THE SEALED KNOT - TWENTY - REVIEWS

...this beautifully captured, contemplative concert of tone, texture and ringing sound, like a 20-year dream reflected.
- Squidco Top 40 list 2020 -

Amazingly, Mark Wastell's Confront label is heading in to its 25th year. An impressive run, particularly as the output has now climbed to over 170 releases in that time. It is apt that the label heads in to that milestone with a recording by the trio The Sealed Knot, featuring Wastell, Rhodri Davies and Burkhard Beins, celebrating 20 years together. Their first recording was the sixth on Confront, a tiny run of 50 copies with a simple insert in a plastic sleeve. Twenty is the group's eighth, with a proper pressing and sleeve design that reflects the striking graphics that Wastell has been utilizing. But equally as appropriate is how the recording captures the ongoing transformations in the investigation of strategies toward group music embraced by the trio and the musicians that Wastell has been assiduously documenting.
Davies and Wastell had been working together in groups like IST with Simon H. Fell and Assumed Possibilities with Phil Durrant and Chris Burn in London as Beins was an active member in the nascent Echtzeitmusik scene in Berlin. While their paths had crossed in various ad hoc meetings, they first came together in 2000. Over the course of the ensuing twenty years, their instrumentation has shifted, they've integrated live electronics into their individual arsenals, and their approach toward collective structuring of sound has continued to evolve. But their fundamental methods toward the creation of group music (which they discussed in an insightful PoD Roundtable moderated by Bill Shoemaker a decade ago) has, intrinsically, carried through. In the roundtable, Wastell describes it like this. "No plans, no blue print, no pre-conceptions ... Our timing, use of dynamics, density versus space, push and pull. Where and how these elements manifest in a performance is informed by prior engagement with one another musically, but also very much part of the 'then and there' aspect."
Over the course of time, Wastell moved from cello to double bass and electronics to tam tam and electronics; Davies from concert harp to Celtic harp and electronics to table top electric harp and electronics; and Beins from a more traditional drum kit to close-mic'd percussion and electronics. While the group has always displayed a riveted attention to the collective formation of timbre, dynamic balance and the real-time structuring of interaction over time, equally central to their music has been their commitment toward pushing how they each work within the group context as well as how that plays out as a trio. Listen to the way that the detailed, skittering textures of their All Angels recording from 2000 opens up to the slowly unfolding, spare dark resonances of the pieces on Unwanted Object from 2004. Jump to 2007's And We Disappear on Another Timbre, and the frictive textures and micro-gradations of crackles, abrasions and cutting interactions of overtones and harmonics belie the fact that, at this point, they were still an all-acoustic group. Move ahead to Trembling Shade, recorded in 2015, and the instrumentation of double bass, harp, and percussion fuses timbral elements and a more measured sense of time from And We Disappear while harkening back to the more active playing of their formative years. But these are all just snapshots and one is aware that any given performance brought forth differing formulations of their vocabulary.
The 56 minute performance captured on Twenty took place on March 2, 2020, just a few weeks before the world went in to pandemic lockdown. The extended length of the piece allow Wastell's array of tam tams, gongs, chimes, singing bowls and electronics; Davies' tabletop electric harp and EBows; and Beins' meticulous amplification of objects on drum heads to accrue with a contemplative resolve. While each of the musicians have previously integrated electronics into their sonic palette, in the context of this performance, the utilization and control of amplification allows for an expansive extension of the elemental sonic properties of their respective instruments. This is all about resonances, attack and decay, detailed gestures transformed to sound. The looped patterns of a rubbed drum head, bowed metal, or activated harp strings settle against each other in mercurial layers. Open pulses build and release against shivering metallic overtones; dynamics well as harp tones sit on the edge of feedback against waves of shuddering partials of the tam tam, and the patter, sputters, and pops of abraded percussion. But often it's impossible to pinpoint the source of subtle gradations of hiss, crackle, sizzles and rasped reverberations woven through the collective.
Ultimately though, the piece is all about pacing. Over the course of the improvisation, one becomes aware of the decisions being made as to where they let things sit and when to sagaciously transition through the use of dynamics, densities and textural detail. The placement of a cymbal crash; a chaffed, repeated pattern; the quiet shimmer of chimes; hushed, repeated tolling gongs; or the coursing shudder of feedback and bowed cymbals refocus the direction of the piece. Listen to how they bring the piece to a close, introducing circling gestures into clangorous density which subsides into a final section of gossamer, granular tremors, crinkles, jangles and scrapes that end with pinpoint deliberation. This is what twenty years of playing together allows. It is rare that a trio like this perseveres across two decades and rarer yet that they're able to document their playing on a somewhat regular basis. I'm very much looking forward to following the next chapter of the group as well as what Confront will be releasing as they head in to the 25th year of the label.
- Michael Rosenstein, Point of Departure -

If you like this sort of thing (which I do) you'll love this. Confront Recordings (M. Wastell prop.) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and continues to maintain the high standard of improvised music it releases, not least in the Core series.
This live performance happened just a couple of weeks before the estimable Cafe Oto had to close in compliance with anti-Covid restrictions. For much of its duration the music has such a quiet, introspective quality that an audience might seem an intrusion, but the customers at Cafe Oto are an attentive bunch, not given to the incessant chatter and glass-clinking that is the norm in many venues. As I know from my own modest experience with an improvising trio, that very attentiveness can help shape the music as much as whooping enthusiasm for a virtuosic break.
The early stages of Twenty centre on long, resonant, often low-register tones and quiet rustlings in the undergrowth. Textures thicken and intensify through subtle shiftings of emphasis. More and more detail accumulates throughout the performance but it never seems obtrusively busy or cluttered, even during a couple of relatively agitated sections.
  I'm never more conscious of the claim (made by Frank Zappa, if memory serves) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture as I am when trying to review music like this. It's possible to describe it in detail, event by event, or give a sweeping overall summary that might apply to a whole genre, but conveying exactly what is unique and valuable about a particular performance can seem especially difficult: a resort to visual images and parallels not only falls foul of Zappa's strictures regarding describing one medium through the terminology of another but is highly subjective.
However, this improvisation induces me to hear-see astral transformations, celestial aurora, avian murmurations, landscapes that are somehow simultaneously forbidding and seductive, or to simply fantasise about being at the gig. It will sound-look different to you. You just have to listen.
- Bill Witherden, Jazz Journal -

On this new work, I am delighted by what I hear. The music is slow in development and leans heavily on sustaining sound, either from bowing cymbals and gongs, or short attacks that ring through for some time. That creates a fine depth within this music and creates a drone-like tension of an acoustic nature, despite some of the amplification going on. They cleverly go through various highs and lows within the music, sometimes ringing loud and clear and sometimes it shines like the late sun over a meadow; mysterious and vague but beautiful. Also by using small and big sounds, they reach for that depth within the music and makes this an excellent release.
- Frans De Waard, Vital Weekly -

Ein guter Gedanke, den David Nibloe da in den Sleeve Notes ausspricht, nämlich sich vorzustellen, die konzertante Stunde am 2.3.2020 im Cafe OTO sei (nur) die Spitze des Eisbergs, zu dem The Sealed Knot im Lauf von 20 Jahren gewachsen ist. Tröstlich auch, dass nicht nur bei mir die Klänge, die Burkhard Beins mit verstärkter Percussion, Rhodri Davies mit amplified Lap Harp und Mark Wastell mit Tam Tam, Gongs und Klangschalen erzeugen, als Farbverläufe vor dem inneren Auge morphen. Dass als Auslöser der an die boundaries of possibility schwingenden Schallwellen keine ins Wasser abgestürzte Fliege schwirrt, sondern drei Männer in inniger Kommunion miteinander wie eins werden, lässt einen, der nach 40 Jahren immer noch nicht die Gedanken seiner Frau lesen kann, freilich einmal mehr "Monsieur Bovary c'est moi!" murmeln. Allerdings enden nicht viele Finger in so zärtlich tupfenden und streichelnden Fingerkuppen, wie sie hier Seite für Seite "Twenty Shades of Grey" in Brailleschrift ertasten. Um zart an Bronzelenden zu tippen, um leicht daran zu streifen und die feinsten Sinnesnerven singen und das Blut in den Ohren dröhnen zu lassen. Bebende Hände lösen Schauer aus, andauernd vibrieren ungeahnte Lebensfasern in sirrenden und surrenden Nuancen. Prickelndes Schäumen changiert mit metalloidem Dongen und zeitlupigem Krallen, schaukelnde Gesten gehen über in reibende, lange piano, pianissimo, mit wandelweiserischem Eros, in schimmernder Synästhesie. Doch bevor hier noch Frauen als Cellos und The Sealed Knot als Stellung im "Kamasutra" erscheinen, sollen doch besser Grillen zirpen und Gongs und Klangschalen ein spirituelles Sichversenken begongen und besingen, oder, dem Schleifen nach, eine kybelekultige Kastrationszeremonie überrauschen. In einer Dramaturgie, die nach bronzen dröhnendem Höhepunkt, sublim erhöht, mit Klangstäben und Mörser an den Anfang zurückkehrt.
- Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy -

Twenty : il y a vingt ans débutait ce groupe pas comme les autres, The Sealed Knot, initiateur de la tendance 'réductionniste' ou lower case. À l'époque, Mark Wastell jouait du violoncelle, puis de la contrebasse et Rhodri Davies de la harpe classique. Le 3 mars 2020 au Café Oto, Burkhard Beins joue de la percussion amplifiée en faisant vibrer jouets, moteurs et accessoires sur les peaux des tambours, alors que Rhodri amplifie sa petite harpe traditionnelle (lap harp) et Mark fait vibrer une paire de tam-tams de 32 pouces, des gongs et des bols musicaux népalais. Frémissements, sons continus aux variations très lentes qui s'agrègent et s'interpénètrent comme un choeur d'outre-tombe, sensations de chute infinie dans le vide, suspension de timbres mouvants, résonnances irisées, frappe lointaine d'une peau à la mailloche... La musique flotte vers l'infini, rejoint le pianissimo en s'approchant du silence ambiant, des vibrations métalliques oscillent lentement, se multiplient insensiblement alors que la rotation d'une petite hélice heurte légèrement le bord d'un tam-tam. Des sons ténus et aigus meurent, harmoniques d'un gong ou cymbales frottées à l'archet, ou disparaissent dans une rumeur imprécise ou une action plus marquée tranche un instant. Cette musique a quitté le champ de l'action narrative, elle incarne le mouvement de micro-événements sonores qui trouble la sérénité du climat dans un paysage quasi désertique. On devine à peine qui joue quoi et comme il s'agit d'un collectif partageant un univers très défini, homogène dont la cohérence se joue d'instant en instant, lesquels semblent imperceptibles tant le sentiment de durée nous échappe, peu importe. C'est le résultat final qui emporte notre adhésion, la richesse sonore est ici évidente. Final d'un mouvement perpétuel, celui d'une écoute intense, onirique ou lucide c'est à vous d'apporter la conclusion ou vos définitions éventuelles. Remarquable et fascinant.
- Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Orynx -

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