The Seen: Not necessarily quiet music

by Michael Rosenstein

J.Butcher, M.Wastell, O.Brice, P.Julian, D.Lash, D.Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, P.Durrant, R.Sanderson  © Montse Gallego

In June 2003, Mark Wastell congregated a group of musicians at the LMC Studios in Brixton, London for an open-form improvisation and recording session. The group included London-based associates Rhodri Davies, Benedict Drew, Graham Halliwell, Paul Hood, Mattin, and Nishide Takehiro along with visitors Tetuzi Akiyama, Michael Duch, Annette Krebs, and Andrea Neumann with instrumentation split between acoustic instruments, various modes of electronics and amplification, and laptops. Wastell recalls that “I hadn’t been anticipating putting a larger group together. It was just luck that [during] that particular few days, there were a number of international musician friends visiting London. I saw the opportunity and jumped at the chance to organize a recording ... The same day, we played a concert in the evening, at a squat that Mattin had found in East London.” What began as a chance encounter has, over the last 16 years, developed into an ongoing project Wastell has dubbed The Seen.

With a constantly revolving/evolving ensemble, both in membership and in instrumentation, Wastell has fostered a setting for a network of musicians, some of whom he has been working with for decades and others who he brings in for a specific performance. Over the course of two dozen concerts involving, to date, a pool of 80 musicians, he revels in changing things up for every meeting. One time, the group can be comprised of 5 double bass players and 5 laptop players, another it can be a string quintet along with two musicians playing analog electronics. Zithers, bowed banjo, and accordion sidle up against sax, trumpet, and violin, tam tam and harmonium, “resonators,” amplified objects, and synths. Yet throughout, a clear collective sensibility prevails. David Toop, a frequent participant, puts the impetus for the strategy this way. “Maybe it lies in the desire to create a group that embodies the mystery and sureness of purpose that is part of the allure of groups that fascinate us (and Mark) ... Although the line-ups and instrumentation are always different there is a continuity and consistency which is almost suspicious, particularly since in my experience nothing is ever discussed, either before or after, and if Mark has any intentions he keeps them well hidden.”

The Seen is a clear extension of Wastell’s fascination with collective collaboration which he began in the early ‘90s along with an evolving community of musicians that he’s worked with since then. In a PoD roundtable (Issue 28; April 2010), Wastell talked about this collective strategy. “I like the continuing challenge in the development of a group music, finding the identity and molding over time as your material changes and that of your colleagues.” Working with that ever-broadening circle of musicians and building a shared collective language laid the initial foundation of the larger ensemble. He’d circled in on approaches toward improvisation centered on collective microscopic listening working with the trio IST, with Rhodri Davies and Simon Fell, as a member of pianist Chris Burn’s Ensemble, and in collective groups like Assumed Possibilities (with Davies, Burn, and Phil Durrant), The Sealed Knot (with Davies and Burkhard Beins), Broken Consort (with Matt Davis and Davies), Open Trio (with Davis and Durrant), and a diverse collection of duo partnerships.

In the early 2000s, The Sealed Knot did a tour which they billed as “New London Silence meets Berlin Reductionism,” and that appellation stuck. In his article “The Other Side of Silence” in the October 2005 issue of The Wire, Clive Bell talked about “New London Silence” with Wastell, Phil Durrant, and a number of others. In that article, Durrant weighed in that “For me the big thing is not a reduction in material and volume, it’s a reduction in pace. The whole pulse slows down dramatically.” By the time that The Seen first came together, those strategies had been absorbed and internalized and, as Durrant recently elucidated, “the style is still layered rather than ‘moment to moment’ improvised music but not reduced in the way the scene was 2003-2006ish. In many ways the ‘compositional element’ was always the line-ups.” Paul Margree calls it out succinctly in his essay for the boxed set The Seen Archive: Volumes I-V, aptly stating that the music of The Seen is “Not necessarily ‘quiet’ music ...”

That idea of group music along with a dedication to self-determination is central to The Seen and the way that Wastell operates. He has, for the most part, arranged the gigs himself, booking venues, handling promotion. But most importantly, he chooses instrumentation and assembles the participants. And as one digs into recordings by the group, it is that attention to instrumentation that is fundamental to the sound of the group, even in its constant morphing. Wastell explains that “Most times, the start point is the instrumentation. I construct with the overall sound and textures foremost. Luckily, I’m able to draw from a staggering diverse group of musicians. London (the primary source) is blessed that way. I’ll start with the concept, the ‘sound,’ then arrange the instrumentation, then consider who best to fill the chair. On the odd occasion, a particular musician may be visiting and I’ll build a group around their potential. But that is a rarer example ... It’s down to the ever shifting nature of the group. Yes, availability plays a large part. But mostly it’s to do with the current project and how I see people fitting into the scheme.”

It is the changeable aspect of the group that attracts its members. In varying the framework of ensemble size, mixture of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, and various pairings and contrasts of instruments and musicians, Wastell sets up active playing environments that both challenge the members to consider how to engage, while encouraging them to bear in mind the overall group sound. He acts more as instigator than leader, providing the simplest of instructions such as a sub-grouping to begin the piece or what order musicians are to enter and places full trust in the ensemble from there. There are never rehearsals beforehand and even during a run of 10 performances over the course of 2018, specific lineups are never repeated. That mutable balance of musicians with deep experience playing with each other and those introduced at the last minute is both part of the allure and part of the success of the group.

A number of longtime members of the ensemble mused on that, recently sharing their thoughts about The Seen.

Swiss reed player Bertrand Denzler has been a recurring participant from early on. Here is his take. “In The Seen, the line-up is changing each time we play, but it’s always Mark’s project. Although the music is changing, the fact that it’s Mark’s project gives me kind of a picture of the music we will play ... It’s interesting to note that, for me, it doesn’t feel like a «big» group, it’s not so different than playing with a smaller group. Mark sometimes – not always – gives us some indications. Usually, it’s just about who will start and who will come in later. This is of course a strong decision, it changes things in comparison to an improvisation where you don’t make this kind of decision beforehand. But at the same time, it’s not a composition either. I am used to playing either improvised music or composed music, but this modus operandi is different. It’s neither nor, and I think it’s interesting, especially for a bigger group with a changing line-up, because this allows the establishment of a common ground without reducing drastically the perimeter of the musical field ... I don’t know any other group working like this and I think that it is a good idea to put together some improvisers and to just slightly shift the parameters, in order to modify the social, psychological and aesthetic situation.”

Phil Durrant, who plays violin, synthesizer, and mandolin with The Seen, thinks about it this way: “Mark never really talks about the style of improvisation – well, at least not to me. I think it is assumed we do layered improvisation and also try to avoid much soloist playing, and try to use volume to allow the quietest instrument to be heard. The Onca Gallery gig had quite loud sections – all the non-percussive instruments had their own amp/speaker systems – but the music was always group-based where everyone was able to move from the foreground to the background but always make appropriate sounds/textures. When The Seen started in 2003, ‘reductionism’ ‘lowercase’ music was the divining force but as the improv scene evolved, so has the aesthetics of The Seen.”

Phil Julian, who frequently performs with the group on analogue electronics weighed in. “It's certainly an extension of the wider London Improv scene but I think it sits apart from that as quite a specific thing in its own right. A lot of the wider scene is obviously smaller groupings, often featuring people who have been playing together for years and have developed a performing dialogue and so on. That does have to be put to one side in a much larger group where you're often not completely sure who is involved until quite close to the performance ... Time slows down, with so many players involved you can take time to duck out and reconsider what you're doing and there not be a huge gap in the proceedings. I regard myself as a rather ‘fidgety’ player in these contexts so it's interesting to not have to feel like I need to be present all the time and to slow down. I don't really feel like I've ever approached the group with any particular strategy in mind; that would seem to lock what you bring to the group down rather too much to my mind. I suppose just having enough sonic / control options readily available would be the only thing that could be considered an approach.”

Bassist Dominic Lash states that “one of the interesting things about The Seen for me is how it – almost miraculously – retains some kind of group identity in spite of the changing personnel and Mark's extremely light-touch direction. As far as I can remember, the specific things he says in performances I've been involved in have almost always been decisions about which musicians might start a piece, and very little beyond this. I would say – and I don't quite know why, since this isn't something I've ever talked to him about – that I do tend in Seen performances to play very much with a ‘group’ kind of mind, so the bass is integrated interestingly with the other instruments, joining them to make ‘bigger instruments,’ then moving away, rather than being a single ‘voice.’ But then playing in that way is something that has always interested me in improvising groups of this size.”

Multi-instrumentalist David Toop states that “maybe this [collective sense of purpose] is partly because the compositional aspect of free improvisation emerges out of personalities and instrumentation combined. In other words, if you make up a quartet of saxophone, drums, bass and piano, all played by men in their 60s, then you can confidently expect a certain kind of music. In The Seen there are instruments that lend themselves to convergence and instruments that can swallow everything whole. Of the latter I’m thinking about harmonium, tam tam, bowed cymbals, laptops and so on. The instrumentation is always rather exotic, which I like, and so those two effects combine to make a music that is relatively static, somewhat reminiscent of minimalist tendencies in contemporary composition, both post-war (Elisabeth Lutyens’ ‘And Suddenly It’s Evening,’ say) and nowish (Jürg Frey). As I say, this is not directed in any sense other than the subliminal. Speaking personally as someone who can be a deliberate disruptor, I feel no desire to disrupt The Seen in any traumatic way. Obviously there’s a danger in that and though I’ve enjoyed all the gigs I’ve sometimes experienced passages in which the music seemed becalmed, as if we were all under its spell and slightly fearful. Having said that, to be becalmed is not so unusual, and is not necessarily a bad thing unless you are many miles from land.”

And Richard Sanderson, whose accordion and melodeon have become regularly heard with the group starting in 2014, remarked: “I was drawn to the project through my long friendship with Mark. I approached it tentatively, not knowing all the musicians beforehand ... [And] it's always interesting to meet players I've not met before – I remember thinking at the last gig we played that we had a ‘folk corner’ in the ensemble! I quickly worked out that this wasn't to be a ‘busy’ band, and that stretching out, and even not playing was vital ... Mark's ‘compositional’ approach is more in the selection of instruments and instrumentation, selecting who will work well together and complement each other ... Quite often instruments are chosen which can sustain sounds for a long time, there are very few staccato sounds, and those that are, are often suspended in a web of sustained tones. For myself I choose to play acoustically for The Seen and leave my pedals and amps at home. Also being in a group like this encourages you to play less.”

So what has kept this group under the radar for so long with little-to-no coverage? Wastell surmises that “[it] may be due to it being quite a localized group, London based. In the early years, The Seen played so infrequently (and didn’t have a group name until 2006), so there wasn’t exactly much to discuss. Opportunities to play outside the capital have been few and far between and published recordings were virtually nonexistent until I put the first volume of the box set out last year. Even then, it was kept to 100 limited copies.” That set, The Seen Archive: Volumes I-V, documents five concerts the group played between 2005 and 2009. (The CD set is currently out of print, but a digital version is available on the Confront Recordings Bandcamp site.) The first LMC session was originally released on the L'innomable label with the title Caressed On the Brow by Unseen Hands, and has since been reissued on Wastell’s Confront label. In January of this year, the next chapter of The Seen Archive was released, with five more discs covering the years 2014 to 2016.

While The Seen Archive box stops at 2016, the next two years were the busiest for the ensemble. What had been an annual affair stepped up to four concerts in 2017 and ten in 2018. In some instances, text entered into the mix. In the case of a visit to Trondheim, Norway, the instrumentation included voice, 3 percussionists, and the 5-member Trondheim Bassorkester. Some of those sets are available on YouTube, and Wastell has released a standout concert from November 2018 as a digital release on the Confront Bandcamp page.

Plans for 2019 are scaled back, but Wastell is actively working on the presentation of a live reading of Melville’s Moby Dick melded with instrumental improvisation. As Wastell reflects, “the concept is ever evolving. One of the most satisfying things about The Seen is exactly that. My interests change, my moods, the new musicians I meet along the way, the sound areas I wish to work with, new environments to perform in. They are all pretty common place factors but they have a distinct effect on the music. As The Seen moves forward, I have to be open to new ideas.”


The Seen Archive: Volumes VI – X: 2014 to 2016
(Confront Recordings Collectors Series ccs87)

CD 1: Volume VI – The Seen // Hundred Years Gallery, London 17.05.2014

Mark Wastell, harmonium, shrutti box; John Butcher, saxophones; Phil Julian, electronics; David Toop, alto flute; Olie Brice, double bass; Dominic Lash, double bass; Richard Sanderson, melodeon; Phil Durrant, violin; Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga : zither

The Hundred Years Gallery sets that kick off the new boxed set is comprised of two sets that were performed the same day. For the performance, participants were instructed beforehand in what order to start playing which was repeated for both sets. But other than that, things were left open. The pairing of instruments (a strategy Wastell often draws upon) is integral to the sound of both performances with two double basses and harmonium along with melodeon. Layered into that foundation are the countering timbres of reeds and flute, violin and zither, and the subtle abraded textures of electronics. Dark, groaning arco bass gets things started and the others begin to enter in with measured deliberation, always maintaining a transparency to the overall sound.

An evenness of density is maintained with casual aplomb by all, even as the sound of individual instruments rises in focus (the flute in particular due to its range as well as the reedy, quavering sonorities of melodeon, harmonium, and shrutti box). This is the sound of a collective, fully at ease with cooperatively navigating the subtle ebbs and flows of an improvisation. While the playing is generally quiet in nature, peaks and flurries of activity whorl and then recede, with each musician keyed in throughout to the spontaneously unfolding whole. Having the opportunity to listen to both sets, one catches subtle differences, with the electronics sounding a bit more present in the second set. There are also areas where dynamics crest a bit more. Yet just as notable is the lack of either falling in to patterns or digressing from the collective path between the two sets.

CD 2: Volume VII – The Seen // Cafe Oto, London 14.10.2014

Mark Wastell, violoncello; Phil Durrant, violin; Angharad Davies, violin; Olie Brice, double bass; Graham McKeachan, double bass; Phil Julian, analogue electronics; Jason Kahn, analogue electronics

Recorded five months later, this iteration of the group gathered for a concert launching the Confront duo CD by Phil Julian and Jason Kahn. What is striking about this group is the way that Wastell envisioned the confluences between the five string players and the two musicians playing electronics. Julian comments about how “The Seen often has acoustic musicians who seem to have an electronic sensibility to their playing ... Even when the group hasn't included many electronic performers it hasn't felt that I'm hugely at odds with the groups dynamic.” That shared dynamic is readily evident in this half-hour set. The improvisation has the churning layers of gathering storm clouds, with sparks and static, creaking strings, abraded overtones, and sliding atonal glisses progressing in protracted motion. Around 18 minutes in, when a siren leaks in from the street, or 20 minutes in when wafts of tonality are introduced, one revels at how naturally it is absorbed into the overall current of the piece. Meticulous attention to detail is paramount, with each player attuned to the collective composure. That said, there is never the slightest sense of restriction or restraint, but rather an ear toward how the micro-parts of each play off of each other.

CD 3: Volume VIII – The Seen // Limehouse Town Hall, London 25.01.2015 (First Set)

CD 4: Volume IX – The Seen // Limehouse Town Hall, London 25.01.2015 (Second Set)

Mark Wastell, tam tam, harmonium; Bertrand Denzler, saxophones; David Toop, alto flute; Graham McKeachan, double bass; Dominic Lash, double bass; Richard Sanderson, melodeon; Phil Durrant, violin; Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, zither; Phil Julian, analogue electronics; Yoni Silver, bass clarinets; Angharad Davies, violin

Two sets from Limehouse Town hall from 2015 expand the group to eleven members and Wastell makes use of the extended sonic palette from the start of each set. Bertrand Denzler talks about how “the duration of the piece is a space, an acoustic space, a musical space, a social space, a mental space and so on, a space that we create and which enfolds us at the same time, a space that has porous borders and which can expand or shrink. In this space, we build structures, textures, objects, geometric or asymmetrical figures ... exploring different regions of this space or considering it as the whole world or anything in between. As a consequence, the main overall strategy is to listen as closely as possible to this space and what is happening in this space and to play or not play what you believe is necessary to keep it alive – or to jeopardize it.” The ensemble fully inhabits that notion of a space with porous borders, letting densities and dynamics accrue and abate. Here, in particular, the tenor of the group melds together, the laminal scrims lanced with points of constantly shifting sonic figure-ground.

The group moves between areas of activity. Calm, gradually building, oscillating layers of wheezy drones, wafts of woodwind overtones, shimmering string harmonics, and subtle electronic colorations open into sections for arco violin and plucked bass or muted percussive textures. Over the course of the improvisations (45 minutes long for the first set and 40 for the second) the group deftly allows dynamics and tension to amass while continually keeping an ear toward to overall balance. While the first set stays within a generally quieter dynamic range, the second set bristles with sections of more active eddies which are adroitly woven into the collective exploration.

CD 5: Volume X– The Seen // Cafe Oto, London 08.06.2016

Wastell, tam tam, harmonium; Chris Burn, piano; David Toop, alto flute; Dominic Lash, double bass; Yoni Silver, bass clarinet; Graham McKeachan, double bass; Phil Durrant, electronics; Richard Sanderson, melodeon

The final set included in Archive: Volumes VI – X is from June 2016. Two things are notable about the instrumentation – the inclusion of a piano and the absence of violins. The rarity of sessions including pianists certainly has at least something to do with the limited number of venues with pianos Wastell has at his disposal. Here, the choice of Chris Burn, an early proponent of Wastell’s, is a decidedly worthy inclusion. Burn is adept at weaving inside/outside sonorities of the instrument into the collective whole, accentuating the percussive action of the piano’s mechanisms against its resonant strings. As with many of the sessions, the paired basses and pairing of harmonium and melodeon provide a harmonically rich character to the ensemble.

Durrant’s electronics along with the reverberant waves of sound from tam tam are much more present in the mix as well. The burred tones, thrums, swoops, and undulations expertly play off of the arco bass groans and quavering waves of harmonium and melodeon. Toop shrewdly places his flute into the cooperative sound and also finds considered opportunities to let the high pitches of the instrument poke through. This set is a great example of how The Seen is able to maintain what Wastell refers to as “a shared, collective language, a compatibility, a way of playing together that complements rather than obstructs” while still pushing at the edges, willing to let the improvisation buck and bristle. The trajectory of this set is striking both in its sonic and dynamic breadth and in the way that the group unfalteringly steers their way through.


Onca Gallery, Brighton
(Confront Recordings digital download)

Mark Wastell, tam tam, cymbal; Chris Kiefer, feedback cello; Alice Eldridge, feedback cello; Luigi Marino, bowed cymbals; Paul Morgan, guitar body; Bill Thompson, guitar/electronics; Phil Durrant, modular synth

This set from 2018, released as a digital download by Confront, features an electronics-heavy lineup with two musicians playing “feedback cello”, one on “guitar body” and one on guitar and electronics, bowed cymbals and tam tam, and Durrant on modular synthesizer. Durrant explains the setup. “The Onca Gallery gig had quite loud sections – all the non-percussive instruments had their own amp/speaker systems – but the music was always group based where everyone was able to move from the foreground to the background but always make appropriate sounds/textures.”

Over the course of the hour-long set, the group actively navigates their way through an ever-changing push and pull with turbulent feedback overtones, bowed cymbal groans, and churning layers of electronics and synth coloration. As the piece progresses, the cymbal sizzles and quaking tremors of abraded strings shudder and swell in the amplified turbulence. As always though, one of the defining elements of the improvisation is the pace, even and patient, never rushed. Listening to the long-form arc of the piece, the gradual release and resolve over the course of the final 20 minutes is a study in attuned collective listening.



Interview with Mark Wastell by Tomas Korber
Paris Transatlantic Website – May 2006

Interview with Mark Wastell by Paul Margree
We Need No Swords Blog – September 2016

What's New? The PoD Roundtable with members of The Sealed Knot
Point of Departure Issue 28 (April 2010)

The Seen Archive: Volumes I–V: 2005–2009

© 2019 Michael Rosenstein

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