For me, the music of England’s Laura Cannell came out of nowhere. I don’t remember where I first found it, or what led me to it, but somehow I did find it, and it’s held a strong presence in my life since. It’s the kind of music that takes you somewhere familiar but far away, and I listen to it as much to experience being present with it as I do to escape. It lets me do both.
Her primary instruments are fiddle and double recorder. Her recordings consist of solo performances of both instruments, played without overdubs. Drawing from medieval themes and early music, she improvises her own spontaneous nods toward this music, adding modern touches and various cultural references, as well as her own style and influence. As simple as the instrumentation might seem, there is a great depth to her work. As much as I’ve listened to her records, I’m always pleased to hear them again. It is comforting yet mournful, humble but powerful. It conjures a mix of emotions that just sits right with me.
It is this kind of reaction to someone’s work that prompts me to reach out to them. Seeming as if they’ve figured out some way to change my life, I want to know who they are and how they did it. So, I sent Laura a few questions via email and she sent some thoughtful answers back. I hope others enjoy them as well. Links to her site and recordings can be found after the Q&A.
It’s always been music. I think that music has been my longest relationship other than family. It’s been a constant throughout my life. A few years ago just before I started to work on my own, I was having a really difficult time and I tried to think if there was anything I could do, or feel driven to do or care about the way I do with music and my instruments. It was so depressing, the idea of not having music, not being inside it and trying to tame it to communicate and be truly open. But at the same time, I felt drained and like I didn’t know what to play, or who I was, but I started to improvise and that was the beginning of everything changing in 2012/13.
Since picking up the recorder at school I have wanted to be a musician. I’ve wanted to be a recorder player. I had no concept of what either of those things really were. I grew up on the very edge of a small village in South Norfolk, near the broads, reed beds and marshes. My parents are antique dealers, so I’ve always been surrounded by old, and often broken things, things which need creative thinking to restore or re-imagine them. There was space and time, and I never felt particularly engaged in whatever was on trend, I just always wanted to play. There was no pressure to practice, but it was a creative environment and I loved that most of the repertoire for the recorder was medieval, renaissance and baroque, this instrument took me to different centuries, playing the same music which people had played then. There was never any question to me that I wouldn’t be a musician. But that doesn’t mean it was straight forward, it’s taken a lot of challenges to get to the point I’m at now.
I think I’ve read that your solo work is improvised. Is that correct? What lead you to this direction?
Yes, everything that I perform at the moment is improvised in some sense. For my solo work, I develop work around pre-existing fragments of medieval or renaissance music or around my own compositions. Every performance is different which means I feel much more present as a performer, it means I can be free and spontaneous and respond to the environment. I recently played two festival stages for a promoter within bigger festivals and although I was performing almost the same set but they were entirely different shows. I really like to respond to the situation. The second show had various issues so my performance was fairly wild and intense which was definitely noticed but went down just as well as the first if not better. I think you have to be yourself, it’s no good being fake on stage, people see right through it.
I spent a long time playing in the band Horses Brawl (2003 – 2011) and although we would improvise during the development of new pieces, the sets became very composed and fixed in performance. I stopped enjoying the performances, and became much more anxious about getting it right, and felt less connection with the audience. There were various reasons for this, our audiences tended to be more classical and folk audiences which have very different expectations to the kinds of gigs I’m doing now. This was a bad place to be, so when I started my solo project I was determined to find a place in performance in which I could be creative on stage and be the most present I could in live performance. I think I’ve done this by not attaching it to any genre and doing exactly what I want.
I also performed quite a lot of baroque and contemporary recorder music which was much more defined. Recitals, chamber music and concertos tended to be with musicians who were much more used to following the scores and less likely to push the boundaries of interpretation. So by the time Horses
Brawl ended I was feeling very restricted in my creativity and wanted to push my playing and performing in a new direction.
Your music seems to transcend culture and time, but do you think geography influences you in any particular way?
I never thought about the geography of where I live or work as being an important part of the music. It’s only in retrospect that people have attached it to the landscape of East Anglia (where I grew up and returned to live after a few years in London & Yorkshire). I think that the seemingly barren spaces of marshes, arable farmland and space have definitely changed my style, or actually defined it. I lived in Norwich for several years and although I was a musician there too, the visual space directly fed in to my creativity, it was only after moving to a rural detached house that I really had the headspace to
I think that for me the most important aspect is about not thinking about culture or time. Fields, marshes, woods and the sea are timeless but not restricted to the past, they are still here even though the people, animals, birds are transient. I like a blank canvas. I think I’m inspired by possibilities
coming from silence, all of the things that have happened before and that are happening now that you can’t see, putting the breath and colour into an instrument to create another dimension seems natural. I’m not trying to re-create anything, especially not early music, but I am also attached to the fact
that human anatomy and the mechanics of violins and recorders haven’t changed in over a thousand years, so we are inherently connected to the physical feelings and patterns that musicians would have experienced throughout the last millennium.
I think I had an epiphany at the beginning of my solo work, I suddenly realised that all of the music I had ever played, all of the scores I had read, all the hours of practicing & performing meant that I must have something to say, I must be able to create something which is entirely made up of my experiences. That’s when I began improvising. Everything visual and aural shapes you, and the
work you produce.
What is the aim of your solo records? Are they simply collections of songs or do you work with any themes? Being instrumental music, how much narrative is or isn’t involved?
I don’t know that there is an overall aim, they are a collection when they feel complete. After working in a very planned way for ten or so years, and through music college, I decided to let it be what it is. I don’t plan it. The latest album has 14 tracks, it could have easily been 6 or 7, but this is how it turned out. I am making music and I am not answerable to anyone and this is incredibly important to me. I don’t want to worry about it fitting a prescribed notion. The only way I can be creative is by being purposely oblivious to any external themes, plans or outcomes. I just hate feeling confined.
I don’t usually know the titles or album name until after I’ve recorded the music. There is no narrative involved until it’s a complete collection and has been recorded and made into a mock album, which I then listen to loads in my car and on the train to gigs and this can form the basis of the whittling and refining process until I’m left with a core to expand upon in improvisation. This process of refining and condensing leaves me open to explore.
My work has developed it’s own momentum and I don’t want to explain, restrict or use words to define it to myself, it has to be spontaneous and transient. I have real issues with singing and lyrics, I don’t want to just say it, I hate feeling restricted, maybe from so long feeling that I was trying to play classical music in the ‘right way’, but knowing it didn’t feel right to me. Realising that I could make my own music was a kind of revelation. For me it’s the sound created through thoughts, inflections, articulation, breath, bow and intensity through all of these that are real communication. I sound like I would be a very difficult person to work with! I’m not like this for everything, I think it’s just trusting and knowing that you can create something is really important, and I know so many musicians who can’t step away from the page which is so limiting in some senses.
Can you describe how your ideas for music develop, particularly when working spontaneously with melody?
Most of my music comes through playing and improvisation either just me in a room with an instrument, or from pile of music I’ve gathered, I really love the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Alfonso X) there are 400 songs, or Norwegian Hardanger music, I’m also playing a lot of solo music for violin by Bach and Biber at the minute. There might be a couple of notes, an interval that I find interesting to play over an over trying different double stopping on the fiddle or harmonies on the recorders.
I made myself a poster which is on the wall of my music room with ideas such as ‘Explore the space around the notes’, I’m really obsessed with saying it without saying it, not touching the melody for example, using existing scores as graphic scores, using notation as a shape to follow, ignore or invert. Asking myself how many ways I can say the same thing in a different way, just the fact that I can play simple a phrase or motif in so many different ways is what I find endlessly inspiring. I guess one of my biggest inspirations for this is Sivestro Ganassi’s ‘A treatise on the Art of Playing the Recorder and of Free Ornamentation’ from 1535. As a recorder playing first, this book is basically loads of different ways of playing particular intervals, rising 4ths, falling 2nds etc. I feel like I have developed a lot of my style based on these ideas.
My favourite way of working is learning a fragment or skeleton and having a vision of it in my head, playing around it, ignoring it and seeing what happens. This is usually how I perform live, to follow a feeling, sound or repeat a dissonance drawing out the harmonics or difference tones.