I first met Mark sometime in the early 90’s when we were both working in Chelmsford. He was running Soundworld Records above the musical instrument shop of the same name, I was over the other side of town in an insurance brokers. I’d played quite a bit of free improvisation at that point, mostly at the old LMC in a quartet called Make Shift together with Peter Urpeth, Stuart Wilding and long-time colleague and playing partner Geoff Collins. But had been away from it for a few years and was keen to have another go. Mark was eager to get playing, so off we went, initially as a duo at the shop after closing time, eventually playing live in a number of different sized and styled groupings.
I could tell straight away that Mark was an extremely capable, open-minded and enthusiastic player, and I knew that I would have to adapt my own playing, always a worthwhile endeavour. When we started I was concentrating on kit drums, but without the mass of clattering and squeaking paraphernalia I’d lugged around previously. Gradually the kit got moved around, changed, reduced, and by the last time we played together (Micro-Classical Festival in Stoke Newington), it was a small collection of tuned/semi-tuned/untuned bits & bobs laid out on a table, played standing up. Over a very squeaky floorboard!
One evening at the shop Mark bought along a violin. I’d never played one before, but I was interested to see what wraithlike din I could extract from the poor hapless instrument. It took very little effort! That aside, I really enjoyed playing it. My first instrument was guitar, so I found I could handle the left-hand aspect. And like any self-respecting improvising percussionist, I’d always used a bow, so that was the right-hand sorted. I also found my response to the instrument different, more focussed, less physical, more restrained.
One of my favourite records at that time was Schattenwelt on ECM by the Swiss violinist Paul Giger. I was drawn to this, partly because of the acoustics of the music which was recorded in a large reverberant space (an old stone sanctuary in Propstei St. Gerold), and also because a lot of the time, the vioiln didn’t sound like a violin, more like Evan Parker’s rapid fingering circular breathing multiphonic playing on soprano. In something of a lightbulb moment, we hit upon the idea of a string duo recorded in a church.
St Mary’s has been my local church pretty much all my life, and I’ve been going there on & off best part of 45 years. Since 1989 I’ve played drums regularly at services, which has been an enlightening, entertaining and at times exacting enterprise. An unwritten trade-off from that arrangement is I’ve had free rein to use the church and it’s several outbuildings for music rehearsals, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some great musicians in a wide variety of styles. But the sessions with Mark were the first.
As far as I can recall, Mark and I played in there as a duo twice, from which these recordings are drawn, and once with Rhodri Davies, although I don’t think that was recorded. Mark also recorded me playing a series of percussion solos in there, primarily to see how the acoustics of the space would capture and enhance certain sounds, (One day, with adequate time and resources, I’ll release the recordings from DAT confinement. One day!)
Apart from that, I’ve no comprehensive memory of the sessions themselves, other than where we sat. We were in a small alcove that leads into the Kitchen, a stone wall inset with a wooden screen and a couple of leaded-light windows behind us, wood panelling above, and stone walls and two huge stone pillars on either side. The DAT recorder was about 10 feet away in the body of the church, with high ceilings, thick stone walls, tiled floor, hard/soft furnishings, and we had a view of the stained glass window behind the altar at the other end. When Mark gave a me a cassette of the recordings, I was very pleased with the results. The music had a coherence and a focus, which surprised me, given my lack of experience and ability on the instrument. And also the recordings really captured the sound of the building. When Mark said he was interested in putting out a cassette of the recording, I think I came up with „refraction“, then left Mark to do all the hard work!
Like much of life, things and people move on. Mark went travelling, then moved to London and started up Confront and Sound 323, and continued to develop his career as a player. My job relocated to London, and I eventually backed out of playing improv, gradually cutting back then stopping altogether. My last public performance (aside from a solo set as part of Aldeburgh Music Circus in 2014) was at The Spitz, were I’d been many times a punter, with Geoff in a duo. Mark and I lost contact, but thanks to Facebook, got in touch again about 3 years ago.
At the time of writing these notes, Mark has just given a broadcast on Resonance FM about the 20th anniversary of Confront, and the lead track of the feature was „Refraction 1“, and that was the first time I’d heard it since the original cassette came out. It still has legs, to use contemporary parlance, and will be a worthwhile addition to the catalogue. But it was also slightly disconcerting, like looking at old home movies. You recognise the people involved, but it seems like a different lifetime. The past is indeed a another country.
I’m glad that Mark has released these recording, as, for me at least, they mark a very specific, never to be repeated moment in my musical journey, one which I will never forget. I’ll be 60 in a few months time; the free bus pass is a way off yet, retirement hopefully slightly nearer, and that gives rise to a certain amount of reflection, if not philosophical musing. Playing in conventional bands is something I’m now quite happy to consign to history, but I do feel the inexorable draw back into free improvisation and am hoping to get involved again at some point. Maybe this release may mark the start of that process.
(Nick Smith – July 2016)