Dialogue, Space and Multiplicity in British Improv. Confront Recordings at 25. Interview with Mark Wastell

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photo Dawid Laskowski

Mark Wastell is a key figure of Britain’s improv and avant-music scene. What is absolutely fascinating about Wastell is his musical plurilingualism, his capacity of speaking, understanding and recording a plurality of experimental languages. This very idea of multiplicity defines an identity which is never fixed but always engaged in a complex dialogue among the many selves and roles composing “Mark Wastell”: improvisor, performer, recording artist, record-shop owner (yes, London early 2000s cult venue Sound 323), concert promoter and founder of Confront Recordings, one of the most original and intelligent labels of contemporary avant and improvised music with an impressive catalogue featuring, among others, iconic performers such as Derek Bailey, Steve Beresford, Tony Oxley, David Sylvian, Sidsel Endresen, Arild Andersen, Simon H. Fell and of course Mark Wastell himself an extraordinary cellist and percussionist.The list above conveys the idea of an artist, whose very label becomes a mirror of a way of conceiving music as space in which categories such as past and present, jazz and improv, avant rock and noise constantly redefine themselves. “Music as space; space as music”, this motto could define the very aesthetics of Wastell, one of the most adventurous and precious artists of contemporary Britain. If for Wastell music is all about dialogue(s) – the dialogue between different musicians, but also the dialogue between the many selves inhabiting he single performer – one of the best ways of investigating his art (and his commitment to music as art) is through dialogue. Mark granted us an exclusive interview which we are very happy to share with our readers.

PM: Mark tell us something about your musical background. Were you involved in other scenes before improv?
MW: I developed a serious interest in music from a very early age, around 9 or 10. My investigations eventually led me to modern jazz by the time I was 16. As soon as I’d passed my driving test I was out there, going to as many jazz concerts as possible. I was well served by a local arts centre in Colchester, near my home. They had a terrific program. During the same period I was regularly travelling to London, particularly Ronnie Scott’s, to see all the greats. This all made a tremendous impression on me. Eventually, in 1989 I attended a concert by the Anthony Braxton Trio with Tony Oxley on drums. Evan Parker also played a solo set. This moment was my epiphany. I’d found free improvisation – or rather – it had found me. Through a growing appreciation and a quick trajectory into that world, I developed a desire to start playing myself, firstly double bass around 1993, eventually switching to the cello a little later.

PM: Cello seems to be your main instrument. When did you start playing it and how and when did you approach percussion?
MW: Cello was certainly my first proper instrument, yes, but I wouldn’t consider it main instrument. Certainly not for the past fifteen years or so. I’ve predominantly played tam tam and other percussion since 2006. I used the cello from the get go in 1995 with groups like IST (with Rhodri Davies and Simon Fell), Assumed Possibilities (with Chris Burn, Phil Durrant and Rhodri), The Sealed Knot (with Burkhard Beins and Rhodri), Derek Bailey’s Company and Evan Parker’s String Orchestra, until around 2002. I then began to move away from the cello and developed a set-up of low-fi electronics and contact mics which I called amplified textures. This apparatus I used in more electro-acoustic groups such as Belaska (with Mattin), Broken Consort (with Matt Davis and Rhodri) and +minus (with Graham Halliwell and Bernhard Gunter) which were active in that period. I began incorporating gongs and singing bowls into the amplified textures around 2004 and this kick started a deeper interest in tuned metal percussion to which I’ve been dedicated to ever since. Occasionally I dust off the cello but it tends to be when IST or The Sealed Knot play a rare concert.

PM: Your label turns 25 this year. We’d really like to know something about how – and exactly when – you started it.
MW: I started Confront in 1996 purely as a means of documenting and promoting my own work. The first releases were cassette editions of 50. These I would sell at gigs, give to musicians I was interested in working with as a way of introduction and send to magazines for review potential. There was one particular fanzine back in the day called Rubberneck in which I would back the reviews up with a little advert and, surprisingly, the cassettes started to sell by mail-order to people much further afield. I’ve customers to this day, twenty-five years later, that were amongst the very first to buy those early cassettes right at the beginning. The label gained a reputation quick quickly and it wasn’t long before I began releasing music made by others, initially my colleagues on the London scene, then from further afield. I made a few contacts and widened the distribution network, notably with Metamkine in France who helped get the releases into Europe and beyond. That was a big help in raising the awareness of the label. All the while I was releasing more discs, promoting through concerts and reviews and selling direct and through distributors and shops. Things naturally accelerated.

PM: The label most recent release is a beautiful IST boxset featuring 5 cds and a 20 page booklet with essays and photos. The trio played a central role in your career.
MW: Most definitely. It is where it all began. As the years go by and I reflect on that period, the more I realise that IST with Simon and Rhodri was the blue print for everything I went on to do. By that I mean the method. Hard work, commitment, diligence, attention to detail, pulling resources together to form a strong unity. These were all present in IST, which perhaps weren’t apparent at the time when you are going through it day to day. Only time revealed those special qualities. I owe Simon and Rhodri as great deal.

PM: Simon H. Fell is a great Bass player; another remarkable player you played with is Arild Andersen (in the marvelous CR release Tales of Hackney) whose sound and use of effects is very fascinating. As a cellist, how do you approach playing with bass players?
MW: Cello, tam tam, whichever I am using, it’s fundamentally about communication. Putting your ideas across in relation with those you are performing with. Sometimes you perceive the communication as successful, others times not. This isn’t necessarily detrimental to the music, it just takes a different turn and the outcome isn’t as you as expected. I’m very lucky that I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to play with many very high calibre musicians, Simon and Arild included of course. Each situation informs me. I learn. And take it forward to the next.

PM: What do you think of the ECM label? You published an album by another amazing ECM artist Sidsel Endresen.
MW: There’s lots to admire about ECM. What Manfred has achieved in the last 50 years is quite phenomenal. The Confront album with Sidsel came about through Jan Bang. They had a lovely live recording of their duo from a festival in Norway. I’d met him through David Sylvian’s first release on Confront, Playing the Schoolhouse, which featured field recordings from Jan. At the time of that issue, I’d said keep in touch and let me know if you have anything in the future that may be of interest. It was an open offer. I’d met Sidsel years earlier, at a festival in Switzerland, when the Sealed Knot shared the bill with her performing solo. It was a real honor to eventually have her on the label.

PM: ECM recordings are very often about space, and silence. I can detect that very sense of space in your productions too.
MW: ECM is a very broad church, covering a lot of musical areas but I understand what you mean by that. Certainly in relation to how specific recordings are presented. I assume it’s the choice particular artists on the label if they prefer to work that way. How much of it is directed by the label I don’t know. At Confront, the direction of the music is exclusively the concern of the musicians and never dictated by the label.

PM: In Piano, Toys, Music and Noise Andy Hamilton and Steve Beresford discuss the “New London Silence” or Reductionism 1990s trend. Can you tell us something of your involvement in it?
MW: As early as 1995 IST were utilising very soft dynamics, silence and texture as a mode of operation. This wasn’t discussed beforehand, it just came out in the music as we played it. At the same time, Phil Durrant was also exploring this kind of slow-paced, low volume music in his trio with Radu Malfatti and Thomas Lehn. By the end of the 90s Rhodri, Phil, trumpeter Matt Davis and myself were the main protagonists of New London Silence. It was something we felt very strongly about. It began to take on a life of its own and others around the globe were independently working on their own forms of reductionism. Berlin, Tokyo and Vienna were the other main centres of this activity and we collaborated a great deal with musicians from the other scenes. It was a very exciting time. In 2001, The Sealed Knot undertook a tour of the UK which we purposely billed as New London Silence meets Berlin Reductionism. The die was cast!

PM: I can at times detect extramusical influences in your work. Literature, cinema… do you find inspiration in extramusical texts, to the extent of thinking a particular album or piece as a kind of experiment in intersemiotic translation?
MW: That’s not something I consciously set out to do but if a listener reads it a certain way or is compelled to absorb it as such, that’s fine by me. In my formative years I was definitely influenced by artists like Franz Kline, Robert Ryman and John Latham, leading into the reductionist period. I admired their use of limited materials and this I tried to replicate musically. Working with a much reduced palette but trying to make something rich and full.

PM: As you write in the “Twenty Five Years” essay Derek Bailey was a big supporter of IST. You also played with Derek many times, can you tell us something about your relationship with him?
MW: Derek was generous, supportive, good humoured. Very easy to be around. He enabled you. Gave you the freedom to express yourself within the music with no barriers. He demanded nothing. By giving you the opportunity, I suspect he knew you were only ever going to perform the best version of yourself. He just dug our music and we were fortunate enough to have his patronage. Derek took us to New York with him and to France too. It was such a special time that has given me wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.

PM: The label features an amazing album by Tony Oxley Beaming, in which interestingly he also appears on electronics. You are a percussionist yourself. How influential was Tony on the British scene?
MW: Tony’s influence is immeasurable. Not just the British scene but worldwide. I doubt even he realises how much. He, alongside Derek and a handful of others were the source of this music. Fact. My relationship, until recently, with Tony was from afar. Alan Skidmore brokered an introduction for me and I’ve found Tony very open ever since. He had left the UK in 1984, so by the time I came to the music, Tony had no physical presence on the London scene. Unlike Derek, who you could see perform locally very regularly. Tony’s concerts in London were few and far between and tended to be on big stages, not at club level. But that aside, there is no mistaking his influence through recordings and reputation. Recently I sent Tony a copy of the IST box set and he remarked that it reminded him of the early days of Joseph Holbrook, the feeling and intension behind the music. That’s good enough for me. He also said how he loved my cello playing and that, had he been in London, we would have been playing together – high praise indeed!

PM: Do cello and percussion speak to each other in your music? Do you think of an instrument in terms of the other and vice-versa?
MW: They are one and the same, in my mind at least. The methodology for both are unified. The sounds are different of course but the language comes from the same place. It’s all connected. Interesting to note, Tony Oxley also played violin. Percussion, strings and electronics, both he and I.

PM: Really? That’s very interesting. Speaking about music venues in London today, one could say Café Oto and other venues had a very positive impact on improv and yet Toop and others make reference to the plurality and great quality of the venues you could listen to improv in the last decades of the last century. Can you tell us something about those spaces or at least of the one you grew up with/in?
MW: There is no denying the positives that OTO, Hundred Years Gallery and Iklektic have made but outside of that, there seems to be fewer places to play. I’m not saying there aren’t other spaces, of course there are. Alan Wilkinson and Richard Sanderson have been hosting concerts for years. And others beside. There just seems to be fewer choices as to where to play – at least compared to the London scene that I came of age in. There were numerous places to perform in those days. An impressive network of gigs and promotors. In all areas of the city. Things began to shrink in the late 00s, actually around the same time that OTO opened. I’m happy to be proved wrong. Maybe I’m just out of touch. What seems to happen these days – and I too default to this – is that it is easier for a promoter to book into an existing venue – especially one like OTO who have great standing and a loyal customer base. Therefore, you have lots of promoters using the same three venues. It’s much harder to find your own independent little space and then you have to work hard on your own publicity and build a profile. Maybe it’s time for things to expand again? The Spitz, Red Rose Theatre, Club Room, Baggage Reclaim, All Angels, China Pig Club, Camden Peoples Theatre, Covent Garden Poetry Club, British Music Information Centre, Club Integral, Sound 323, Bonnington Centre, Club Orange, St. Cyprian’s, Klinker, Hat on Wall, 2.13 Club, Lewisham Art House, Jazz Rumours, Chisendale Dance Centre, Fleapit, Red Hedgehog, Jacksons Lane … all venues that were scattered throughout London in that period. All run by musicians and enthusiasts.

PM: You speak of David Sylvian as a “long-time admirer” of Confront. He is also on two of the label’s releases. Can you tell us something about these projects and about Sylvian’s relevance for you and more in general in the context of contemporary avant music?
MW: David’s music I grew up with, listening to Japan in the 1980s. It’s funny when worlds collide a couple of decades later. When he released Blemish and a little later Manafon on his own label, I used to order stock for my record shop. That’s how we made contact originally. I have a recollection that he also asked me to manage the distribution which I didn’t take on as I was busy enough. Anyway, that’s how it started. David would order Confront releases periodically and eventually I asked him if he would like to release something. He offered up Playing the Schoolhouse. It caused quite a stir because it was field recordings with abstracted sound sources. A couple of years later it was the 20th anniversary of Confront and I wanted to do a concert to celebrate. At the concert, Rhodri and I opted to revisit a spoken word piece that we had performed twenty years previously and I asked David to record the vocals. The piece was very well received and the decision was made to make a studio version to release on disc. There Is No Love came out a short while later and is by far the biggest seller on Confront. David is a true artist. He makes brave and bold moves. His output over the last forty years has been incredible and his work stands up as unique and very special. No question.

PM: Beside IST you’ve played in many different ensembles. I was particularly impressed by textures and soundscapes defining your duo album A Thousand Sacred Steps with Chris Abrahams.
MW: Thank you. I’ve very proud of the recording with Chris. I had to snatch the moment. He had a spare morning when he was visiting London with the Necks to play at OTO. I booked a studio and we simply arrived, recorded for a couple of hours and left. The music feels very different, for me at least, a new avenue. I approached it with trying to play as I hadn’t ever before. I think it’s successful on that level. People have reacted very positively to it. And Chris is a maestro, of course, so it made it all the easier.

PM: Confront Recordings albums are very recognizable. Can you tell us something about their cover design?
MW: Even going back to the earliest cassette releases I think Confront had a specific look. Like most things, it’s very metamorphic. It all happens naturally but with an intension, a direction in mind. I like clean lines and imagery. I’ve been able to put this across to the designers I’ve worked with over the years. Matt Brandi, who has been designing the covers for the last couple of years, has really sured up the look.

PM: You also wrote on the label’s page about Paul Weller appreciating the CR catalogue. Are you still listening to pop/rock music.
MW: I listen to all sorts of music. Pop/rock included. Absolutely. Regards Weller, I’ve been listening to him for over 40 years. I knew he had an interest in improvisation and other forms of esoteric music, so I sent him a bunch of Confront releases and he sent me alovely hand written letter and a bunch of records in return.

PM: Beside running a label you also ran a record shop. Can you tell us something about that experience?
MW: It was called Sound 323 and ran for eight years from November 2000. I really enjoyed that period. There was so much happening in the music. Lots of labels releasing really great stuff. Lots of musicians visiting London. A very positive moment in time. It established itself very quickly and became a bit of a hub. People would come and hang out all day. Besides selling records, I think the single most important aspect of the shop was the performance space downstairs in the basement. We would have concerts almost every Saturday afternoon. Hundreds of musicians played there. A lovely intimate room that could fit twenty-five people in the audience, though on many occasions there were plenty more jammed in.

PM: Confront Recordings is not just a label but a community with thousands of people supporting your work, buying the albums. Which future do you envisage for records/cds?
MW: I can only hope that it continues. I love having the label and doing the work. I’ve kept at it, through feast and famine. Of course, it’s always satisfying if a record sells well and there are may releases on the label that have done so. Fortunately, most releases sell enough to breakeven but little more than that. More important is the documentation. The recognition of the music. Cataloging the work of very vital musicians. I’ve spent twenty-five years collating a magnificent aural collection. That’s what matters. You can’t force this music on anybody. I’ve found over the years that it’s often the reverse, if the audience desires something, is seeking a new path, they will find a path to you. That’s not to say it’s all one way. By the very nature of releasing a new record, by hosting a gig, by posting a review online, I’m constantly hoping to attract as many people as possible.

PM: Can you tell us something about your future projects?
MW: For the remainder of 2021, I’m just about to release a Tony Oxley and Alan Davie disc featuring archive material from 1977. This is followed by a recording from Jane in Ether, a trio that includes Biliana Voutchkova, Magda Mayas and Miako Klein. Towards the end of the year there’ll be a disc from Jan Bang, David Toop and myself called Compound Full of Bones, Translucent Thousands. Further ahead, I’ve still plenty of unreleased IST material that I’d like to have see the light of day and I’ve got to conclude the re-issue of Derek Bailey’s Company in Marseille which originally came out on Incus. Remastering the recordings from Marseille was the last projects Simon Fell worked on before his unexpected passing. And also for next year, a very special project to celebrate the 80th birthday of my dear friend Alan Skidmore.

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Pierpaolo Martino è ricercatore di Letteratura Inglese presso l’ Università di Bari. Si occupa di studi culturali, di Wilde studies, di letteratura modernista e contemporanea, e dei rapporti tra letteratura e musica. Ha pubblicato studi di argomento letterario, musicale e cinematografico su autori quali Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Colin MacInnes, Alan Sillitoe, Philip Larkin, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, KamauBrathwaite, HanifKureishi, HariKunzru, Derek Jarman, Morrissey, Nick Cave, Smiths e Radiohead. È autore di quattro monografie: Virginia Woolf: la musica del faro. Pagina e improvvisazione (2003), Down in Albion. Studi sulla cultura pop inglese (2007), Mark the Music. The Language of Music in English Literature from Shakespeare to Salman Rushdie (2012) e La Filosofia di David Bowie. Wilde, Kemp e la musica come teatro (2016) e curatore di Exodus. Studi sulla Letteratura Anglo-Caraibica (2009) e Words and Music, Studi sui rapporti tra letteratura e musica in ambito anglofono (2015). Svolge inoltre attività di compositore e performer, in qualità di (contrab)basista, in ambito improv, jazz e post-rock in ensemble italiani e Anglo-italiani quali Mondegreen, The Dinner Party e Frequency Disasters.