Rhodri Davies: Telyn Wrachïod & Creiriau Y Delyn Rawn / Relics Of The Horsehair Harp

Welsh harpist releases music featuring folk and free improvisation and instruments including recorder, hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and marimba

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It’s not often that Jazz Journal addresses Welsh culture – these are perhaps the first Welsh-titled albums reviewed here. They come from improvising harpist Rhodri Davies, a master of the unexpected. He plays harp and live electronics, and builds wind, water, ice, dry-ice and fire-harp installations. (You read correctly… I recall seeing him set fire to harps.) His groups include Hen Ogledd, Cranc, The Sealed Knot and Common Objects, and he has a duo with John Butcher, as well as releasing many solo albums.

Davies is best known as a free improviser, but here his work has a folk dimension. Only those richly acquainted with Welsh culture will appreciate the references behind Telyn Wrachïod. The title means Bray Harp, and the sleeve notes quote from “A cywydd requesting a harpsichord” by Huw Machno (fl. 1560-1637): “Precise, angled brays / Speaking every profound feeling.” In the 16th century, troubadours attached brays to their harps – a characteristic folk preparation involving pieces of wood that make the strings buzz. It amplifies the sound, and as Clive Bell comments in his Wire review, the instrument rings in a sitar-like manner. Davies experiments with tunings, improvising throughout to create a very striking and novel sound-world.

The sitar-like effect is prominent on Un Dydd, with its hectic, giddying repetitions. In contrast, the slow, stately Dygan Gwent is beautifully plangent, reflecting what I’d call British folk tradition, while Yr Hen Dôn is equally lyrical. Throughout, the brays give a distinctive and memorable quality to the sound.

For Relics Of The Horsehair Harp, Davies asked colleagues to respond in contemporary vein to the pieces on his 2020 album Telyn Rawn (AMGEN 001). He asked them to imagine that the musical material he improvised on Telyn Rawn in 2020 was in fact an ancient musical form that had fully existed in the medieval period. So their responses were to have happened centuries after the imagined formation of the Telyn Rawn pieces. As guitarist C. Joynes comments, these responses offered a “speculative fiction” approach to the source material.

One of the most delightful contributions is by Orphy Robinson, who produces a gorgeous effect on deep marimba – what an amazing instrument with a evocative sound. Also memorable are the two hurdy-gurdy contributions, by Jem Finer and Stevie Wishart. Ko Ishikawa plays haunting sho, while Richard Dawson is on guitar in his garden, against the aural backdrop of birdsong, conversation and a mower. The album concludes with folk musicians Angharad Jenkins on fiddle, and Llio Rhydderch (triple harp).

Discography
[Telyn Wrachïod] Agoriad Y Cywair; Cildraeth Sienco; Hanner Dyrned O’r Wermod Lwyd; Asswynaw Rhisiart; Ar Lafar Gynt; Un Dydd; Dygan Gwent; Pe Cawn I Glasfedd; Yr Hen Dôn; Triban Y Gwyddon; Gardd A Thŷ; Erddigan Dannau (37.03)
Davies (Urquhart bray harp). Dolwilym, 24 August 2023.
AMGEN 009 
[Creiriau Y Delyn Rawn / Relics Of The Horsehair Harp] The Tattered Skies Above; Nude, Lewd, Rude, Mood Food; Y Geseg Fedi Hedi Gedi; Ama No Hatofune; Arthur’s Stone; Rhywbeth Arall; AADDFFDDAA; A Garden Farewell; Sealbh An Fhortain Air An Each Bhuidhe; Ceann An Druim; Maddad; Triban Kill Reddin; Éirí, A Leibide; Diegan Trore Ebil; Geufron / Glennydd Y Rheidol / Gwers Dafi; Llonyddwch Yr Hydref; A Horse Head For Luck; Morluniau O Fy Ffenest (54.23)
Collectively, Laura Cannell (recorder); Orphy Robinson (mar); Jem Finer (hurdy-gurdy); Ko Ishikawa (sho); Phil Tyler (bj, vn, p); Stevie Wishart (hurdy-gurdy); C. Spencer Yeh (elec); Richard Dawson (g); Brìghde Chaimbeul (bagpipes); Aidan O’Rourke (vn); Pat Thomas (elec); C Joynes (g); Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh (vla); C Joynes (g); Ceri Rhys Matthews (f); Angharad Jenkins (vn); Llio Rhydderch (hp). Various locations, 2017-23.
AMGEN 010