Much of Mark Wastell's relationship with his chosen instrument is concentrated on the tactile, textural and sonic possibilities of both violoncello and bow. He is increasingly interested in working with extreme elements drawn from frequency, timbre and pitch. His early activity was consciously and subconsciously influenced by a variety of improvising musicians. Subsequent exposure to contemporary composers lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the works written for strings by Feldman, Cage, Nono, Lachenmann and Sciarrino. The use of live electronics and music concrete by Tudor, Parmegiani, Xenakis and others was another important early influence. In more recent times, Mark has also begun to explore sound material outside of the cello, working with contact mics, amplified textures and electronics.
Mark's current instrumental material primarily focuses on using abstract principles of space, time and texture - encompassing elements of new London silence, pro-acoustic minimalism, new complexity and pan-global reductionism. Because of the very nature of his chosen instrument, he tends to favour chamber style ensembles and has worked with a number of regular groups. Here, Mark kindly answers some of my questions.
Mark Thwaite How did your group +minus come about?
Mark Wastell Graham (Halliwell) and I had been playing together as a duo since 2002. We first met at a workshop run by Eddie Prévost back in 1996. In 2003 we recorded and mastered some music that we wanted to release. One of the labels we sent the demo to was Bernhard Günter's Trente Oiseaux. I had been dealing with Bernhard since 2001, ordering his label for sound 323, my record shop in London. So he and I had had an email relationship for quite some time. Bernhard liked the music but couldn't release it (the music eventually came out on the Greek label Absurd, under the title faktura) and Graham and I were familiar with Günter's compositions. So the foundations were set. We eventually met at a festival at Bera in the Basque country; Graham and I were booked as a duo and Bernhard was there to play a solo set. During our many lengthy conversations at the festival, it became apparent that bernhard wanted to return to playing live music, and he described an instrument he had at home that he called a cellotar. He asked whether we would be interested in doing a collaboration. On returning home, he dubbed some cellotar material onto faktura and sent us the results.
MT Bernhard talks about how well you've gelled as friends and as a playing unit: were you surprised by how quickly that happened?
MW I understand what Bernhard means and don't dispute it. We quickly became friends, that’s true, but I have a different recollection of our first recording session. we spent a considerable amount of time finding our music. Graham worked extremely hard setting up our equipment for recording (he really is the main man as regards the technical side of +minus) - it’s not an easy job balancing electric cellotar, feedback saxophone and acoustic tuned metal percussion. He had a battle to balance line inputs with instrument microphones and ambient sounds. When we eventually began to record, some hours into the session, we started playing an improvised piece. It didn't work. We stopped and tried another. Again, it didn't feel right. Not that any one of us was doing anything wrong, there was just something missing. We took a break to listen to what had been recorded and it was at this moment that Bernhard suggested it might be interesting to use some of his electronic compositions as some kind of foundation, a basis on which to work. Immediately the session really began to gell. Working with the basis track gave our improvisations a completely different feel and meaning. The structure was there. It really was a fabulous moment: the discovery of our group language. Over the next two days we recorded for hours, with and without the basis tracks, so when bernhard returned to Germany he had plenty of material with which to contruct our debut album +minus [first meeting].
MT Have you been pleased with/surprised by the excellent reception of a rainy koran verse? Getting into The Wire's top fifty must have been nice!?
MW Pleased? – yes, indeed. It's nice to know your efforts have been appreciated, and a rainy koran verse is a pleasant album. I think it represents successfully how our music can sound in a live environment. But I do think that [first meeting] is a better record, technically and musically. Both were released in 2004. [first meeting] also attained some critical acclaim, it was voted one of the top ten records of the year by 'one final note' and was in Delire Actuel's Top 20 albums of 2004.
MT What first got you listening to - and then playing - non-traditional music?
MW I began to listen to jazz around the age of sixteen. Modern jazz, mainly: Miles, Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, etc. My investigations led to free jazz and the American avant-garde within a couple of years: Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton. At that point I connected with the european avant-garde and improvised music scene: AMM, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Derek Bailey. I attended a lot of concerts and it was through the example of live music that I felt the urge to make music myself. I didn't start playing until I was 21. Once you discover one area it naturally leads to somewhere else, so through improvised music I found modern composed music, electronics, sound art, the noise scene. I'm still on a journey of discovery.
MT Following on from that, you play tam-tam, prayer bowl etc on a rainy koran verse: is discovering new instruments/new sounds important to you? Why?
MW Yes, it’s very important to me. I played cello exclusively for 8 years or so, and that’s the main instrument I was associated with until 2002. Then I began to feel limited, confined to 4 strings and a wooden box. I needed to go beyond the sounds that that instrument could offer. I was listened to a lot of different music, much of which influenced me. I began to investigate electronics and amplification, started to piece together my amplified textures set-up. It was liberating, felt like i was starting anew. It’s the same with the tuned metal I’ve been working with recently - it's all part of a natural progression but essentially involving the same ingrediences. It’s still my music, my ideas. Whether I'm playing cello, double bass, tam-tam, amplified textures, they're all part of the same thing.
MT How do you perceive the state of jazz/improv/experimental music to be?
MW Probably better than it has ever been before in terms of an audience. The internet has assisted the expansion of interest. The modern listener has many interests and can locate information much more easily now. The Wire magazine has a readership of more than 25,000 so there’s definitely an audience out there. +minus recently played a concert promoted by the London Musicians' Collective that drew an audience of more than 300 people. That’s really not bad at all. There are thousands of independent labels and five times as many musicians and performers, so the scene is very healthy. Speaking from a British perspective, the downside is the absolute dearth of arts funding. It's a sorry state of affairs, but it won't stop music from being made.
MT How is Sound 323 going!?
MW Very well. It's not an easy business selling experimental music, but it’s enjoyable and worthwhile nonetheless. We have a loyal database of 1,500 customers. The shop is always busy and our web sales are a very important aspect of the business. We couldn't survive without mailorder. We dispatch cds all over the world to customers in far away places like Bahrain, Israel, the Maldives, Hong Kong, Croatia, New Zealand - all over the place.
MT RSB is primarily a book site, so I have to ask: what are your literary tastes? What are you reading at the moment?
MW I like biographies and factual books. i have little interest in fiction. recent reads include David Toop's 'haunted weather', the Derek Bailey biography written by Ben Watson, Paulo Hewitt’s biography of Steve Marriott, and Eddie Prévost's Minute Particulars.
MT And what are you listening to at the moment: what are your current favourite CDs?
MW That's a very difficult question to answer given that i run a record shop. current listening tends to change daily, with the arrival of new stock. most days twenty or more new releases arrive. Favourite listening at home at present includes Ravi Shankar, the Small Faces, the Miles Davis quintet with Wayne Shorter, JS Bach, Morton Feldman, the Brian Jones period rolling stones and morphogenesis.
MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?
MW +minus will record a third album this coming summer. The group will be augmented by guests performers. Clive Bell, a shakuhachi master from London, will join us for one piece, as will Steve Roden and Toshimaru Nakamura. Because Steve and Toshi live in California and tokyo respectively, they can’t attend the sessions in person, but each of them will supply us with a basis track. As regards my own activity, I've just released a cd with Tim Barnes, a percussionist from New York. Our duo is called 'the scotch of st. james' and the recording comes from a live show we played in Berlin in 2004. So I'll be working on promoting that disc during the coming weeks. March is a busy month: belaska (the duo I have with the laptop player Mattin) will perform two shows in copenhagen and london; broken consort (the duo I have with harpist Rhodri Davies) will play a concert in cheshire; and under the sound 323 banner i'm promoting a London show by Evan Parker. 'vibra #2' (second in a series of solo tam-tam compositions dedicated to the late Roger Sutherland) will be released by longbox records from Chicago this summer, and due for release very soon is 'broken consort - as was' on the Quakebasket label from New York, a long overdue debut release by this group, on which Rhodri and I are joined by the trumpeter Matt Davis. It comes from some live shows in the uk dating from 2002.
MT Thanks Mark!