Llio Rhydderch : Telyn / Melangell / Enlli / Gwenllian / Carn Ingli25.04.2019
"..imagine if Carolan or Robert Johnson were alive today and playing at the height of their powers." - Andrew Cronshaw
Like all musicians who have become true masters of an instrument, the expressive fluency of Llio Rhydderch's playing transcends cultural boundaries. Her music is profound in its emotional depth; it is intensely rooted in tradition yet uses that grounding as a source from which to explore and flourish creatively.
Each of her five existing albums has been re-released digitally (with the final one, Carn Ingli, now available via Songlink), ahead of a much anticipated sixth. All induce reverie.
Llio Rhydderch plays the triple harp - a complex instrument with three parallel rows of strings, which has its origins in sixteenth century Italy in a low-headed form; arriving in Wales towards the end of the 1600s, it evolved to the characteristic size it is now. Wales' harp traditions predate that arrival, starting in the sixth century, with Ynys Môn (Anglesey) having a traceable line of unbroken pupil-master relationships that reaches back to the mid–1300s; Llio is part of that lineage, and the great harpist Nansi Richards, a family relation, taught her.
Gorwel Owen wrote a perceptive article for Planet Magazine a decade ago exploring Llio Rhydderch's music. To frame my thoughts on her work, and to get a better footing with what I was hearing, I contacted him, and after a short flurry of emails to make arrangments, found myself sat at his kitchen table, next to a picture window overlooking the coast between Rhosneigr and Aberffraw.
Gorwel worked with Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals, and has, with his wife Fiona, released three impressive albums (including the sublime Releasing Birds). He also recorded Llio's latest, soon-to-be released, album; even without that intimate contact he has a depth and uninhibited range of musical knowledge - the conversation was wide-ranging and enlightening.
Gorwel's Planet article was formed around his first experience of Llio's music - a concert at a church near his home. He still has a strong memory of the event, recalling,
"It totally absorbed me. Without understanding what was going on there was a deep connection to what I heard. It was not just a cerebral response, it was more than that. It was my first experience of the triple harp - so I had no preconceptions, and it is one of the truly great gigs I have seen in my lifetime."
He then reached for what seemed at first an unlikely comparison,
"It was the same experience as when I first saw Sonic Youth - something connected; I had the same feeling the first time I walked into a pub in Kerry and there was traditional music playing."
Adding a further insight to develop the analogy,
"The other thing about a band like Sonic Youth is that their music is very much rooted to a sense of place, just like Llio's; working within a tradition but stretching that tradition, adding something new."
There was a set of three Lisa O'Neill CDs stacked neatly on the table - Gorwel considered them for a moment and said,
"Seeing Lisa O'Neill in Dublin was the last time I had that same intense reaction at a gig. It is such a special thing - and I can remember it vividly when seeing Llio."
We talked through Llio's albums, and about the use of fleeting silence (which heightens anticipation and locks you further into the music) and the extemporisation in the later works, as Llio grew in expressive confidence. Drawing the discussion's threads together, Gorwel observed,
"As the albums came out, there was more of a sense of improvisation, more of her own voice coming out. You can really hear it emerging on tracks like 'Alawon Môn' from Melangell, and then fully in the foreground by the time of the next album, Enlli."
"It is still traditional music, rooted, but not chained - and the experimentation is not there for its own sake, it is about a shift, looking at the same thing from a different perspective to get an original view, bringing new meaning."
The progression Gorwel speaks about is clear when you listen to the albums in sequence.
Telyn, a 1997 debut, is an album of traditional tunes found in manuscripts or passed on by players, welcomed with huge acclaim by Rhydderch's fellow musicians, including Delyth Jenkins, who wrote "Llio Rhydderch illuminates the Welsh tradition with the consummate skill, artistry and passion of her playing. This is living, breathing music that cannot and should not be ignored."
Telyn is precise, plangent and baroque - your attention is fully drawn into the magnetic flux of notes; you can sense the complete focus of the player as you listen.
Melangell followed Telyn in 2000, noted in Living Tradition magazine as "the best recording of harp music since Nansi Richards." Her own creativity was becoming more apparent, with Aidan O'Hara in Irish Music Magazine capturing what was happening, "Llio is first and foremost a creative artist of vision and integrity who has the ability to transport the listener to their own private, intimate place. Her music does not possess the listener; rather, it liberates them."
Melangell has all the rare musicianship of Telyn, but is more expansive; there is more of the player's own soul in the music.
Two years later and Enlli emerged. The resting place of 20,000 saints, Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, sits just beyond the outstretched, reaching fingers of the Llŷn Peninsula. The album that took the island's name sketches its remote beauty in sound. Balancing traditional and self-penned compositions - as David Cox said in his review, "Rhydderch showcases an instrument that refuses, in her hands, to be relegated to past glories."
Enlli is a masterpiece - musician Tomos Williams recently identified it as his choice for the greatest Welsh album of all time in Wales Arts Review, testifying that, "Enlli is an astonishing achievement."
Implausibly, Gwenllian (2005) perhaps surpasses Enlli in its quiet magnificence, as it fuses the traditional and the improvised in a singularly affecting flow of music. In Gorwel Owen's Planet article Llio explained, "It's likely that Gwenllian has been waiting to come out of me for many years, but perhaps I, myself, wasn't mature enough until now to deal appropriately with the theme." It was a gestation worth the wait; the emotional communication between instrument and listener throughout Gwenllian is direct and iron-strong.
Rhydderch's fifth release, Carn Ingli (2011), is her most inventive to date. She made the album working closely with jazz-trumpeter Tomos Williams (the later author of the Enlli piece in Wales Arts Review mentioned above).
Carn Ingli was recorded live in a 600-year-old Tudor gatehouse at the foot of Carn Ingli mountain in North Pembrokeshire; solo harp pieces are combined with others built from the murmur and sigh of instrumental conversation with Williams' trumpet. Mark O'Connor added brushed touches of drum to some tracks, soft shoe shuffling around the lead instruments empathetically. The resulting album is the embodiment of the stilled time of an elegant café on a summer's afternoon - refined yet convivial, structured but loose.
It was widely praised. Dai Jeffries stated in Rock & Reel, "Carn Ingli is the perfect argument against pigeonholing music. It's traditional music that sometimes sounds classical and sometimes sounds like jazz. It's all rather wonderful." Delyth Jenkins summed up the recordings as being of, "breathtaking beauty and of huge importance." Carn Ingli is a beatific work.
I came to Llio Rhydderch's music untutored, but connected to it remarkably, instantly and deeply. It is music with the grace to reset your conception of an instrument and art form. Looking out of the window to catch a thought, at the end of our conversation Gorwel Owen summed up the essence of her uncommon magic,
"Llio is constantly moving forwards, searching for something in the music - not for novelty, but to reveal what is there."