An intriguing mix of sounds drawn from the medieval and the modern, the rural (at times, the feral) and the cloistered liturgical, Laura Cannell’s follow-up to last year’s ‘Quick Sparrows Over the Black Earth’ is an assertive set that calls to mind the adventurous musical excursions of the Kronos Quartet on their album Early Music. That 1997 disc brought together, among others, the 14th century Guillaume de Machaut, the 17th century John Dowland and the 20th century John Cage. For Cannell in her new recording, the juxtaposition of pieces from the venerable sacred (Guillaume de Machaut is here too) to the pagan profane is remarkably effective, the harsh strings and forceful double recorder sounds conveying a sense of the inquisitive as well as the provocative. ‘Be Not Afeard’, for example, with its jaggedness, is far from reassuring, and yet the dissonances compel attention, veering gloriously into strange territory. We seem rather far from “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, that Cannell’s allusion to The Tempest might initially suggest, and yet there is here and, indeed, throughout the album wondrous Caliban-inspired imagery, a strange alluring melange of the raw and the beautiful, eventually subsiding into an eerie calm.
It’s this ability of Cannell to create such remarkable variety with comparatively limited forces that impresses. If the soundscape has a wintry bleakness, it also has that crystalline beauty characteristic of much of the work of Arvo Part. In ‘Beneath Swooping Talons’, her blending of the more familiarly spiritual and the positively chthonic is heard to best effect on tracks like ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’, where the drone-like sound becomes fragmented, then forcefully acerbic. It’s a splendid piece, testimony to her ability to provoke a wide range of responses within a single track.
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The double recorder sound in ‘Conversing in a Dream’ does indeed manage to suggest different voices, and a genuine sense of call and response that brings to mind the guiding structure of both Renaissance solemn masses and more recent “soulful” musical creations. This trick of giving new form and substance to ancient ideas can, of course, result in absurdity, but when thought-through as well as it is here, it is consistently convincing.
Anyone wanting to venture into intelligent music-making that is rooted in age-old tradition and in the contemporary avant garde could start with this release. Then, for the more spiritually- or ethereally-inclined, the classic Gothic Voices (with Emma Kirkby) 1984 recording, A Feather on the Breath of God, remains a glorious representation of the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen whose compositions are freely acknowledged by Laura Cannell to have been an inspiration for her own work. Those who respond to the fascinating sound that Cannell creates, but who look principally to the contemporary rather than to the archaic, might like to track down such delights as Astrakan Café by the Anouar Brahem Trio. In The Tempest, Prospero finds himself on a strange island “full of noises”, where he learns more than he could ever have expected. Beneath Swooping Talons is an enigmatic and strangely enchanting musical country well worth exploring.