it are all of the objects she regularly uses as preparations for the instrument. The market value of clips, springs, and nail files is very low. But there is a story and a unique sound world in development with each one, and they are precious in this context.

For Davies, it is important that whatever preparation or technique she might be using, the sound be given time to speak, “to say all it has to say. It’s just to hold onto that sound and see what it has.” These objects are never taken out one after another within a performance. In fact, she is often very concerned about disrupting a performance by making noise while removing one of them. Many of her performances involve a deep engagement with the sonic potential of a single preparation, which she is discovering along with other listeners.

She talks about hearing what she plays as layers, “never as a single pure line.” The preparations she uses add texture and complexity to the sound. She also will set up performance conditions or challenges to enforce this premise of layering and complexity. In “pizz, nail file and fingers study,” track 4 of Six Studies, she combines the nail file preparation, pizzicato, and finger sound as three distinct voices. “So I’m exploring all three at the same time, shifting from one to the other, bringing different voices out within the three of them, but trying to keep a long line going.” In my first listenings, I thought the finger sound was an element of the playing of the nail file preparation. It was only when the finger noise was played separately near the end of the track that I realized its presence earlier. The complexity of the sound of the nail file preparation dominates over the finger noise, making the finger noise seem like friction from that bowing. (The unfamiliarity of the preparation makes that misunderstanding more likely.) On repeated listenings, as the elements are understood separately, the form of the study becomes more transparent, and the interplay of activity becomes more and more enigmatic.

Davies says of the nail file that “for ages, only one note will sound, and then somehow the note changes after some time.” Its sonic unpredictability is the very thing that keeps it in her toolbox. As she demonstrates its use, she goes off the file and plays nearby on the string, finding a high, somewhat gritty sound that is similar in character to the sound when she plays on the file itself.

This tiny yellow clothespin is the only survivor of a family of four. They were each the same size and shape, but the white one was her favorite. Its particular buildup of rosin gave it a distinctive and really special sound, she remembers, when it was clipped to a string and played. (You can see and hear it in part 1 of this performance.) She is looking for more of these tiny plastic clothespins, since she knows that eventually this yellow one will also be either lost or broken.

Also in the box is a collection of springs, mostly taken from the insides of umbrellas and ballpoint pens. “But as is the nature of springs,” she says, “they tend to spring off.” Her favorite one was lost that way. “But it’s kind of OK, because then that sort of helps change the sounds, so I’m looking for different things. You know what these sounds are, so you sort of fall back on them, rather than right at the beginning, when they were new.” There is a tension between the preciousness of objects that will yield interesting sounds and the overfamiliarity that could develop with those results over time. That tension is interrupted when the objects are lost.

This strip of material is balanced precariously under two strings at the top of the fingerboard. It extends outward, and she plays the strip itself with real delicacy, so it doesn’t get pulled off the instrument. The resulting sound carries that fragility with it. But then she secures it with her other hand and plays with much more pressure, bringing out a whole different set of sounds.

Finding form

In much of her work, there is a sense, not just literally but also formally, of working one’s way around an object, discovering its characteristics from one facet to another. In this solo improvisation there is a feeling of a gradual discovery of a changing landscape, full of vivid sonic imagery, a wide range of degrees of scale, and gradually shifting levels of activity.

In a recorded study, she keeps a tremolo going for the whole time, but it is steadily evolving, like a cinematic pan of a room. There is a strong sense that she is discovering the sounds with the listener, that they are not pre­planned. It is as if she only sees what comes next as the camera sees it. The space is confined by the technique, but it is still wider than what we hear. There is no circling back on types of material. Like the previous example, there are wide shifts in the sense of scale throughout the performance. It all depends on what comes into view—where the material takes her. That sense of discovery in the midst of the process is a recurring theme, and a large part of why improvisation is such a rich ground of activity for Davies.

It may be because of the danger that improvisation itself could get too familiar that Davies has recently been composing. Two recent pieces are written for improvisers. Rydal Mount (2012) comes directly out of her experience of clearing out her grandmother’s house. Before deciding what to do with the items she grouped similar items, such as glasses, blankets, keys, and trash cans, which were then photographed by her partner. The three players are to use the photographs as a performance stimulus over any duration, and are given just a few key words as instructions.

Each page of Cofnod Pen Bore/Morning Records (2011) traces a month of her own body temperatures, taken over three years with some gaps of days and months. “I think what I’m interested in,” Davies says, “is trying to use something that’s quite emotionally linked to me, and just to me, and trying to use that as material.” This piece is included on the recent Wandelweiser und so weiter box set. The premise that pages can be played separately or superimposed on one another (the score is to be printed on tracing paper) contributes to this sense of a flexible cohesion. It is a shared experience among the players, yet open to significant variation. There are three pages or superimpositions played in the recording, the second one being more than twice as long as either the first or the third. The musicians (Neil Davidson, Rhodri Davies, Jane Dickson, Patrick Farmer, and Dimitra Lazaridou-­Chatzigoga) have taken a different approach to each of the pages in its character and articulation. They all share a clear sense of cohesion and direction, while remaining open to numerous types of relationships between the parts.

Finding a place: some recorded improvisations

Davies has been refining her own approach as an improviser over time, but it has been pushed and pulled, expanded and refined, through various collaborations. There are a number of recordings and videos available to discover this range. The tracks on Endspace, a CD made with Tisha Mukarji, each explore the inner space of a sound, as a kind of delving in. The presence of substantial restrictions on the playing parameters directs the players and the listener to previously unexplored inner spaces, pulsating with activity. The dynamic changes substantially when Dimitra Lazaridou-­Chatzigoga joins Davies and Mukarji on the more recent CD Outwash, which presents complex and compelling aggregate bodies of sound. The “Live at St. Giles” performance with her brother Rhodri Davies on the Brave New Wales collection opens with the use of preparations, with Davies pulling out a chorus of whispered and raspy voices with light, rapid bowing until both musicians move seamlessly into other equally rich sounds and approaches.[2]

Pluie Fine is an album that Davies and the electro­acoustic duo Cremaster made by sharing ideas and sending sound material back and forth over the course of two years. There is a powerful sense of integration in the sound, a formation of new ecosystems. The violin’s moaning small glissandi in the first track, “Embrun,” are submerged in a rich and relevant context. In “Bruine,” the violin is so tightly integrated into the texture that it is difficult to discern separately. “Crachin,” the third track, offers glimpses of Davies’ playing that get swallowed into the texture of the electronics in fascinating ways.[3]

The 2008 CD from Cranc (Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Nikos Veliotis) called Copper Fields lives entirely in a territory of sustained tones, which carry an incredible richness. I first heard them play that same year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival with Radu Malfatti, in 12 ­hour installation that was full of fascination and musical richness. The group has recently been performing at screenings with filmmakers Els van Riel, Guy Sherwin, and Lynn Loo in a series at Cafe Oto.[4]

The first track of the album A.D., with Axel Dörner on trumpet, involves finding complexities within sustained tones, and juxtaposes a number of approaches to this task as she relates to Dörner’s huge variety of playing techniques. For the last several minutes of the track, there is an extended exploration of a single note on the violin, bringing out a wealth of harmonics, timbres, and textures. Dörner occasionally adds a layer of sound that is very sensitive to the unfolding character of this sound.[5]

In the second track of A.D., Davies stays with unstable single notes, sometimes barely declaring a presence at all but working as part of the fabric of sound. “I’m often in a situation where I can create a background to something. I feel quite comfortable setting up something that works in the background, as an accompaniment. In that kind of situation, I would probably do that until I found a space that I was able to come in with something that’s more akin to my own material.” Though she often plays with instruments that can be much louder than the violin, Davies is not always striving to be heard. “Often, if something is very, very busy, and I can’t really get my sound across, I will just keep it at the same level. I won’t try and compete. I’ll just keep it straight until everybody drops out. Then you finally hear it. There have been opportunities along the years to be amplified, so that I can compete with volume. I have done it, but it’s almost more interesting just to be acoustic and see how you can make it work. I’d rather find the layers within what I’ve got.” This idea of layers or presences which are perceived minimally or not at all comes through in her compositions as well. The personal reasons behind the pieces she has composed are integral to their coming into being, but they are not explicitly stated. Similarly, when she improvises, she is a presence on the stage and in the sound world, often before her instrument becomes audible.

A cassette of two performances with Taku Unami called two hands shines a clear light on some consistent attributes of Davies’ musicality. On side one, Unami is clapping, and Davies is both clapping and playing the violin. The gestures are sometimes repeated, but always simple in nature, to match the clapping. There is no sense of replication between sounds here, but of concentrated, in the moment relating from one musician to another, on the terms unique to that situation. The intention and attention of the placement of these sounds operates as an invitation to the listener to occupy a calm and clear space with the performers. Side two is a subsequent performance in which both performers are clapping. Davies said of that performance, “I went to meet him up in Glasgow, and it was impractical to take the violin. So I thought, I’ll just take myself and see what happens. If he can clap, I can clap. We just recorded the clapping in this really beautiful place in Glasgow. It was an echoy room, and you had the sound of the metro going through the tunnels next to us.” It leaves me with the impression that for the 20 minutes of the track, time has been carefully and effectively reshaped.[6]

Clearing a space

These approaches to her instrument and to collaboration share the threads of intense concentration and a total immersion in and exploration of sonic behaviors on their own terms. It is a shared journey between Davies and the listener. “I have a really strong sense,” Davies says, “that I’d like the audience to hear what I’m hearing. So I try and clear the space….I try and make it possible for them to hear it. That’s what I’m concentrating on when I’m playing. And then sometimes the sound just goes off on its own. It leads me, then, rather than me doing anything to it. So I’m just following what the sound is doing. I think that’s when it really works, is that you forget, I forget that I’m in the room. I’m in the sound, really, and I want the audience to be where I am.” These behaviors are explored with such interest and commitment, and take on such dimension and force, that their sounding presence becomes the environment in which Davies and the listener meet. They engage in that exploration together. ■

Selected Discography


Release Year Label
Cranc – All Angels 1999 Edo
Angharad Davies / Rhodri Davies / Phil Durrant / Mark Wastell – London Strings 2004 Absinth
Jeffrey Allport / Angharad Davies / Chandan Narayan – Hawker’s Delight 2006 Simple Geometry
Angharad Davies / Tisha Mukarji – Endspace 2007 Another Timbre
Cranc – copper fields 2008 absurd
Angharad Davies / Rhodri Davies – Live At St. Giles (on compilation Brave New Wales) 2008 fourier transform
Tom Chant/Angharad Davies/Benedict Drew/John Edwards (with pieces by Pisaro/Cage) – Decentred 2009 Another Timbre
Angharad Davies / Axel Dörner – A.D. 2010 Another Timbre
Angharad Davies / Mark Wastell & Jonathan McHugh 2010 Compost & Height
Angharad Davies / Taku Unami – two hands 2011 winds measure
Cremaster / Angharad Davies – Pluie Fine 2012 potlach
Magnus Granberg / Skogen – Ist Gefallen in den Schnee 2012 Another Timbre
Angharad Davies / Tisha Mukarji / Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga – Outwash 2012 Another Timbre
Neck Of The Woods – A Collection Of Recordings From The Field 2012 Coterie Collective
Wandelweiser und so weiter 2012 Another Timbre
Anders Dahl/Skogen – rows 2013 Another Timbre
Angharad Davies – Six Studies 2014 Confront

About the Author

Jennie Gottschalk is a composer and writer who runs a site called sound expanse.