Mark Wastell is a lynchpin of the UK’s experimental music scene. Operating as a performer, recording artist, concert promoter and boss of Confront Recordings he has, since the early 1990s, been a key connector, helping to open up the city’s traditional free improv community to alternative perspectives that emphasised space and texture as much as the bristling interplay between collaborators typifying the first waves of London based improvisers.
Summarising a career as diverse as Wastell’s is tricky. He’s collaborated with, and released recordings of, an impressive array of talent draw from the improvised music community (and many others who may not define themselves in that way), as well as building an impressive discography of solo works.
An exposure to free jazz in his late teens, both from his childhood home near Colchester and through trips into the capital, proved a gateway drug that helped steer him towards his own entrance into the community as a player. A short-lived dalliance as a piano and sax duo with a young colleague in a local village hall (“we thought we could be Keith Tippett and Andy Shepard,“) gave way to a serious engagement with the cello, Wastell’s first chosen instrument, in the early 90s. He says: “I really wanted to be a bass player, but I couldn’t afford a bass. One day, hanging in a window in a music shop in Colchester High Street was a cello. I think it was £80, so I bought it.”
Wastell’s explorations with the cello informed his early appearances with the trio IST, alongside Rhodri Davies and Simon H. Fell. A frenetic period of gigging and recording followed, Wastell’s work with IST complemented by appearances with Derek Bailey, John Butcher, Evan Parker and just about anyone who was anyone in the experimental music landscape.
The approach continued in The Sealed Knot, formed in 2000, in which Wastell, now playing double bass as well as cello, was joined by Davies and Burkhard Beins. These groups were as different as they were similar – IST looked to reinvent free improv practices while The Sealed Knot glided closer to an electroacoustic/AMM territory. Other groups, such as Oceans of Silver & Blood, a duo with Joachim Nordwall, pushed out to the far reaches of drone or minimalism.
Meanwhile, Wastell’s label, Confront Recordings, moved from cataloguing his own work to documenting many of the new variants of improvisation in emerging at that time. Many of the performances captured on Confront releases – some are featured below – are essential additions to any underground music collector’s library. And Wastell’s small but perfectly formed record shop, Sound 323, was an oasis of esoteric resources in the early 2000s, bringing into physical being many of the mysterious artefacts that nestled in the review pages of The Wire magazine.
Sound 323 closed in 2008, a casualty of the internet’s war on music retail. Wastell has continued playing, a few brief hiatuses notwithstanding, with his initially narrow performance focus broadening into what can only be described as a full-spectrum wave of experimentation, from the muted rattle and throb of his free improv trio with Richard Sanderson and Matilda Rolfsson, through the Company-meets-reductionist protean vibes of his large ensemble The Seen, to the all-out free jazz blast of The Mark Wastell Quartet. Confront Recordings goes from strength to strength too, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016 with an anticipated 20 new recordings.
I caught up with Wastell recently to talk about some of the key recordings that trace his and Confront’s journey over the past two decades. What follows is Wastell’s take, in his own words, with minimal interventions from me, on these releases. It’s clear that his continuing, restless commitment enables him push the boundaries of improvised and experimental music ever outwards. What also became obvious over the course of our conversations was the deep bonds and mutual respect that Wastell and his collaborators have for each other. “Once this music touches you it never goes away,” he says. And he may just be right.
Collision Duo: Refraction
(Confront Recordings, 1997)
Personnel: Mark Wastell: cello, percussion; Nick Smith: violin, percussion.
Mark Wastell (MW): I was working in a music shop in Chelmsford, an instrument and record shop. This was around 1993-4. Through the shop I met a number of people, one of whom was Nick Smith, who used to come to the shop and buy records from our little jazz and improv section. So I got to know Nick and we clearly liked the same kind of music and a friendship formed. He was a percussionist and had been involved with improvised music for a while, performing live in and around London, including the old LMC home at Gloucester Road. I think at that stage he’d not played for a while so he said maybe we should do something together. I said yeah great, while trying not give away the fact that I’d not actually done anything really! I was very inexperienced at that point in time.
Through rehearsing and eventually playing concerts with Nick I learnt a lot and quickly too! Through the shop, I had access to a DAT machine and microphones, so we used to record everything. That’s how the first release on Confront came about as the Collision Duo. That cassette is just Nick Smith and I, with me on cello and Nick playing violin and small percussion, recorded in his local church.
The environment I was in – working in a record shop – made me realise that starting the label wasn’t such a big deal. Well, it felt quite natural to me at least. But looking back, I now appreciate it was quite an ambitious thing to do. I’d met Simon Fell around the same time, through going to his gigs. I got to know him and I was beginning to take his label Bruce’s Fingers at the record shop. Bruce’s Fingers gave the example of someone who controlled their own output and material and that was a very big influence on me. It was about control, really, and having something that acted as calling card.
Fundamentally, the label is exactly the same now as it was back then. Still very much a cottage industry, as it was from day one. The reach of the label is much broader and we represent an international roster of musicians. But I think the aesthetics are the same. It’s a kind of ‘as it is now’ philosophy.
There were some fundamental partnerships formed in that period that are still active all these years later. For example, during the same time I met Nick and Simon, I met saxophonist Mark Browne. We worked together fairly regularly in the mid-nineties, in a quartet with percussionist Steve Nash and flautist Hannah Horsfall, a very SME-influenced group. If you dig deep enough, there are a couple of audio tracks hidden away of YouTube. Mark eventually released a solo disc on Confront [Genial Decay] a couple of years ago. I also came across Chris Cundy in the same period. He was busking in Chelmsford High Street. I don’t think we played together at that point, that came later when he moved to Cheltenham. Chris is also releasing a solo record on Confront. So it’s been a 20-year gestation period.
IST: Anagrams to Avoid
Personnel: Mark Wastell: cello; Simon H. Fell: double bass; Rhodri Davies: harp
MW: There was a small studio space in the back of the music shop where I was working, and Simon Fell came down there and we played maybe two or three times there together, just privately, recording what we were doing. On the second or third visit he said, I know this guy who is studying in Huddersfield at the moment and he’s moving down to London, he plays the harp and I think the three of us might make a nice sound together – and that was Rhodri Davies. We rehearsed that very first time as the trio and recorded our efforts and that’s the material that made it onto Anagrams to Avoid.
It took a long time building up to it, but once it started, it all happened so quickly. It was a matter of months when I met Nick Smith, then started playing with Simon. Simon bought Rhodri down and we formed the group IST and a short time after that, our debut release came out on Siwa Records from the United States. We’d done perhaps three or four gigs as IST, on the London scene, small gigs, very much still a pub scene at that time. Then very soon after that, both Rhodri and I were playing as part of Simon Fell’s 10tet at the Leo Records Festival at the Purcell Room with Alan Wilkinson and Mark Sanders!
Chris Burn’s Ensemble: Navigations
Personnel: John Russell: Acoustic Guitar; Mark Wastell: Cello; Marcio Mattos: Cello, Bass; Jim Denley: Flute; Rhodri Davies: Harp; Chris Burn: Piano, Trumpet; Matthew Hutchinson: Synthesizer, Electronics; John Butcher: Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone; Axel Dörner: Trumpet; Phil Durrant: Violin; Stevie Wishart: Violin, Hurdy Gurdy.
We Need No Swords (WNNS): So you were playing mainly as IST at that point?
MW: Mainly IST, but we were also inquisitive – we couldn’t just be one thing, the scene was too broad. By then I’d played with Chris Burn in small groups, which then led me to being invited to join Ensemble, which was my introduction to working with players like John Butcher, Phil Durrant and John Russell. Through that connection with Ensemble and on Phil Durrant’s recommendation, I got invited to play and record with Evan Parker’s string group.
Throughout the IST period, there were dozens and dozens of other projects, gigs, recordings. Another great formation from that time was a group called Assumed Possibilities. It was a quartet with Chris Burn, Phil Durrant, Rhodri and I. That group ran concurrently with IST for a few years. We played a number of gigs and released two CDs, one on Confront and another on Italian label Rossbin.
WNNS: Did you feel any kind of trepidation being on stage with the likes of John Butcher or Derek Bailey?
MW: No because you’re young and fearless aren’t you? You don’t get a lot of time to reflect when you’re young. You understand the importance of it but if I knew then what I knew now about what these people really represented… They changed the face of music, creating their music from scratch, which I, and thousands of others, have been able to benefit from.
But now, clearly understanding the importance of it, it was phenomenal, playing with Derek or being invited to a recording session with Evan Parker. If Evan rang me tomorrow, I’d still be honoured. At the time, you’re young, you’re stupid, you’re fearless because you’ve nothing to lose. Fear comes later, with experience, when you think ‘one day this is going to end’. I probably get more nervous about gigs now than I ever did back then.
Company in Marseille
(Bruce’s Fingers, 1999)
Personnel: Will Gaines: danse claquettes; Mark Wastell: cello; Rhodri Davies: harp; Derek Bailey: guitar; Simon H. Fell: double bass
WNNS: How did you get involved with Derek Bailey?
MW: It feels like a dream, as if it happened to somebody else. It was incredible. So through Simon, I met Rhodri and Simon also knew Derek. They had an ongoing association over the years and I think by this point, Rhodri had been bold and rang Derek and played with him privately at Downs Road. That’s how I remember it anyhow. Derek was well aware of IST – I guess Simon or Rhodri must have given him some recordings. He clearly liked what he’d heard, so a relationship formed and we got to play a lot with Derek Bailey.
The first time we played with him was at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington. We played as IST with Derek, Chris Burn and Tony Bevan and Will Gaines.
Then we played together in a group that Derek called Cavan O Connor, named after the Irish poet [recordings were eventually issued under the name Company in Marseille]. It was IST plus Derek Bailey and Will Gaines. We got the invitation, through Derek, to go to Marseille in 2001. I think they wanted Derek solo and they offered him a nice amount of money to play solo. He said no, I’ll take the same amount of money but I want to bring a group. This tells you something about the generosity of this man, really, who I still hold up as some kind of god.
So he takes us down and we play two nights in Marseille. It was fantastic. Eventually, Derek took the same group to New York, where we played with American musicians, including John Zorn and Joey Baron, as Company. Prior to that, we’d played at the Barbican foyer as IST, at Derek’s invitation when Derek was on the same bill with John Zorn and Bill Laswell, and maybe Dave Lombardo from Slayer on drums. That’s when we first met Zorn.
Matt Davis / Phil Durrant / Mark Wastell: s/t
(Confront Recordings, 2001, re-released 2014)
Personnel: Matt Davis: trumpet; Phil Durrant: violin; Mark Wastell: cello
WNNS: Can we talk about the New London Silence?
MW: People have often referred to New London Silence, or Reductionism, as a kind of reactionary music, but it wasn’t that at all. We weren’t reacting against anything. We considered it as a continuation of what had gone before, albeit with our own manifesto. We were just following our own noses, with the connections that we’d made, locally and further afield and it organically manifested itself, it wasn’t forced or planned at all. I think we – I and my collaborators at the time – all came to that eventual area of activity from very different angles. At that point, I was definitely into quieter contemporary classical music like Morton Feldman and Helmut Lachenmann.
There was one Wandelweiser release around that period too. Radu Malfatti’s first record, with the string quartet and solo trombone piece – particularly the string quartet. I heard that piece performed at an LMC Festival, it was very striking. I was also interested in other forms of art. Through Matt Davis’ connections, I was introduced to playing with dancers, particularly Buto dancers, which was a very important avenue, the stillness and slow movement, that was a big influence. And one cannot underestimate the influence of Phil Durrant leading into and during this period. His work was extremely important to the development of lowercase music in London. Whatever takes your interest at the time; it can’t help but manifest itself in what you do. The music becomes a manifestation of lots of different things.
Back in that period I was ever so much into the artwork of Robert Ryman, where he just painted in varying degrees of white pigment, it was just phenomenal. He could create something as interesting as that, just using white pigment. I thought: what can I do that reduces my material down to the key elements?
To nail it, my own brand of Reductionism was a result of the combination and the filter down effects of: Morton Feldman (muted notes cushioned in silence); Helmut Lachenmann (advanced instrumental technique, particularly Pression for solo cello and Gran Torso for string quartet); Robert Ryman (reduced palette); and the ongoing interest and investigation of contemporary improvisation.
WNNS: Was there also the feeling that the busyness of the early waves of free improv was becoming difficult to maintain?
MW: Perhaps. But then so can the other thing – the focus, the intensity of the reductionist approach. It’s the same principles in application really. Maintaining technique and being able to articulate your ideas.
Martin Kuchen: Music from one of the Provinces in the Empire
(Confront Recordings, 2004)
Personnel: Martin Kuchen: prepared alto and soprano saxophone
WNNS: You always had a pretty good release schedule with Confront. How did that develop?
MW: For the first five years of the label, it was very close associates or my own projects. The first two releases in particular were very much instigated by me. That first one with Nick and the second one was a trio with Richard Sanderson and Robin Musgrove. And then there was a succession of releases thereafter with more reach – as it took on more of a momentum of its own and as my field of reference got broader, meeting more people from other territories and in turn more people getting to know what I did too.
WNNS: Were there any other milestones after that first cassette?
MW: They’re all highlights. They have to be. There’s no financial reward, that’s a given. Many slip under the radar, radio stations, webzines and printed publications are inundated with material. So every release has to be the best it can be at that time. You give it your all.
I remember the first Martin Kuchen record I put out. Rhodri and I got invited to perform at the FRIM Festival that Martin had organised in Stockholm. On the same gig, he played this solo material, which blew me away. I said to Martin afterwards, if you’ve got a recording, I’d love to put it out.
WNNS: What was it that you liked about Martin’s playing?
MW: Martin has an incredible technique and facility that’s all his. I find his material quite different from others. And a language that’s unique to him. I felt exactly the same way when I heard Graham Halliwell performing his saxophone feedback material for the very first time. Unique and exclusive. Bertrand Denzler is another favourite saxophonist of mine who’d I’d bracket the same.
+Minus: First Meeting
(Trente Oiseaux, 2004)
Personnel: Bernhard Günter: electric cellotar and composed basis tracks; Graham Halliwell: Alto Saxophone and feedback; Mark Wastell: Electronics
WNNS: How did you come to start playing with Graham Halliwell?
MW: Graham and I met at an LMC workshop hosted by Eddie Prevost in 1996 or ‘97. He was already a member of the group Spook with Richard Sanderson, who I knew particularly well at this point. They had a recording they wanted to publish and I distinctly remember Graham calling me and offering it to Confront. It became the third cassette release on the label. Graham also used to run a concert series in Norwich and IST played there a little later in 1998. Graham and I didn’t start playing together until much later in 2003/4 and it was then that our relationship accelerated.
We rehearsed and recorded in the basement of Sound 323 intensely, played lots of concerts as a duo and in collaboration with others like Jerome Noetinger, Angharad Davies and Taku Unami, performed in Spain and Sweden and released a 3-inch CD on Kning Disk from Sweden and an album called Faktura on the Greek label Absurd.
We had offered this particular recording to Bernhard Günter’s label Trente Oiseaux and that’s how Bernhard became aware of our work. The three of us eventually met at a festival in the Basque country and it was there that we formulated working together as a trio. A while later Bernhard came over and we recorded for a couple of days at Graham’s studio at The Old School House deep in the Norfolk countryside. The music we recorded eventually became +Minus’ First Meeting on Trente Oiseaux and this spun us off into a couple of years of intense activity as +Minus: a UK tour, festivals in London and Geneva and a further two albums. Graham and Bernhard also recorded some duo material at Bernhard’s studio in Koblenz.
WNNS: You played electronics in this group. Why did you give up the cello?
MW: I was about seven years into playing publicly and about ten years investigating the cello in general. I’d reduced everything to a point where my palette had to get broader again. You can’t stick in one place. To reduce gives you the freedom to expand again. It all happened naturally – there’s no planning, it’s all organic.
My listening had expanded too, had gone in different directions and as a result, so had my playing associations. By that period, I was a lot more interested in electronic works. I’d formed a new playing relationship with Mattin and at the first rehearsal, I used cello, which really didn’t feel appropriate. I began to develop a collection of apparatus, which I eventually called Amplified Textures, which was a collection of different material, ceramic tiles, chalk, charcoal, Velcro, all sorts of textured material which I amplified through contact mics and a mixer and whatnot.
That all actually came out of what I had been doing recently with the cello. I’d previously played a concert in Japan where I used contact mics on the body of the instrument and not to lift the sound of the cello strings – I made just about every sound on the body of the cello that night, all non-string sounds, taking textures off the body, the pegs, the endpin and such. Around that time, I had also made a track for a compilation CD that used contact mics and cello body textures.
I then made a conscious decision to rest the cello. And it stayed unplayed for many years until I did a recording for the Another Timbre label in 2008, dedicated to Hugh Davies. That too was a one off and it remained untouched again until 2013. Since then, I’ve embraced it with renewed enthusiasm and perform with it continuously, albeit alternating with the other instruments I play.
Mark Wastell: Come Crimson Rays
(Kning Disc, 2007)
Personnel: Mark Wastell: 32-inch Paiste Tam Tam
WNNS: When did the Tam Tam come into the picture?
MW: +Minus was where I started to use the Tam Tam in a more melodic way, incorporating it into this electro acoustic group setup.
WNNS: You said you picked up the Tam Tam from the Morphogenesis guys…
MW: Yes, Roger Sutherland had passed away and some of his instruments were distributed between friends and family, and this little 24inch Tam Tam had found its way to John Wall’s studio. At the time, I was working with John on a number of different projects and I saw the Tam Tam there. So I began to play it, liked the sound of it… I think Clive Graham from Morphogenesis was curator of the instruments, so I asked him if I could borrow it and it was given to me for a little period. And that’s when I recorded the first solo Tam-Tam, Vibra #1, dedicated to Roger Sutherland.
WNNS: Can we touch on the Vibra recordings? These seem to span the Tam Tam years.
MW: They did, yes. The first one, Vibra #1, was with the original Tam Tam, and that had a slightly higher pitch to it as it was a smaller instrument. So then, I bought my own and I was offered the opportunity to do Vibra #2. Longbox Records from Chicago asked me to make a solo record, so that became the mid-range one and the eventual third release on Kning Disks, Come Crimson Rays, that focused on real bass frequencies. So I covered the top, the middle and the low.
The recent retrospective release on Linear Obsessional (Vibra: Trent) fits into that period too. It was a lovely time, developing all those gorgeous sounds on the Tam Tam. I’d had a sabbatical for two or three years and the very first gig I did when I returned to performing was at Café Oto with the Tam Tam as a soloist. It felt beautiful and natural, as if nothing had really changed – yet everything was different.
WNNS: Did you find the Tam Tam a straight transition from what you were doing with the cello?
MW: It was all about texture, I’d been playing the cello texturally for a long time, moving then to Amplified Textures, which was all about surface, so the Tam Tam was just another surface. By this time I’d long since returned Sutherland’s instrument and had bought my own, the beautiful 32-inch Paiste.
WNNS: That’s a monster…
MW: Ah, it’s great, I love it. But, such is my nature, there’s periods when I don’t use it, I don’t feel I have to play it and I get interested in my other instruments, the double bass and the cello. Then when I take the Tam Tam out anew, it’s incredible – I love it. When I played it here the other night [Café Oto] I rediscovered that its’s just an incredible thing.
Oceans of Silver & Blood: s/t
(Nosordo/iDEAL, 2008; Confront Recordings, 2014)
Personnel: Joachim Nordwall: Roland s100 modular synth; Mark Wastell: 32-inch Paiste Tam Tam
MW: Joachim [Nordwall] had invited me to perform Vibra at his iDEAL Festival in Goteburg in 2006. Soon after, he came to London with Henrik Rylander and I arranged a concert for them at Sound 323. I think it was on that visit that we hatched a plan to play together and we debuted, at Sound 323, a few months later. It’s hard to imagine that Oceans… is now a decade old.
We’ve had some very nice invitations over the years, playing in the USA, Hungary, Sweden, Portugal, Scotland and England. Our recorded output hasn’t really kept up with our live work: just one studio album (although that has received three issues on three differing labels), a live album and a remix 12” acetate that Joachim put together. We’re always hatching a plan to record a new studio album but the logistics never quite enable it to happen.
Mark Wastell: QUARTET
(Confront Recordings, 2015)
Personnel: Olie Brice: double bass; Dominic Lash: double bass; Mark Wastell: cello; Alan Wilkinson: alto saxophone and bass clarinet.
MW: I’ve been listening to jazz and free jazz for 30 years. But it wasn’t something that I’d ever intentionally performed or felt the need to. My skill set lay elsewhere. That is until a couple of years ago. I’d come out of hibernation and felt free to pursue whichever avenues I wished, unencumbered. I’ve made no secret to the fact that the quartet was formed using Albert Ayler’s grouping on For John Coltrane as a blueprint: alto saxophone, cello and two bassists.
The first concert we did really flew from the off. We played two pieces, Alice Coltrane’s Huntington Ashram Monastery and Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. The arrangements fell into place as we played. No rehearsals. We’ve performed a number of gigs now, sometimes using themes other times not. For some subsequent shows, the core quartet of Alan Wilkinson, Olie Brice and Dom Lash has also been augmented by players like Ed Jones, Mark Sanders, Tom Chant and Corey Mwamba.
The most recent addition was Alex Ward on electric guitar. I’d been listening to a Frank Wright album that used James Blood Ulmer from around 1972. A very intense record with Ulmer chopping out dense chords and biting riffs all the way through. I thought it would be great to try an emulate that and asked Alex if he was willing to fill the part. He did an amazing job.
We have another gig in November  at The Vortex as part of the London Jazz Festival and the plan is to play a Wayne Shorter piece in honour of Wayne who is playing later the very same evening at The Barbican.
The Sealed Knot: Trembling Shade
(Confront Recordings 2016)
Personnel: Burkhard Beins: percussion; Rhodri Davies: harp; Mark Wastell: double bass
MW: The Sealed Knot formed in 2000. I’d spent all of 1999 out of the country and when I returned Rhodri organised a welcome home concert at All Angels together with Burkhard Beins. As I mentioned, there was lots of activity in those years, new collaborations, groups forming every other week. Originally, The Sealed Knot was part of that period of discovery and investigation and over time, it settled into a regular working unit.
We did feel particularly close and knew there was something special about this group. There would have been a different aesthetic in operation, compared to IST. But I’m not sure I could define it specifically. It was organically different. Two members of each group the same, yes, but changing that third element means it becomes a different thing entirely. Looking back, my impression is that things moved quickly regardless, aesthetics (individual and group) were in constant flow and flux. IST and The Sealed Knot never rested, each were constantly looking forward and always moving into unchartered territories.
WNNS: And talking of constantly moving forward, what does the future hold for you and Confront?
MW: Well, it’s certainly a very busy period. Between now and the end of the year I’ve a dense release schedule to keep up. Expect albums from: Yoni Silver / Tom Wheatley / Mark Sanders; Tim Barnes and Jeph Jerman; Seth Parker Woods; Axel Dörner / Dominic Lash / Roger Turner; Bertrand Denzler / Antonin Gerbal / Axel Dörner; Patrick Shirioshi; and Keith Tippett / Tom Jackson / Benedict Taylor / Ashley John Long. And there’s long overdue CD reissue of Refraction by the Collision Duo and an archival release from Matt Davis, Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies and I; a recording made in 1996 but never previously available.
The Twentieth Anniversary celebrations continue with two more live shows. The first is a five-hour marathon at The Hundred Years Gallery in Shoreditch on the 24th September with Matt Davis, Daniel Thompson, Steve Beresford, Angharad Davies, Dominic Lash, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, Yoni Silver, Mark Sanders, Tom Wheatley and IST, followed on 30th October by a concert at Cafe Oto, featuring the world premiere performance of the Jackson / Long / Taylor / Tippett Quartet coupled with Rhodri Davies and myself. I also want to enhance the Confront website to house archival material and recordings covering the last 20 years.
Plenty to do!
Many thanks to Rhodri Davies for the photograph of the early Confront cassette releases.