Beneath Swooping Talons is Laura Cannell’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut album Quick Sparrows Over the Black Earth. With deconstructed bow and the sound of double recorder the album grew out of unearthed fragments that became improvised pieces, then immediately recorded in single takes. With a background in traditional, early and experimental music, she creates solitary minimalist chamber music, where one player makes all the harmonies.
Why did you choose to record tracks on Beneath Swooping Talons in one take and did you have any reservations about it?
I really love the process of developing improvisations, the journey of going from a few notes which have an exciting feel about them to creating a whole piece. With this in mind I find the recording process has changed a lot for me. I have always been a fan of single takes. I think they are more honest and representative of the moment, which for me makes a recording special. I’m not keen on spending hours and hours trying to get the perfect notes. I feel like if I can’t play it then I can’t record it. There have been albums over the last 10 years when I’ve recorded over and over and also edited or spliced various takes of the same piece together, but now I want a single take, I choose which one feels the best. I think that the recording process can be a lot of pressure so I’ve found a way that works for me. There is the risk of unexpected things that happen when you are improvising, and a recording lasts forever so it has to bear repeated listens, but this is something I have come to embrace rather than worry about. I like the imperfections and they used to be the thing which worried me.
How do you marry your background in traditional, early and experimental music with being a recording artist in 2015?
I am made up of all the music I have played and am inspired by. I don’t really feel that traditional, early and experimental music are separate entities. To me they are all the notes, sequences and patterns which go on in my head daily, all the things I like playing. I really feel that every person makes up their own musical tradition, and when I realised this I stopped compartmentalising them into separate things. To me it feels natural to draw on the different aspects of my musical background to find out what truly inspires me and what doesn’t. I never think that I am digging through archives to find something old, or going backwards to hold a beacon to up to more important music. I look at ancient music as a living thing. To me it hasn’t aged – sometimes the simplicity is what makes it timeless. I also look for recording spaces where the sound is inspiring. I tend to avoid soundproofed studios for my solo work because I want the space to be part of the sound. I’m a fan of natural reverb, but too indecisive to record it dry and add the atmosphere afterwards. There are too many options that way, so to keep things simple I try to get as much of the atmosphere, tone and feel in the original recording. Every space is different and affects the outcome of the music.
“As someone who has given whole class recorder tuition I concur that it can be really awful.”
How is your music influenced by landscape and nature?
I grew up in rural Norfolk and have lived in London and Yorkshire, and now by the coast in Suffolk. Even a year ago I wouldn’t have said that I was influenced by landscape and nature. It’s certainly not something I’ve gone out of my way to explore but for the last five years I was living in a really rural place near marshes, woods and often stark arable fields. In some ways there was nothing, and it made me draw on the seemingly empty surroundings. I would spend hours and hours improvising and staring out of a wobbly lead-paned window at the same view, but only in retrospect do I realise that I was watching the barley grow, the buzzards circle, the pheasants flap, the muntjac and Chinese water deer amble and dash and the rabbits and stoats live their lives outside only a few metres away. There were bats and cuckoos, I found a lizard in the bathroom, we were infested by ladybirds and for a few weeks there were thousands of butterflies outside the front door. I’ve never purposely written music to reflect these things, but there were far fewer people than creatures and plants, and this coincided with the time I started working as a solo artist. It made me explore time in a new way, incorporating the space which can seem both utterly empty and overwhelmingly full in the same day.
You use some unconventional instruments and recorder features heavily – with you often playing two at a time. Does the instrument have an unfair reputation given its status as every primary school child’s instrument of choice?
Yes, I think the recorder has had a rough time of it. As someone who has given whole class recorder tuition I concur that it can be really awful. The problem is not the instrument but that people don’t really understand the temperamental nature of it. It looks simple, there’s somewhere to put all your fingers and they can be really cheap but, as with any instrument, they don’t suit everyone. Some people will get on with it and some will see it as an instrument of torture introducing them to non-pop music and putting them off forever because it wasn’t right for them. You have to learn breath control – small children can’t always cover the holes properly, leading to squeaking and uncontrollable notes, leading to frustration!
I was talking to the drummer Charles Hayward from This Heat about this the other day while we were soundchecking for an Oscilanz gig. He has a similar problem with people still thinking that you are “just” hitting the drums, which is a basic instrument, or blowing the recorder. The problem is that because everyone has an understanding of the drum or the recorder it seems like there are no mysteries. Getting a sound or noise out of something is very different to creating music of any depth. I love the sounds of the recorder but, as with any instrument, it’s a matter of taste. I don’t go in for loads of vibrato. I try to explore the different tones and harmonics that appear when playing two at once and I like developing my own sound and adding it to the recorder legacy that has been forged from its time as an incredibly important virtuoso instrument, with concertos by the likes of Vivaldi on a par with his Four Seasons for violin and string orchestra.
What’s your opinion of nu-folk and have you ever been tempted to give your music a contemporary flavour?
I find a lot of nu-folk very naff and twee, though to be honest I’m not that up on who or what it is, so probably don’t even listen to nu-folk! I like earthy, gritty and textural music, so anything which has a bit of bite, an edge or something which feels real and honest and alive. My idea of giving my music a contemporary flavour is probably by doing what I’m doing and collaborating with excellent musicians like my experimental fiddle duo with André Bosman, the Oscilanz trio with trombonist and electronic musician Ralph Cumbers (Bass Clef) and drummer Charles Hayward (This Heat), and my new project with the contemporary and experimental cellist Oliver Coates. I would rather listen to an unaccompanied traditional musician or singer or improviser than a cleaned-up folk song. I need a challenge – music with energy and depth. Some of my favourite musicians are the ones who push what they are doing. I particularly love the playing of North East-based harpist Rhodri Davies and singer-guitarist Richard Dawson, as well as the saxophonist Colin Stetson. If you mean would I play with a drum kit or electronics, then yes, I would and I do, but just not in the conventional sense. I also play masses of traditional tunes on the fiddle and am constantly learning new styles from the UK and Europe. It all feeds in to my own music.