INTERVIEW/STREAM: Laura Cannell
, September 6th, 2016 10:00
Listen to six tracks from Laura Cannell's brilliant new LP Simultaneous Flight Movement and read an interview on recording it in one take inside a Suffolk lighthouse
Laura Cannell's new album Simultaneous Flight Movement is a record of space, lightness, and place. Its 14 tracks were all recorded in one take inside Southwold Lighthouse in Suffolk, and throughout the air and stones of the structure around Cannell's twin recorders and violin becomes extra instruments. Despite the inherent claustrophobia of the lighthouse structure, Cannell's music rolls forward both with high emotion and a terrific sense of space, an evocative portrait of souls within a landscape that exists beyond specific place and time. You can listen to six tracks from Simultaneous Flight Movement below, and pre-order it via the Brawl Records bandcamp here. Scroll down for an interview with Laura about the new record.
Do you believe in a 'flatness' of history, that by recontextualising old songs in a way that isn't precious or overly-faithful and recording them within a lighthouse that dates from 1890s and then sharing via digital means there's an interesting point to be made about the universality of music?
LC: Yes, I think humans get caught up with working out where everything belongs. The music is universal, it belongs now, live or digital, in a 19th century lighthouse or a Norman church, in an arts centre, festival or a concert hall. The audience are individuals. It's all the baggage that can surround it that can make it inaccessible. It doesn't matter that it was recorded in a lighthouse, it was an interesting space and poignant choice for me at this moment in time.
It could have easily been a water tower, barn, shipyard or studio and that might add something to the story and to my feelings while recording it, but ultimately it's how you feel when you hear it, disembodied, everything else should fall away. In the recordings that I listen to and love, I often don't look at where they were recorded, I am interested in the now, and what the sound makes me feel, then I might explore further.
I did decide at the age of eight that I wanted to be a recorder player forever, but I had no concept of what being a musician was. I never really think of the medieval and renaissance music that inspires me as belonging to a distant time. It belongs to the place and time we are living in now, it belongs in the moment that we hear it. We can only imagine the past and we can only imagine the future, we can have evidence and re-creation, but can never truly conjure a moment that existed in that time. But when I use fragments to inspire new pieces, they do that in spite of being ancient, they spark timelessness in our imagination.
I am historically informed because I am interested in the music, ornamentation, techniques and theories of playing music from another time, I have studied the repertoire, I have a grounding in baroque and earlier music, but I feel like it may as well be from another planet though sometimes. The way that people concur that this is ‘how it was done', is so weird and frustrating. I think it's important to reconstruct what we think music may have sounded like, it's interesting to hear early instruments playing early music. But I am more interested in taking that and asking what the person playing it has to say.
A thousand years is not that long ago in terms of a human and a violin. The physicality of both is pretty much the same. I only need to stand in a room with 30 people and that could take me back a thousand years. People are creative and that's why we are here now.
I don't care if it's authentically medieval, I play a violin from 1886 because that's the one I found at an auction and is my favourite sound, I love that I can share my music through the internet, people can write to me from America and Australia to ask questions and tell me how it makes them feel. I don't want to live in a time where I have to create music that fits the audience, so much classical music still does that. There's a constructed snobbery, I hate limitations and boxes, I spent too long trying to play all the ‘right' notes, making sure I looked smart enough, and generally feeling uncomfortable in the environment because I didn't feel I measured up to the perceived benchmark of what it was supposed to be. It killed the music, creativity and spontaneity and I never want to go back to experiencing music in that way again.
What's so striking about Simultaneous Flight Movement is how much space there is around the music. How did you find the lighthouse, and how did it become evident that you had to record there?
Laura Cannell: Just after recording my last album (Beneath Swooping Talons), I moved to the coast. I had been practicing and recording in unlocked village churches until this time and I don't like to plan everything, so I enjoyed the spontaneity of driving to a remote building with my instruments and a recording device. There was always the chance of someone wandering in, but I think that added to the performance aspect (some stress can be good).
But the coast here is really busy, with so many people exploring the not-so-secret spaces that you get to keep all to yourself in winter. I started looking for different buildings, I tried out an ex-US military aircraft hangar at Bentwaters near Snape which was amazing – it sounded like 24 violins when I was playing one. The reverb was out of this world, but I didn't feel I could sustain a whole album of that sound, it could easily end up consuming the music into a swirling vortex of reverb.
I kept looking at the lighthouse, day and night, wondering what it would sound like. It felt like a fresh space, less connotations, no religion, slightly impersonal, no-one had lived there, it is purely a vessel for sending messages and I wanted to see how it felt to play inside, to be inside the tower and to create new messages to send. When I recorded I stood in the middle of the rotunda with my eyes and instruments staring upwards, it was quite a weird feeling to be contained and exposed at the same time with its far-reaching gaze.
You can climb the stairs and look out over the town, marshes and sea. Thousands of people go in and out but you can never hear them from the outside. I found it intriguing that it contained this echo so well, with no escape except through the light windows at the top.
I found out that you can book private visits and it turned out that I am the first person to have played or recorded music in there. It's completely hollow with a staircase twisting around the inside. People have made field recordings of the lights rotating and there have been films like Peter Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers, but no music. It feels really different to playing in a medieval church but the stone floor and steps are worn down in the same way.
I played into the space, and duetted with the reverb, it helped to shape the music, I had to go at the speed of the building, sometimes interrupting it and sometimes being sympathetic and letting it finish its sentence.
Can you tell us about some of the early music that you've adapted here. Has your process of researching them changed at any point?
LC: I've used some different sources from the previous two albums and composed more of the pieces from scratch, such as ‘The Happiness of Both Worldes Part 1 & 2', ‘The Sudwulf', ‘Call To Alms', but I always like taking fragments as a starting point as well.
My research process involves playing through loads of scores, making notes of small passages or motifs, looping them over and over until they become ingrained in my memory, then improvising around them to see if they work. I end up with a folder full of bits and gradually narrow down my favourites, I can't say I know what I'm looking for, but I know what feels right.
There's a very slow inverted psalm; ‘Sheltering Hollows' is based on a composition by Henry VIII; ‘You Have Departed' is a Spanish lament and there's another song which uses the traditional renaissance courtly lovesong metaphors about reaching the highest point. And I'm sure that some Hildegard von Bingen has made its way in there in some form.
Last year I worked on a project called Re:Chord:Air where I invited a selection of musicians to improvise and work on some pieces that I had collected, mainly English and Spanish renaissance music. I wanted to get away from the sacred and into the secular. I workshopped pieces with the cellist Oliver Coates, Ralph Cumbers (Bass Clef), violinist Angharad Davies and fiddle player André Bosman (aka electronic musician Hoofus). We showcased some of the music (at Café Oto, Full of Noises), but I ended up going back to the originals and re-working some ideas in here too.
I remember you talking about a deer call inspiring one track. Were there any specific natural sounds that found their way in here?
LC: In the last album wild animal calls crept their way in, deers barking in the woods outside my window, but in this album I had been reading a book found at the local library book sale which inspired quite a few of the titles. I was thinking more about the feeling of movement rather than the particular note combinations and sound. Playing chords with the left hand and over bowing with the right. Playing two recorders together and moving my fingers in contrary motion and seeing what sound was produced. There are flocks of birds flying silently over the sea, gliding silently in formation. It all seems effortless but you know that air is whistling through their ears and feathers, and waves crashing beneath them. It seems calm and planned but is treacherous and you could fall at any moment – sometimes that's what playing feels like.
The book At The Turn of The Tide, was published in 1943 and is aboutthe wild birds that frequent the tidal lands and islands of England. The author received a letter from a young nature photographer who was away at war. The letter was his epiphany from the battlefield that he now understood what war was and that he wanted to turn time back a few years, "to bring back a time when one could roam the countryside in peace, when it was only the beautiful things in life that seemed to matter, sunsets over the estuary, the wild birds and friendship". The soldier was killed three months after writing the letter. It all linked together for me, the unchanged landscape, the turmoil of war, the frantic happenings beneath a surface which seems so calm and organised.
I recorded the album on 23rd June, referendum-voting day in the UK. It felt very poignant to be standing in a building on the edge of a land facing the European mainland knowing that the UK was at this very moment voting to possibly extricate itself and to undo so much of what we had learnt about working together, not fighting each other, and breaking down borders. Simultaneous Flight Movement refers to both the birds and seemingly simpler times, conversations with friends who were planning their escape route from the UK and people migrating from war torn countries. All of this was going on in my head while I was improvising inside the lighthouse.
Why did you decide the record the entire album in one take?
LC: I had been working on these ideas for a while, I'd recorded a few different versions of some of the pieces in three different churches, Southwold, Covehithe and Reydon, but none of them felt or sounded right. I knew I could make something better, but wasn't sure how or where. I just knew those weren't good enough, so I gave myself a deadline, booked the date in and went for it. I wanted to capture the real sound of a real performance in there. Several of the pieces were completely spontaneous in the lighthouse, I liked the challenge of having a short amount of time. I filled a folder with pages, some had almost fully-formed compositions, some a few bars of notation, some just a title on a page and I worked my way through, recording them once each and creating as I went along. I love playing, I feed the ideas in over the months and then go for it. Once it's time to record, it's time, it's like working towards a concert, I really wanted to capture that day and it would have been interrupted if I'd broken it into shorter sessions. I was in there for two hours.