October 2016, Cafe OTO in London, and a concert to celebrate twenty years of Confront Recordings, staged by the label’s owner Mark Wastell. Cafe OTO nestles in a side street in Dalston, a gloriously unpretentious venue where a small team share duties at front of house, attending to the bar, sound and lighting, creating a space for performances from some of the leading improvisers and experimental musicians from across the world. Its vibe is part bar, part cool village hall, part vinyl and cd boutique, making it without doubt one of my favourite places in the capital.
The centrepiece of the set is a performance by Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell and – via pre-recorded reading – David Sylvian. OTO’s capacity can be barely more than 100, and as the musicians take their places glasses of craft ale are set down whilst those who arrived early to secure one of the low-key wooden chairs settle and other audience members gather round in anticipation. I love the way the convivial atmosphere subsides and you could hear a pin drop as a performance starts at this venue. It’s the music that compels people to gather here. To the left, Wastell and a sparse percussion set up: a tam tam – essentially a large concave gong – a 16 inch floor drum and some singing bowls. On the right, Rhodri Davies with a small electric harp placed horizontal on a table with various devices to manipulate and supplement the sound, including an e-bow, a real bow and a radio. In the centre, an empty chair for the ‘virtual’ reader, illuminated by a large angle-poised lamp stood beside.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the performance, but remember being fascinated by the interaction between Mark Wastell’s natural percussion sounds and the treated electronic outputs from Rhodri Davies. I say interaction between the instruments, because the musicians’ eyes barely met as they played; the glances they exchanged were in sound. This was an anniversary not only of Confront Recordings but also of Mark and Rhodri playing together, the two having met just before the label was founded. It was a showcase of their highly tuned appreciation for one another’s playing as they responded to each other’s cues, and to the only ‘composed’ element of the piece – the words read by David Sylvian. Part way through the performance the bulb in the reader’s lamp blew unexpectedly and the musicians were thrust into a half-light that was supremely suited to the subject matter.
Mark Wastell told me why this piece was chosen for that evening: ‘Actually, it was Rhodri’s idea. We’d been discussing what to present at OTO for the anniversary celebration and he suggested revisiting In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, a piece we had last performed exactly twenty years previously. The coincidence was too great to ignore.’
Back in 1996, an actor friend of Rhodri Davies approached the duo as part of preparations for the Trivial Theatre Company’s world premiere of an English language version of this play by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès. ‘They commissioned Rhodri and I to supply a soundtrack,’ recalls Mark. ‘The original idea was for us to perform live with the actors on stage but ultimately there wasn’t enough budget for that so we pre-recorded the music. The recording session took place in a warehouse space, one of those old Victorian arched spaces under a railway line. Every time a train went overhead we had to stop recording and start again! The original score was for acoustic harp and cello. Performances of the play took place in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.’
Koltès’ play is for two parts – ‘The Dealer’ and ‘The Client’. The protagonists meet at night in a valley as The Client travels from one side to another. It is never explicit what The Dealer is seeking to sell, nor what are the true intentions of The Client. They fence with one another using words and argument as their foil; a verbal bout of attack and self defence. As an audience we are intrigued rather than emotionally attached to these lead characters, with Koltès calling on us to interpret their complexly constructed dialogue and consider what is really happening. This is not theatre with clear narrative and explicit explanation of motive and feeling, it’s a philosophical riddle with which to engage.
‘The Dealer: ‘Not that I discern yet what it is you might want, nor am I in any hurry to find out; since the want a buyer has is the most melancholic of things, let’s look upon it as a little secret, begging to be penetrated yet with which we take our time; or like a present that comes all wrapped up, yet still we take our time before unfastening the string.’
David Sylvian’s role in the re-visiting of ..Cotton Fields was part of various activities that he and Mark Wastell were involved in. ‘In 2015 I’d invited David to publish something on my label and we worked together in producing that little project – eventually releasing Playing the Schoolhouse on the Confront Collectors Series. And in February 2016 David, Rhodri and I had also spent a couple of days in each other’s company, so there’d been a continuum of activity over an extended period of time.’
Soon after the live performance, it was decided to make a studio recording of the Davies/Sylvian/Wastell collaboration. Rhodri and Mark recorded their parts in February 2017 at Studio 3 in London, using a new, alternate version of the vocal recording from David Sylvian. Mark: ‘It gave us an opportunity to get inside the material, to really push upon some of the more fleeting ideas that manifested during the OTO performance. When I listen back to the OTO recording there are remarkable similarities with the eventual released version. But we didn’t plan or discuss anything prior to going into the studio, so it could have been a very different outcome. Our instrumentation was predominantly the same, I had a few more small percussion pieces, like some tiny temple bells and chains and I did introduce another cymbal, but it was still a sparse collection of goods. Rhodri likewise. He used his tabletop electronic harp with preparations and effects. There was a vibraphone in the studio and he chose to use that for the opening sequence.’
‘There is No Love’ opens with single strikes on the vibraphone, notes reverberating into the space which is an essential part of this sound environment. Deep tam tam rumbles are gently caressed into being as waves of resonance pulse from the percussion. Enticed in, our senses are heightened to every nuance of sound as the backdrop is created for the encounter of The Dealer and The Client. It’s all beautifully recorded, and you feel the presence of the performers keenly; it’s as if I’m back in the stage-less performance area at Cafe OTO, once again perched at the shoulder of Rhodri Davies. A private performance.
The music was spontaneously created in the studio, and it’s astounding to me that the vocal was not played as an anchor whilst the recording took place, given how intricately the instruments and the voice interlace in the finished piece. Mark Wastell: ‘It’s entirely improvised. We didn’t “play” with the vocal recording. We recorded with no real time reference to the text as we went along. There was no score. No predetermined movements or transitions. We’d both been informed by having listened to the vocal track previously but we didn’t use it on the day. We played with it in mind, or more precisely, the end result in mind. I guess we had our own intentions on how we each wanted to present our material but these weren’t discussed beforehand. We did two complete takes on the day and it was the second one that got chosen for the release. The musical accompaniment and vocal recording were then pieced together at a later date in the studio.’
The first words we hear form the often repeated motif, ‘there is no love’. In the context of the play these words are amongst the last utterances of The Client as tension rises with no sale or purchase concluded and a fight threatened. The phrase strikes to the heart of the theme of ‘making a deal’. Whatever it is that is being traded – whether the sexual favours implied in innuendo, drugs, or even life itself – it is clear that it’s a transaction and not an exchange based on love. It was Sylvian who took these words as the unifying idea. ‘There was something in the phrase that resonated with him that it became a focus. It was his choice to use it as a hook. It was only after I heard his structured recording that I then chose it for the title of the piece.’
The phrase is repeated, distorted, cut up and stuttering. And then Sylvian’s rendition of the text starts, set at a level to startle the listener – so intently have we been captivated by the unfolding scene. The vocal recording, made in private, is closely mic’d and practically brings him into the room with the listener. Subtle modulation conveys his characterisation of the play’s protagonists.
Rhodri Davies concocts an array of effects to intensify the drama, with Koltè’s convoluted sentences accompanied by whirrs and buzzes that dive in and out of view like inquisitive insects, and swoop like bats amongst the church-bell chimes from Mark Wastell’s percussion. At one point, distorted sound starts like a breeze and then blows in as dense mist whilst The Dealer challenges the assertion that The Client ran across him by accident.
The version of the vocal used for the studio recording was overlaid by Sylvian with the extreme high-pitches of Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixing board, which had been recorded in Montreal in 2012 when Sylvian was present for the sessions for Nakamura’s album no input mixing board #8. Toshimaru recalls in the sleeve notes for that album: ‘Steve Bates kindly offered me a newly furnished studio, his time and work.. ..And David Sylvian drove up from his home in New Hampshire to join us. We worked collaboratively for two days. After David left, the studio looked completely different from when I arrived. Around my no-input mixing board was a mess of cables, microphones and loud speakers, a set up suggested by David..’ Adding these sounds to ‘There is No Love’ heightens the sinister ambience. Wastell: ‘This was a nice surprise and a very welcomed addition. Just enough to bring an added texture, very subtle but obvious none the less. An inspired move on David’s part.’
The recorded excerpt of the play features the early exchanges between the two characters and then the very last line of the play, ‘Well then, what weapon?’ as violence looms as the only way to find a resolution. Time is beaten out ominously on Wastell’s concert bass drum and the bells that ring now threaten impending doom.
Spoken word has been a medium employed in Sylvian’s work stretching back to ‘Tallow Moon’, a Sylvian/Fripp b-side in 1993, through ‘Thoroughly Lost to Logic’ released in 2000 as the only snippet of his collaboration with Keith Tippett and Mark Sanders to see the light of day, and then to pieces with the Punkt artists (see ‘The God of Silence‘) and readings of Arseny Tarkovsky poems for Ryuichi Sakamoto. Here he gives one of his most nuanced and assured performances.
The last words that Sylvian speaks on ‘There is No Love’ are not, in fact, found in Koltès’ text.
‘Do you want to try that again?’
Perhaps they were a stage direction to himself in the solitude of the recording studio? Perhaps he’s questioning whether he has captured what the text demanded? Perhaps it’s addressed, from afar, to his collaborators? Whatever the motivation, the phrase feels like it belongs, adding a further touch of threat and menace in the context of these characters squared up to one another.
Asked later about that line, Sylvian explained: ‘It felt appropriate to break the spell, like the fourth wall in cinema.’ (2020)
What are Mark’s reflections on Sylvian’s contribution? ‘He has such a distinctive voice, full of gravitas and I knew his rich, clear tone and pin point delivery would be perfect for the narration.. ..Ultimately, what David delivered was way above and far beyond any expectation I had, what with his inclusion of filtered effects, overlaying, electronics and more.’
The cd was released in May 2017 as the inaugural volume in Confront’s Core Series, a fresh imprint following twenty years of the label and reserved for projects with which Mark Wastell is personally closely associated.
If you enjoy ‘There is No Love’, a worthy companion piece is a recording by Davies and Wastell’s long-time trio incarnation with Burkhard Beins, the percussion player with Austrian improvisers Polwechsel. The band is styled The Sealed Knot and was captured in a live performance at Cafe OTO in January 2009 for a cd released on Confront. Here the artists work with longer lines of sound, each employing electronics in addition to their main instrument of harp, tam tam and percussion respectively. There are fewer of the brighter notes of bells and singing bowls here, but subtle textures are built and then subside, as base sounds are contorted, degraded and processed. Repeated listens reveal more threads and colours in the aural tapestry that the performers weave.
‘There is No Love’
Rhodri Davies – lap harp, table harp, vibraphone, radio; David Sylvian – voice, vocal treatments, electronics; Mark Wastell – tam tam, cracked ride cymbal, chimes, Indian temple bells, singing bowls, metal chain, tubular bell, concert bass drum
Additional contribution from Toshimaru Nakamura – no-input mixer
Original text by Bernard-Marie Koltès.
Compositional structure by Mark Wastell.
Original text © Éditions de Minuit, translation © Jeffrey Wainwright
There is No Love is being re-released for Record Store Day 2019 on white vinyl, remixed and remastered, with new cover artwork photography by David Sylvian (as featured above). Available exclusively at participating independent record stores.
The text of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields by Bernard-Marie Koltès is available here.
Many thanks to Mark Wastell for his input to this article. All quotes are from our 2019 conversation unless otherwise specified.
‘It’s a recording I’m still very proud of. It ticks all my boxes.. ..The relationship between the music and the vocal is finely tuned. It’s incredible how well it all worked out.’ Mark Wastell, 2019