Ghost Notes IST Ghost Notes

[full press reviews]

"The Improvising String Trio’s third album has at least one thing in its favour before the wrapper’s even off: the CD format. Their music is extremely detailed, and previous releases on LP and cassette have captured only a percentage of what they do. Here, at last, is a full-blooded recording of their very full-blooded music. This set combines the improvisations for which the trio are known with performances of specially-written compositions. These latter have been in their live repertoire for some time now, and it’s good to hear them committed to disk at last. They are all "compositions for improvisers", and sceptics about that genre are invited to start here; while IST never sound like anything but IST, these compositions provide just enough material to give each piece a certain identity. Regular visitors to Musings will be aware of Simon H Fell’s apparent inability to produce anything less than top-quality music these days, and his two contributions here are thoughtful, well-played vehicles for improvisation which are no longer even in the same hemisphere as the themes-and-solos model. Meanwhile, Phil Durrant continues his rather ascetic exploration of sine tones, noise and glitches with a new version of Sowari. In the hands of IST, Sowari sounds like a weird fusion of free improv and electronica. Fascinating stuff. Elsewhere, Wastell contributes a piece focussing solely on percussive sounds, which again works in spite of how you imagine it’s going to sound. Stace Constantinou’s Empedocles unites the two extremes of post-serial modernism -- stochasticism and aleatorics -- to create something which this listener has already fallen in love with, while Guto Puw’s X-Ist is a mainly graphic score which inspires some beautiful playing from all three performers. Listening to this piece, one is particularly aware that, despite the strong avant garde heritage in this group, they rarely play extremely abrasive music for long. While many free improv groups saw away at their instruments striving to be "difficult", IST seem to be genuinely trying to make their extremely intricate music communicate as clearly as possible. The last composition is Bergstrom-Nielsen’s Fire Music, a score which fits on the back of a matchbox but yields two and a half minutes of arresting music and could have provided quite a bit more. The completely "free" improvisations are all spontaneous, sparky affairs full of fluid movements and plenty of crosstalk between these regular collaborators. Fell has been an important figure in British free jazz/experimental music for a while now, and Davies and Wastell look to be inexorably rising to meet him. The trio they form is unique and uncompromising; this is both their most accomplished and their most accessible recording to date." Richard Cochrane MUSINGS

"Ist play gorgeous realtime realspace musique concrète. Subliminal sensitivity to scratch and distortion produces ear-fixating suites." Ben Watson HIFI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

"Most of the pieces were written by or for the group and inevitably suit them well. What fascinates is the range of compositional strategies employed and the creativity of interpretation. This new direction in which architecture replaces organic development creates a stimulating and disturbing contrast to the freer pieces." Gus Garside RUBBERNECK

"Simon Fell just keeps cranking out high level material. His third recording with the harp-cello-bass trio, IST, is no exception. There are four spontaneously created tunes that take up about half of the recording, and they're all excellent, by turns earthy, dreamy, and otherworldly. There's not too much Jazz here or on any of the "composed" pieces either, but there's no shortage of guts being strewn around. The buzzing, scraping and whacking is mysterious, powerful and usually quite effective. Fell's two compositional contributions (one flailing, one kind of sad) wisely leave a good deal of freedom to the players, and these pieces are dramatic and successful. There is so much freedom, even in most of the "written" works, though, that there really isn't much difference between these pieces and the free improvs: that's a good thing with improvisers of this caliber. Cellist Mark Wastell's Ritmico is pleasantly full of snaps, crackles and pops, and Guto Pryderi Puw's X-ist is frighteningly frantic. These guys can think, listen and play. This Geister Trio may not be better than the Beethoven, but it's certainly scarier. Just to give one example, nothing on the older work sounds like someone's having his face ripped up with a potato peeler. Recommended." Walter Horn CADENCE

"This CD represents the pinnacle of IST's achievements so far. Durrant's Sowari For IST, concentrates upon texture and timbre as opposed to pitch and rhythm. The resulting music is detailed, fragile, abstract and beautiful, pushing acoustic instruments further into a sound-world more often associated with acousmatic forms. In Wastell's Ritmico the emphasis is upon rhythm and the particular sonorities produced by the percussive possibilities of the wooden parts of each instrument (no direct string sounds being permitted). Not without a sense of fun, the resultant gestural music is eerie and full of clashing yet subtle timbres, and is a fitting homage to the memory of the late John Stevens. Rather cleverly programmed as the central piece on the disc is Constantinou's Empedocles for solo harp. This piece serves as a poignant focal point, and is an alluring, contemplative piece that nevertheless takes the harp through its paces, expressively utilising stochastic calculations to determine form. Fell's compositions (No.41, Icons and No, 42, Cubism), both take differing structural elements as their starting point. Icons comprises 77 jazz chords in the key of C played on the harp, with bass and cello improvising with the structure: it is very non-jazz and wonderfully understated, atmospherically melancholic and melodic. Cubism, the opening piece of the disc, takes particular aspects of Cubism as a point of inspiration (ambiguities of perspective, perception and "the representation of the non-representational"), resulting in some of the more intense, rhythmically complex and energetic music associated with IST. The four intelligently programmed improvisations included here all possess an organic quality with musical gestures, interactions, sonorities, textures and rhythms that have the listener riveted and baffled as to who did what, when and how. IST have developed into a leading force in improvised and creative music, pushing the limits of acoustic string music beyond existing boundaries. If you like acoustic music at the edge that is engaging, inventive, exploratory, innovative, provocative, challenging and beautiful, then this disc is an essential purchase." Graham Halliwell RESONANCE

"Extraordinary music. Unusually for IST, compositional structures are used, alongside delightfully fluid escapades in the thickets of free improvisation. But these pieces do not serve to give the safe pleasures of predictability, but exist to put the trio in situations where certain textures, dynamics or tonalities are explored in a way which could neither be solely the preserve of composer or of performer. Improvisation: a magic art, a science of opposites." Alexandre Pierrepont IMPROJAZZ

"Cobwebs of echo and rustle, subtle and haunting." Ben Watson JAZZIZ

Those who fell in love with improvised music a long time ago will find this string-based trio's CD a delightful example of how intricate the weave can get. Much like a sonic tapestry, it's nearly impossible to escape the multi-threaded layers & moods once you start the music. Fell's bass work clearly provides the foundation layers, with Wastell & Davies adding the dancing shadows and light to a provide a most enchanting aural vision that even the novice listener can enjoy . . . this stands out as an experience that will become an "instant improvised classic"! Impressive enough to rate a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED from this reviewer. If you're looking for something to educate the unenlightened with, GET this CD." Rotcod Zzaj THE IMPROVISOR

"A Tasmanian Devil of a record that should be in any collection" AVANT

"IST is an unusual string trio comprised of harpist Rhodri Davies, cellist Mark Wastell, and, perhaps the best known of the three, bassist/composer Simon H. Fell. Ghost Notes consists of several compositions specifically written for the group by other composers, three pieces by trio members, and four improvisations. The latter give a good idea of both their range and general territories of interest: a deep concern for texture and the complex (even arcane) organization of sound. There is a tendency toward the quieter end of the spectrum and an emphasis on the clear but subtle tonal possibilities of each instrument. A superficial listening will encounter the scrapings, moans, and twittering of much contemporary string music, but a closer examination will uncover an unusual, and unusually intricate, structural richness. For example, Fell's Composition No. 41 - Icons instructs the harpist to "slowly and methodically" play "77 jazz chords in the key of C" sequentially while the cello and bass improvise off those chords, but in a manner that has nothing to do with jazz. The result is oddly enchanting, as the listener attempts to discern what, in the chord just played, inspired the subsequent improvisations. Other standout pieces include a finely detailed study by violinist Phil Durrant that asks the players to improvise from the sounds of sine waves and digital glitches, and Empedocles by Stace Constantinou, a delicately filigreed structure with echoes of Xenakis. In Ghost Notes, the harp, cello, and bass greatly exceed any boundaries of such apparently limited instrumentation, and the skills of the players and composers provide an exciting glimpse into a rarely visited but eerily beautiful musical territory. Recommended for adventurous listeners of both avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music." Brian Olewnick ALL MUSIC GUIDE

"Ghost Notes sees the group widening their palette to include renditions of seven "commissioned" or otherwise specifically written compositions, which they intersperse with four improvisations. A prudent ploy, as IST's special brand of hardcore post-Incus sound-overload string improv, characterised by rapid bursts of high-speed interaction, can sometimes be almost too much to take in. That said, their four pieces here signal a shift towards a more low-volume, decelerated group dynamic: though Silent Stranger and Fault Lines: Within Context blisteringly amass spindly, brittle textures on top of each other in tumbling flurries of string pile-up, they and their two companions are also marked by relatively protracted and quietly intense passages of careful scrabbling, bowing and plucking, and a generally more open and spacious group dynamic. The compositions place the group in unfamiliar contexts and settings, from which they invariably emerge with aplomb: Phil Durrant's Sowari For IST (a slightly different version of which is also performed by the Ensemble group), a brow-furrowingly minimal piece of very quiet drones and scratches; Stace Constantinou's Empedocles, a composition for solo harp using "formed stochastic calculations to determine certain elements of musical form"; Guto Pryderi Puw's logically evolving X-ist, employing graphic scores and written directions; Wastell's Rimtico, a tribute to John Stevens in which the musicians are only permitted to play the wooden bodies of their instruments; Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen's archly dramatic Fire-Music, and two Fell scores: Composition No 41 - Icons, a spare, delicately-bowed mood piece, and Composition No 42 - Cubism, a bewilderingly refractive work conceptually based on changes in perspective and dimension in modern painting. Like the four improvisations, they're all performed with great sensitivity, making for a recording which, thematically, idiomatically and musically, is close to complete. Ghost Notes could well be the defining document of this exquisite and powerful group." Nick Cain OPPROBRIUM

"A string trio with a difference, IST explores both notated and improvised music with a line up of cello, double bass and harp. But considering its members - cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies and bassist Simon H. Fell - have wide experience on both sides of the divide created by music paper, there's no disconnect when it comes to the performances or instrumentation. By using extended techniques and preparations, IST pushes its acoustic string instruments to the limit to create this thought-provoking CD, its third. Davies' arco and prepared harp techniques are used here and elsewhere to give the seven-pedaled Celtic instrument a new lease on life. The improvisations here seem to have an edge over the written music. On Fault Lines: Within Context, for instance genuine harmonic counterpoint develops between the clicks, clanks, buzzes and pulls of the strings. Double and triple stopping are the just the beginning of the extended techniques. As each trio member seems to barrel lightening-quick from one side of his instrument to the other, new sounds are unearthed. Pizzicato movements appear to turn first into guitar flat picking then banjo frailing and finally - from Fell - what could arise from playing a steel-string Dobro. There are also aural suggestions that mice have taken up residence and are tearing the instruments apart from the inside. Or take Ust, Saif Nôs O'th Gylch - at more than 9½ minutes the longest piece - and the one with the untranslated Welsh title. Almost completely inaudible in parts, even with your volume knob turned 'way up, eventually the piece suggests ghostly sounds from far away. Soon, though, the instruments are transubstantiated into a menagerie of beasts, with mouse squeaks produced from fingers sliding down strings, aviary whistles arising from high-pitched strings and elephantine basso bellow escaping from the bass. Finally the bowed instruments begin buzzing together like the proverbial flock of bees. Compositions call on both silence and noise as well. Sowari for IST, written by Durrant, is most concerned with the tension engendered by combining sine waves and thick clouds of noise. Here, the almost imperceptible timbres at the start of piece reappear throughout as sine waves intersecting with buzzes and squeaks that make up other textures. With so much happening just beyond the range of hearing, it's almost no surprise when the track fades away to nothingness. Fell's Composition No. 41 - Icons, on the other hand, is described as an "ecstatic meditation on tonal and timbral relationship", featuring Davies playing 77 jazz chords based on the key of C. Its genesis came in 1997, when the harpist expressed a desire to "learn to play jazz". As Davies sounds chord positions with the regularity of a chiming clock here, the other two musicians provide eerie arco counterpoint. Mesmerizing up to the point, there's also an unfinished feeling to the composition, as if the piece is building up to a denouement that never comes. More challenging, plus bringing forth some of the most creative playing from Fell, is Gusto Pryderi Puw's X-ist. Connected with a graphic score and written directions that certain notes and motifs must be followed, the trio is still allowed the freedom to exhibit its creativity. Words and phrases also act as creative stimuli. Here percussive tapping on the instruments characterize some of Wastell and Fell's contributions, mixed with the two carefully plucking on each string as needed. If the cello sometimes suggests a steel guitar, then the bass counters with straight pizzicato, while the harp supplies the underlying continuo. Often there are literal echoes of themes that have appeared before as well as tones that could be electronics-fuelled buzzes, if the presentation wasn't completely acoustic. Finally after the bassist exhibits his highest-pitched notes, the coda features all three playing faster and looser. IST may not fit the profile of the conventional string trio. But its performance here and the compositions it inspires, means that it definitely will be part of future of that trio grouping." Ken Waxman JAZZWORD.COM


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