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Robert Macfarlane On Hannah Peel's The Unfolding
The Quietus , March 31st, 2022 05:11

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane reacts to Hannah Peel's new album The Unfolding

Robert Macfarlane, by Alex Turner

After writer Robert Macfarlane learned that his book Underland had been an influence on Hannah Peel's album The Unfolding, he wrote the following in response

What unfolds in The Unfolding? Life – life unfolds. The first time you meet it, if you can, listen to this music from beginning to end, in one long sitting, one great swoop. For it is a cosmogony, really: a vast, deep-time telling of the birth of the universe, through the creation of matter, to the extraordinary, mystical emergence of cellular life, to our own implausible materialisation, before, at last, evaporating up into the clouds – from where the whole epic cycle begins again. Here Hannah Peel answers in music Leibniz’s unforgettable question: ‘Why is there something and not nothing?’

Perhaps the oldest story in the world is of a journey made into darkness in search of knowledge. Surely the oldest darkness in the world is that of ‘The Universe Before Matter’. This is where we begin – slowly, out of deepest shadow, comes the call and answer of flutes and strings in The Unfolding’s first track, its first movement, as something stirs in the void. ‘Wild Animal’ is chaos, howls and screams, the ritual beats of utter matter beginning to organise itself, declaring its presence. ‘Passage’ feels perilous, a wire-thin path taken blindfold by a walker, strung slack above immensities of hazard. Can life – wilful, wild – truly pick its way into being? It sings to me of "the young world" described by Jacquetta Hawkes in her A Land (1951): "It was without a spring: it knew nothing beyond rock and water. There was the colour of open skies and of sunrise and sunset. The only sounds came from the movement of water, whether of rain or streams or waves, from thunder, and from wind sweeping across rock."

But from that young world somehow springs being: the greatest magic trick on Earth! Life glitters through the middle movements of this planetary symphony – ‘The Unfolding’, ‘After Weeks Of Early Sun’, ‘Perhaps It Made Us Happy For A Minute’ – before bright mica-shards of sound spin and seethe in ‘We Are Part Mineral’. Here is the geological human body taking form, with its calcified bones, its teeth-reefs: building itself chemically, determinedly, awesomely, from the sheer matter of the young world. It was mineralisation that allowed us to become upright, generating skeletons that might bear us, muscles that might move us, and as I listened I found myself unconsciously leaning forwards: moving, moved. At the last comes ‘Part Cloud’: music as evanescence, and a reminder in sound that to neutrons, dark matter and other ‘ghost particles’, we are made merely of wisps and mist, vastly distributed and barely perceptible. Why is there something and not nothing?

I speak here for my own ears only, of course. Yours will take a different journey. I know that I ended my listening exhausted and exhilarated by what I had heard. The music turns and tumbles in my head still, a stramash of dark matter and star-glows. It is epic and lyric. There is a grandeur to this album, accompanied by a modesty, and even a comedy at times – the absurdity of existence, its sheer, preposterous unlikeliness, comes through. "A cryptographer is needed," Gilles Deleuze wrote in The Fold (1988), "someone who can at once account for nature and decipher the spirit, who can peer into the crannies of matter and read into the folds of the soul." This is the work of The Unfolding: it peers into the crannies of matter, reads into the folds of the soul.

©Robert Macfarlane

The Unfolding is out tomorrow via Real World