Listed as one of THE WIRE´s Top 10 Improvised Music Records 2003

The Sealed Knot - Scratching The Surface
(St. Paul's Hall, Huddersfield University)

In freely improvised music, uncharted territory is a given : a necessary constant to embrace. Every pause, every hiatus, every option instantly considered, accepted or rejected could be an essential map reference; supplying a foothold, enabling a piece to cohere or a blind alley leading to fragmentation. In freely improvised music it is fatuous to talk of success or failure. These are value judgements that have no meaning in the uncharted territory. The willingness to engage in the act, and the ensuing vulnerability, is reason enough to applaud the improvisor.
The Sealed Knot is very well aware of the uncharted territory and of its dangers and rewards. They are committed to scratching the surface (in their case literally) and to mining hidden treasure.
Billing themselves as 'Berlin Reductionism - New London Silence' the trio have set about redefining the parameters of their instruments in order to make a new and exhilarating form of free improv. Burkhard Beins (percussion), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Mark Wastell (violoncello) ar pathfinders with an unerring sensitivity towards their instruments, their environment and each other. Their Autumn 2001 tour now completed and a recording for Meniscus in the offing, the trio thoroughly deserves wider recognition for their groundbreaking approach.
The Sealed Knot see things in a different way and they approach their instruments in a totally unconventional manner. To use the phrase 'to play their instruments' is, in conventional terms, an insufficient description yet, paradoxically, this is exactly what they do: they play their instruments, every single aspect and surface contour of their instruments to be precise. At their recent concert in Huddersfield, staged in the architecturally beautiful and acoustically liberating St.Paul's hall, the insistence on lateral perception of their instruments was both a strong aural and visual statement. This is another joy of the trio: their music is exciting to watch as well as listen to.
Wastell and Davies are longstanding musical collaborators. They seem to be joined at the synapses, so cohesive is their musical vision but it is Beins who is the magical wildcard, transforming the music with a percussive dimension of alien heritage, adding the grit to the oyster and fermenting the ensuing pearl. He does not possess a set of drum sticks. These are unnecessary and limiting utilities. Instead, he will use the skin of his drum as a resonating surface converting it into a taught appliance on which he can place other items: a stone rested on the skin is gently rubbed with another stone, the surface friction caused by the textures amplified and transformed by the adjacent drum. Sound is modulated and transformed, instantly recognisable as percussive and emanating from a drum kit and yet assembled from completely disparate and non-conventional percussive items. Course grained card is rubbed on the drum skin, a hub cap is set spinning on it and allowed to settle, a cymbal is tickered with a small battery driven electric personal fan. Attached to the top of his kit is a small zither. Its strings are bowed or hammered gently. Paper is crumpled on the drum, two pieces of thick card are flexed in the air, the perimeter of the bass drum is bowed: this is not only great free improvisation it is performance art.
All three rejoice in the realisation that the physical boundaries of an instrument also help define its sound. They are legitimate playing surfaces (and sound sources) and reveal the hidden, suppressed character of the instrument. Wastell will pluck below the bridge of his Violoncello, he will scrape strings vertically as if examining their very method of manufacture, and distort them into emitting tortuous creaks and groans. His approach is entirely physical and highlights the structural beauty of the instrument. Wet a finger and rub gently in a circular motion on its polished wooden surface. The sound is exquisite and no less the true voice of the instrument than a bowed string (rarely an option used). Take the bow and grind it slowly over the surface of the instrument or bow the ebony and chrome appendages: it is as though the instrument has been liberated from centuries of limitation and the unfettered sounds have been given a conduit to freedom.
Davies is no less a harbinger of unlimited exploration. His harp is subjected to a plethora of Cageian preparations. Objects are inserted between the strings setting up resonances controlled by pinpoint accuracy of placement. Crocodile clips are attached and allowed to hum and buzz. Strings are bowed, the body of the instrument is bowed. He will hold a tambourine to the body of the harp, pluck a string and allow the natural body resonance to set the tambourine in motion. One sound generates another, one sound metamorphoses into another or the two are combined to make a new third sound.
The outcome of these actions (and others too numerous to mention) is to create an intensity of sound without crescendo. The emphasis is on total control of the minutiea created and their integration into the overall sound palette. In this way the sonic boundaries of the trio are also established. The physical intensity of the player's approach to their instruments, and the total concentration involved, clearly defines the essence and longevity of the sounds. Time and space are essential to the process: this is indeed new London silence. Decay and reaction times are natural processes and never seem forced. A sound is produced, it emanates into the environment, is picked up by another musician and a reply is given. The process evolves in this manner and the improvisation takes on a life of its own (unravelling at its own pace) and sound seems to be suspended between the players. Even the distance of the air between them and its density seem to be an integral part of the improvisation.
- John Cratchley, Avant -

If the title of Surface/Plane suggests, like Evan Parker's Conic Sections, that "extended technique" might be considered a form of applied topology, then it's clear that the Sealed Knot occupies a specialist branch of the discipline: this is, above all, a group preoccupied with surface friction in all its forms, from clear bowed tones to chalkboard scrapings. The surfaces they set to work on are provided by percussion (Beins), cello (Wastell) and harp (Davies), but typically it's the musicians' physical gesture - of bowing, rubbing, scraping and occasionally striking - that registers most strongly for the listener, rather than the particular object it's done to. The disc contains two extended tracks, recorded in different (though equally reverberant) locations in September 2001. The same methodology is at work on both occasions - the unhurried juxtaposition of discrete blocks of sound, delicately flavoured with the occasional one-off thwack or pling - with a few differences of emphasis: on "Surface" the musicians leave a little cushion of silence around each internal segment, while "Plane" has a wider dynamic range, and segments are allowed to bleed into each other a bit.
- Dan Warburton, Paristransatlantic -

On the cover is the grabber rather than the aggregate: Burkhard Beins, Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell; respectively percussion, harp and cello, plus "preparations" which I assume means not electronics. Meniscus continues an excellent series of improv/sound texture music with these two pieces, "Surface" recorded at All Angels, London (now known worldwide thanks to the Emanem label´s series of that church´s improv festival), and the longer "Plane" at St. Paul´s Hall, Huddersfield. "Surface" is more so; the sounds of of the surfaces of these instruments stroked, rubbed, otherwise made love to, and it is an interesting sixteen minutes, although it fades should you listen to it without paying attention. "Plane", however, finds this trio on a much higher level of energy and connection, the twenty-seven minute improv consistently riveting, more varied and with that you-never-know-when-it´s-going-to-happen click when everything just goes right. Intense.
- Jump Arts Journal -

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