The Sealed Knot – The Sealed Knot (Musica Moderna, Reissue 2013) ***½
Ist – Berlin (Confront, 2013) ***½
By Dan Sorrells
Two new albums on Confront (and a forthcoming reissue of an older Confront release) provide an interesting opportunity to look back on the past decade of improvised music. The lenses are two overlapping groups, each with a foot in London and Berlin, two major centers of what was emerging as a new music at the start of the millennium. Ist, the London-based group of Simon H. Fell on bass, Rhodri Davies on harp, and Mark Wastell on cello, is captured during a 2001 concert in Berlin, presenting a slowed-down, “reduced” music to a receptive audience, one that had perhaps been groomed by recent developments in their own local scene. The Sealed Knot brought a little bit of Berlin back to London, with German percussionist Burkhard Beins replacing Fell in a trio with Wastell and Davies. Their self-titled debut was recorded in West London in 2000, and is now being reissued by Musica Moderna some 13 years later, coinciding with their latest, Live at Café OTO.
It may be instructive to consider the most recent recording first—doing so underscores how much ground was covered in a relatively short span of time, and how, in hindsight, labels like “New London Silence” or “Berlin reductionism” never really marked new, enduring genres, but transitional steps at best. As Beins once noted in a Point of Departure interview, “the specifics of a group aesthetic are usually emergent rather than designed.”
Live at Café OTO was recorded in 2009 following the release of that year’s And We Disappear. What’s immediately striking is the depth of sound—and the intensity. Already, the group has moved away from the sound of the album whose release they were gathered to celebrate. Here, Wastell has traded from cello to bass to tam tam, and all three members have brought electronics heavily to the fore. Within minutes, the playing space becomes distended with a complex din, the sort of sustained, harmonically rich sweep of sound that calls to mind thousands of cicadas in the late summer trees, or the imagined hum of a trillion subatomic particles blazing at the speed of light.
What began as part of the “New London Silence” ultimately leaves no room for silence. Live at Café OTO is not an improvisation of selective soundings, with instruments pinging the invisible, silent medium, testing its resiliency, feeling out the ways it eventually swallows everything up. Rather, any “reduction” feels temporal: one long moment rather than a run of rapid, discrete ones. Perhaps the mark of “silence” that’s endured with the Sealed Knot is really a certain stance toward sound and activity. What is often meant by silence is space, the duration between actions, and here the frenzied improvisational swarm is usurped by the mass of slow accumulation, like thickening layers of ice. In the glacial motion of the performance, the Sealed Knot keep a drone in the air, redrawing its contours, adding layer upon layer without ever breaking its continuity. What remains from the group’s formative meetings is the pace, an unhurried consideration of the sounds that best fit the moment, rather than the headlong consideration of everything all at once.
And looking back, the first Sealed Knot recording surely is more in line with the new silence—the band plays all acoustic instruments, with much more space between them. The focus has been there from the start, though the approach has remained in flux. The Sealed Knot emphasizes attack and decay: though the gestures may be subtle at times, they are clear, distinct units of action, packets of information sent up into the emptiness to battle or merge or refract before fading away. It’s a great document, however different from more recent recordings, and though you can still relate many sounds to their instruments of origin, a sense of the future is there, one in which these musicians will have arrived at a methodology that results in not just a “cello sound” or a “harp sound,” but purely sound, freely-floating aural ephemera that needn’t drag along the timbral associations of this instrument or that.
Again, silence is here, but so is drama and volume. The whisper of Malfatti and others rings softly in their ears, but the Sealed Knot resists being pulled into such extremes, like Malfatti’s ever-growing ouroboros, eating more and more of its tail until one day, simply nothing will remain. And anyway, they were engaged in a different sort of power struggle: as Davies remarks in a 2005 Wire article, their shifting approach to improvisation “was never a criticism of other people’s playing so much as of our own.”
The Ist performance dates from roughly the same period as The Sealed Knot’s first album, though Ist had been established since the mid-to-late 90s. The delicate, barely-there sounds of the trio seem commonplace now, and it’s easy to forget that this music had emerged as a part of a “new” fin de siècle so to speak, and was hardly well-established or embraced on the improvisational scene. The three string instruments give Ist a slightly different flavor than The Sealed Knot, though there are times in the converging microtones where tiny seeds of the more dramatic drones of the future can be heard. The 30 minute performance is met with stunning applause, thicker and more vibrant than what one typically encounters after a free improv performance. But as Fell remarks in the liner notes, the “musical permafrost” was cracking, a stasis was being interrupted. If the raison d’etre of improvisation remained unchanged, musicians’ attitudes towards their own practice and their relationship to each other were undergoing revisions. Hearing Berlin in 2013, that familiar vitality is there, the egoless openness that fuels so much current improvisation and collaboration, and that we perhaps now take for granted.
Together, these three albums give an illuminating overview of some of the modern movement in European improvised music. Berlin and The Sealed Knot show the shift away from “free jazz” and “plinky plonk” that was beginning to take hold in the early 2000s, a shift that would become incredibly influential as other like-minded subgenres began to be stitched together. Decades worth of explorations in the compositional world were finally being digested by improvisers who were feeling boxed-in, and musicians found new solutions in the face of the increasing entropy of free jazz, which felt more and more like a flailing, fruitless dissipation of energy into the void. In Live at Café OTO, we can see, in less than a decade, the expansion of “reductionism” as it merges with electro-acoustic improvisation, drone and noise music, even the structural ideals of minimalism and the compositional concerns of Scelsis and Feldmans and Sciarrinos.
Taken all together, these three albums amount to less than an hour and a half of music. But, despite such brevity, they prove to be essential documents for anyone interested in the development and trajectory of 21st century improvised music.