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The Sealed Knot - Surface/Plane

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Artist: The Sealed Knot

Album: Surface/Plane

Label: Meniscus

Review date: Sep. 16, 2003

A couple years ago, while in London, I hopped the Northern Line up to Highgate and visited Sound 323, one of the finest record stores around. It’s run by the superb improvising cellist (and, more recently, electronician) Mark Wastell, also a right-on fellow. We got to chatting and he mentioned that he was in a trio with fellow Londoner harpist Rhodri Davies and Berlin-based percussionist Burkhard Beins. Killer lineup, I thought, thinking of Beins’ extraordinary work with Andrea Neumann and Keith Rowe, among others, and of Wastell’s and Davies’ work with Chris Burn and Simon H. Fell (in the IST trio). But what really got me was Wastell’s comment “Burkhard doesn’t strike the drums at all [in this trio], he just rubs them.” That aesthetic more or less characterizes the group as a whole, called the Sealed Knot (I wonder if the reference to the 17th century British loyalists of the same name was intentional). They released a very difficult-to-find recording on Davies’ Confront label (and by the way, do check out Davies’ exquisite solo album Trem on Confront) but now, with the welcome return of Jon Morgan’s Meniscus label, the subterranean pleasures of the Sealed Knot may receive wider acclaim. And they deserve it.

There are two lengthy tracks – the 16-minute “Surface” (recorded as part of the erstwhile All Angels series in Islington, London) and the 27-minute “Plane” (recorded live in Huddersfield). The hush and stillness at the heart of this music may recall the compositions of the late Morton Feldman, in methodology at least; it is process-driven, not flamboyant, concerned with the exploration of constitutive materials rather than with the development of line or other obvious modes of formal elaboration. Yet the specific sound world – the slow hissing or whining, the sudden rustles or thwacks, the delicate pizzicato like tiny droplets on the still surface of a pond – recalls Ligeti (hell, even at times Alvin Curran, specifically his pieces performed by the Abel-Winant-Steinberg Trio) more than Feldman.

But of course this is free improvisation, and captivating stuff at that. The first piece is filled with tension, as Beins’ steady whirls and whorls of sound rise beneath the scratching and scraping of Wastell and Davies (who ever heard a harp played like this, by the way?) only to cease abruptly, leaving a chasm of open air. “Plane” begins somewhat more caustically, slashing bowed cymbals against an insistent buzz – notes suspended dissonantly in mid air, hanging awkwardly together like two spider webs competing for space. Owing partly to the very live acoustic in the Huddersfield cathedral, the jarring transitions are starker on “Plane” and the group also plays with duration to a greater degree. At times this sounds like two pieces in one, as the ripping and crackling of the latter part seem somewhat discontinuous – but that is simply a different pleasure, a different puzzle for listeners. Overall, this is a marvelous, subtle recording which will lure you in and beguile with its multiple angles, turns, and perspectives.

By Jason Bivins

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