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Album Of The Week

For The Birds: Laura Cannell’s Antiphony Of The Trees
Malvika Padin , March 10th, 2022 09:02

For her seventh album, Norwich-born Cannell creates a site-specific work for her own kitchen, hymning the bird life that passes by the window with her collection of buzzing, whistling recorders

In moments of quietude that blanket us, imagine the piercing yet melodic trills of a bird song that grow louder and stronger to drown out any touches of stillness – this is the moment that UK composer, performer and improviser Laura Cannell captures in her striking seventh solo album Antiphony Of The Trees.

The layered collection of eleven tracks is framed by Cannell’s trademark pull of experimental semi-composed, semi-improvised soundscapes which tease the lines of perfectly polished and deeply organic as she draws inspiration from the crisp melodies of birdsongs and channels it through the raw power of a recorder.

Starting with soaring feel of ‘For The Ravens’, Cannell immediately conjures up a wordless tale that feels soothing and foreboding all at once, as the intrinsic link between birdsong and the recorder comes alive in smooth peaks and troughs of the opening track .

Next, the deafening echo of ‘For The Gatherers’, thrums like it comes from deep within us as heavy bass forms a bed for shrill moments of tenor seamlessly merging into the meditative build of the sweetly harmonic ‘For The Sacred Birds’, which makes for an early highlight. A snapshot of the crystal clear tones of bird songs.

Soon, Cannell’s penchant and talent for medieval, folk-tinged sonics peeks its head for the first time on the album within the earthy arrangement of ‘For The Hoarders’. With this, the album manages to take listeners through an oscillation of starkly different tones in quick succession across its first four tracks, without losing the gentle cuts of the birdsong which form the album’s foundation.

Stand-out offering ‘We Borrowed Feathers’, with layers upon layers of recorder, brings to life vibrant images of bird songs across centuries of human attempts to capture the gentle melodies before the slow drones of ‘For The Mythos of Birds’ enrapture us. It’s airy but intensely packed with low, bass sounds.

After experimentation galore, Cannell takes another moment after ‘For The Sacred Birds’, to pay ode to the melodic lilts of birdsong on the title track as she leads through other-worldly stories woven by these simple, worldly creatures. The piercing notes of the recorder soar as high as birds taking flight. Another highlight comes in the form of ‘Hidden in the Marsh Thistle’ which feels like the first expedition out of tones that are explicitly bird-like, only slight ticks of avian voices peeking through the booming, emotive instrumentals.

Much of Antiphony Of The Trees is an enticingly versatile collection of sounds, each track standing apart from the next and building to a taller peak than the previous. However, one track that feels just as brilliant when heard in isolation but somehow gets lost amidst the power-packed expanse of the album is ‘The Girl Who Became An Owl’. Atmospheric and delicately put together, the track holds the power to hypnotise you with its blend of intricate musicianship and gritty sounds of nature. Yet placed right after the stand-out production of ‘Hidden in the Marsh Thistle’, the track gets lost in the crowd of hazy sonics.

The album comes back into itself with the high notes of penultimate track ‘For the Honey Buzzard’, which builds slowly and steadily with short, impactful bursts toward the final, airy echoes of closing track ‘Awake from your Feathered Slumber’, gently soothing listeners with its monotonous, breathy sensibilities.

Encapsulating the sweet trills of the bird song, mimicking birds as the living, breathing, music-reciting machines they are, the album, which was recorded in 2021 in Cannell’s kitchen, benefits from her improvisation skills. Where previous records saw her capture the resonance of specific spaces including Wapping Hydraulic Power Station for The Earth with Her Crowns, Southwold Lighthouse on the East Coast of England for Simultaneous Flight Movement, this album forced her to abandon her signature style of tapping to location-based acoustics due to the pandemic. So she turned inwards, the production becoming more introspective – even as she leaned into the expansive inspiration provided by nature, coming alive with the passing sounds of feathered travellers, of the regular visitors inhabiting the nests in her gardens, the farmyard and churchyard around her.

Armed with bass, tenor, alto and double recorders, Cannell once again manages to draw on the emotional influences of the landscape she draws inspiration from, while also holding tight to experimentation. Rooted equally in her wide influences of medieval and renaissance era soundscapes and her love for traditional folk, Antiphony Of The Trees sees her bring wispy polyphonic harmonies and low rhythms in a deeply hypnotic instrumental technique of rumbling growls and honeyed notes.

A journey through the countless instances of capturing and training birds to notating every single one of their sounds, the album transforms into something more fantasy-led, as she crafts, in her own words, “conversations between herself and the bird song culture passing through her garden.”

Entranced by avian voices breaking the crisp stillness of the skies around her, the ringing chorus of bird songs took over the silence, blooming into an intricate instrumental that sees Cannell singing back in her own way, snippets of the avian lilt peeking out yet channelled through the gritty, emotional messiness of humanity

Wordless yet brimming with meaning and life, the album brings fragmented moments of nature into a singular curtain of minimalist but layered sounds in ode, in celebration and in reflection of bird song – transforming something that exists in abundance into something brand new and memorable.

Surely imperfect and stilted in a few, rare places, the fantasy woven tightly by Antiphony Of The Trees is broken at times, yet this can be overlooked when in the gentle pause of dawn the birds sing at us and we can sing back.