Interview by Tomas Korber
Stirling, May 2006
To those of you familiar with recent developments in improvised music, especially if you're living in or near London, where his record shop Sound323 has become an essential pitstop for new music collectors, Mark Wastell needs little introduction. Both as a solo performer, most recently on tam tam, and as a cellist, bassist and elctronician in various groups, present and past – IST, Assumed Possibilities, The Sealed Knot, Broken Consort – he has released albums on Absinth, Acta, Antiopic, Emanem, Hibari, IMJ, Incus, Innomable, Longbox, Meniscus, Rossbin, trente oiseaux, wmo/r, and especially his own Confront imprint. The interview took place in Stirling, Scotland in May this year, where Wastell performed with Tomas Korber, Tisha Mukarji and Toshimaru Nakamura at Le Weekend.-DW
Can you tell me how you came to playing music?
I came to making music through being a fan of music. Nobody in my family played an instrument, but we went to see shows from time to time and I always hooked up to music, even before I was 10 years old. So through listening I started wanting to play it myself. I'm not a schooled musician; I just started playing the first instrument I had access to, which was a piano. I was 19 or 20 then, so I started very late, actually.
What kind of music were you playing at that time?
I was improvising, because at around that time I was already into some of that London scene playing and the surrounding teachings and philosophy (Derek Bailey, John Stevens, etc).
So you played your first gigs on a piano?
No, I just played the piano because it was there. I didn't have any sort of aspirations with it. The first instrument I purposefully bought and got to play "seriously" was a double bass. A bit later I got the opportunity to buy a cello – you know it's not unusual for bass players to double on cello – and over a period of time the cello began to feel much more comfortable. It was with the cello that I made my first contact with [bassist] Simon Fell. We got to know each other and decided to do something together. Simon knew [harpist] Rhodri Davies and he suggested that we should play in a trio. That's how IST was formed and that was the band that got me my first couple of gigs.
What kind of aesthetic were you going after with IST?
There wasn't a group aesthetic in the sense that we said: "This is the way we want to go." It developed naturally just from playing together and the nature of our instruments. The music had a certain feel to it that was different to anything that was going on in London at the time. That group did an awful lot of concerts and made one or two records, although I think none of them really managed to capture the essence of our music. In fact, there's a record just about to come out on Confront, a live recording which we all agree is one of the best concerts that group ever played.
Did what you were doing with IST at the time already contain the seed of what was later called "New London Silence"?
The seed was certainly there, although the music of IST didn't have much to do with "New London Silence". But yes, we were concerned with a way of listening that required more attention to the microscopic level, so to speak. We were taken to task so many times by the audience: "I couldn't hear what you were doing!" – "Well you've got to adapt your listening you know, because I can hear perfectly!" (laughs) So yes, there was much attention to detail in the sound, but we were still far away from what today you'd call "lowercase sound".
And then you left for a year!
Yes, around 1999-2000. It was fantastic. My wife and I just upped and left and travelled around the globe for a year: Asia, Australia, South America.. I took absolutely no music with me on that trip at all, no CD player, nothing. It was a great trip because it gave me a lot of time to think about a number of things. I knew I wanted to continue being a musician. Up to that point I'd always relied on some kind of day job working for somebody else and that was getting more and more difficult. I'd been working on a record shop and of course the guy who was running it was getting the ache a bit because I needed more and more time to play gigs and go on tour. The music making was taking up a lot of my time. So I came back and told myself that I needed to control everything. I needed to set something up from an income perspective and control it myself and also have control over the music I was making and be very specific about the people I wanted to work with. There's a compositional element to putting together a group. It has nothing to do with improvisation. I don't call my music improv anymore in fact, and haven't done so for five or six years. You get branded an "improviser" – what is that supposed to mean anyway? I'm not an improviser, I'm a musician! Everything I do has some basis in composition, and the whole conceptual aspect of choosing the members for a group for example is more and more important to me.
Your decision to take control over your own day job led to you opening your record shop, Sound 323.
Yes. When I was travelling I was using Internet cafés a lot. That was back in 1999, before the whole Internet thing fully took off, and I thought it might be a good idea to start one of those in London. Then I said to myself: "Well if I'm going to have an Internet café, then I'm going to have a lot of time on my hands and some free space too, so I might as well put a few records on a shelf in there.." Eventually I just said goodbye to the Internet café idea and stuck to the record shop.
How was it received by the "London scene"?
Hmm… good question. I think it was received with equal measures of "Wow, fabulous" and "How dare Mark.." (laughs) But thankfully the shop has been there for six years, so apparently there are more people who want and support it than not.
Was IST still active around that time?
Yes, 2000 and 2001 were pretty good years for us. We played many concerts around that time. We were very active up until around 2002, but then we all drifted off in slightly different directions, not only musically but also in our lives. Simon has also moved to France.
One of your most prominent groups is The Sealed Knot, with Burkhard Beins and Rhodri Davies. Did that group come together as a direct consequence of IST stopping activities? The next musical chapter for you?
No, The Sealed Knot started a bit earlier. The first gig I played with these two was one of the first gigs I played after I came back from travelling. The group wasn't called The Sealed Knot in the beginning, but we made a small edition CD-R on Confront called The Sealed Knot, and, you know how it goes, the title of the first record often ends up being the name of the group. In the sense that it overlapped with both IST and Assumed Possibilities, which both ended about 2001, The Sealed Knot can be seen as being the next chapter, because it started around that time. It was also the beginning of the now famous term "New London Silence". We did a UK tour that we billed as "New London Silence meets Berlin Reductionism" and said nothing else, no explanation or anything (laughs). That was the first time those terms were used. It was a tag that was wonderful to use and it did create interest, but once something gets a name (and we gave it the name, I have to admit that).. I mean, here we are in 2006 and people are still talking about "New London Silence" as though it's still current, which of course it isn't. It hasn't been for the last three or four years. Neither has "Berlin Reductionism".
But there was that fairly recent piece in The Wire…
…by Clive Bell, yes. You know, Clive has been terrific. He would come to our concerts and was really interested in what we were doing. The funny thing is that when the opportunity came to do that piece, the first question he asked was something along the lines of "let's talk about 'New London Silence'.." and of course the answer I gave him was "Well it doesn't exist anymore, it's dead!". Clive was obviously surprised, but at the same time it was a good opportunity to comment on the past and also to look into the future a bit.
"New London Silence" ended but The Sealed Knot survived. Why?
It survived not only because we obviously enjoy each other's music and company very much, but also because the group has the ability to accept its members' current material. It's interesting: the group doesn't play often – only once or twice a year usually – but it's still gained quite a reputation. We released Surface / Plane on Meniscus to some critical acclaim, a disc i'm still very proud of, it was voted one of the records of the year 2003 by The Wire. One problem we've always had though is that our records came out long after they were actually recorded, for several reasons. The last and most prominent example being the Unwanted Object CD that was supposed to be released on Locust and which I finally released myself on Confront. That too was very well recieved and also a record of the year (2005) in The Wire.
Was that one of the reasons why you started Confront, to avoid having to deal with other labels?
Well, the main reason was that, like most musicians, I just wanted to document my own work. I had no aspirations of selling discs to shops or anything. However what you said was one of the reasons why I started the Confront Collector Series; I'd just had enough of being dropped by labels after they'd been sitting on the tapes for months or even years. So the Collector Series gave me the possibility to release something faster and have more control over it.
Even more so with the new Live Series where you release limited edition CDRs of live recordings within a few weeks of the concert..
Yes, I've gone full circle with Confront. Going back to the DIY way of working and keeping the design simple I've regained control over the whole thing and I'm now able to release things quickly – because this music does change quickly. I've had people ask, especially about the release with Keith [Rowe]: "Why don't you just keep it open-ended instead of limiting it to 100 copies?" – but they're missing the point: I don't want to be burning this gig onto CDR in three years' time!
Let's go back to the whole New London Silence thing in 2002/2003. Where did you go from there?
That's a very good question, I've never been asked to pinpoint that actually.. I guess I began to feel – having worked with certain material in a certain area and with a certain instrument (cello) – that I needed to refresh myself and take on new challenges. Even when I was playing the cello, it was all about textures, so I asked myself if it would be possible to just retain those textured sounds and move away from the instrument. That's when Mattin first got in touch with me and asked if we could do something together. Of course I was playing lowercase cello at the time and I only knew Mattin for his noise stuff, so I didn't see any way how we could, but he said: "No, no, I can also play very quietly.." It was also quite exciting because up until then I'd always worked with musicians either of my own generation or older. So Mattin and I did a session together. I think the first time I still played cello, but the second time I had this very primitive electronics set-up which I called "amplified textures", so of course he was looking at that like: "Um.. where's the cello?" (laughs) So in a way it was Mattin who helped me start the next chapter, because it was an opportunity to go somewhere else. I think our first concert is up on the Audition website (www.auditionradio.info) for download, by the way, and if you listen to it you'll see that it still has that "reductionist" approach but at the same time points in a different direction.
Did you work on amplified textures within a stable group?
Well, not a stable group as such, but there was a group I played amplified textures in called Broken Consort, which originally was Rhodri, Mattin, Joel Stern and myself. The name was Rhodri's idea; I think he wanted to have something you could look at as a kind of umbrella, so that the nucleus of the group was him and me but there was the option to work with several different people around that. I also had a duo with Matt Davis I regularly played amplified textures in. That group eventually became a trio called OPEN with Phil Durrant and we released a disc on Erstwhile. The great thing about that period for me was that I noticed that I didn't need to be shackled by what I was known for. Those experiences have informed everything I do now: I realized that I was free to do whatever I wanted. If there's something I'm really attached to in the world of improvised music, it's that kind of freedom.
How did the work with amplified textures lead to what you're doing today with the tam tam?
After working with the textures in this very abstract sound world (in the traditional sense), I wanted to introduce an element of pitch into the whole set-up, so I started using Nepalese bowls for a while and that really got me interested in pitch and tone. Eventually I discovered the tam tam at John Wall's house. The tam tam he had at the time was borrowed from Clive Graham, one of the members of Morphogenesis, and the reason he had it was because it used to be [former Morphogenesis member] Roger Sutherland's. Sutherland had died and some of his belongings had been given to friends. I thought it sounded lovely and was allowed to borrow it. My idea was to add it to the whole set-up (amplified textures, Nepalese bowls, tam tam) just to have more possibilities. One of the first groups I used it in was +minus with Graham Halliwell and Bernhard Günter, but gradually I became so fascinated with the tam tam that I felt the need to explore it individually, without all the other stuff.
What I find interesting is that you usually don't work with different instruments at the same time, but that there seems to be a short transitional period while you're switching instruments after which you focus exclusively on the new one.
Yes, and I usually avoid taking out the old ones again. I still play cello occasionally, but I prefer to avoid it because to me it often just sounds like a carbon copy of myself five years ago. There are very few exceptions: for example, I play cello on the first Cathnor release [Hervé Boghossian's Archi.Texture Vol.1 with John Tilbury] and I do it in a very different way than ever before. Or another example is my work with The Sealed Knot. I'd never play tam tam in that group. But other than that I'm staying away from both cello and amplified textures at the moment and only focusing on the tam tam. I have though agreed to make a solo cello recording later in the year for Nash Masood's label, a piece by Nash called Kohl.
Aesthetically speaking your work over the last years has moved away from extreme reductionism and gained a wider range. You still use what we could call a "minimalistic" approach, obviously, as we can hear in your tam tam playing, but there is still more openness about it, I think. Would you say that this is part of a development that you also see with other musicians in experimental music at the moment. Is there something "in the air"?
Yes, I think there is. Good heavens let's not call it "New London Expansionism" (laughs) – but the feeling I get is that certain players who were moving in very minimal areas have got a bit more expansive, and their sound has become richer. If you compare how Toshi [Nakamura] used the guitar and the mixing board last night to the CD we did a few years back [Foldings] which was very minimalistic, you see that the music is getting more expansive now. We're definitely in a period of transition and, of course, it's difficult to talk about it properly until a few years down the line.