Interview with Laura Cannell
Following on from our review of her forthcoming solo album, ‘Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth’, Tim Carroll stole some time from her busy schedule to talk with Laura Cannell, recorder and fiddle player, and innovative performer and explorer of early music about the album, her music, her time with the band Horses Brawl and the directions she’s taking with her evocative music.
FW: First, can we talk about the impetus for your love of early music?
LC: It started at primary school when I first began to play the recorder. I instantly loved it and started learning with a local teacher who then passed me on to an early music specialist to be my teacher. Along with her husband, she played with Musica Antiqua of London and the more I heard the more I wanted. The first piece I played that really forged this enduring love affair was when I was 14 and played in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers – it was magical.
FW: When you start to delve into ancient music where do you look?
LC: Sources can be wide and varied. I regularly trawl through the Petrucci Music Library as one source. I also have masses of music in my music room, either music I’ve bought or found in a library. Generally, it’s not so much sourced through listening to other people, it’s more finding scraps or fragments, sometimes as little as three notes. In each case it has to be something that speaks to me. I throw away a lot of ideas because I’m so picky. I don’t like ideas that are too obvious.
I have a huge collection of Baroque and Renaissance music. I taught in the North East early music forum and gave a performance and workshop in Hexham Abbey. One of the people that came along was Chris Elmes from the Mediaeval group Gaita, he’s been transcribing all the Cantigas de Santa Maria, about 400 songs. Because I studied recorder rather than early music, I never learned how to read neumes – early music notation. I can read it really slowly but I couldn’t read a whole piece fluently. The earliest neumes were inflective marks which indicated the general shape but not necessarily the exact notes or rhythms. So I thought, I could spend the next however many years attempting to learn it or ask Chris to help, hence his credit on the album.
FW: Is it still possible to find early music ‘gems’ in unexpected places?
LC: Sometimes, for example, when the Beccles Library were having a clear-out, a friend of mine who is a folklorist, found some manuscripts called English Church Music. Then I didn’t look through them for a couple of years and when I did I found some interesting items.
FW: Do you actively search for early music that no one else is playing?
LC: A lot of early music that’s presented to us is really rather ‘nice’ and twee in its format. I think it gives a simplistic view of the past. With me, it’s always feeling the atmosphere and absorbing the texture of the music in a way that takes you somewhere without lots of restrictions. I suppose that’s the same with all music. I find some early music recordings too restrictive and in a way they have become a kind of ‘standard’ which I find too inflexible.
FW: Does that mean there’s an inaccurate standard for early music?
LC: I feel that the early music revivals of the sixties and seventies set some benchmarks, intentionally or otherwise, and many people simply built on that. As a result, that became the standard of ‘how it was’ and how we should continue to interpret it. The instruments haven’t changed for a thousand years but I’m a human with my own ideas, imaginings and experiences, so I want to play music how I think it should sound.
Obviously, there are rules, for example in Baroque music you know the rules for ornamentation and phrasing, but I feel that people sometimes forget the human element and as a result the music can become too academic. I don’t have a high tolerance for the way some early music is performed now. Having said that, there remains such a lot in there that’s waiting for someone to take out and explore.
FW: People continue to build on certain ‘perceptions’ of folk so that’s hardly surprising.
LC: To be honest, I’ve never separated folk music and early music. Anything that goes into your head can become your music, and in turn that becomes your tradition. The music my parents listened to became part of my tradition, unaccompanied English singing, Baroque counter tenors and masses of Peter Bellamy, all those influences have gone into my head and added to my own explorations. One enduring problem with music is always those people that insist on restrictive definition.
FW: The ‘definitions game’ remains, indeed it’s sometimes said: ‘How can you know what you’re listening to without a description’?
LC: To me it’s all ultimately music. It really doesn’t need to be rigorously defined, labelled and put in a box. Listen to it, don’t try to define. Engage with music and if it speaks to you then that’s all you need. It’s possibly useful to point people towards a style and say it has this aspect to it that might touch you, but the minute you define too tightly you restrict. That’s part of the problem we had with Horses Brawl, constantly attempting to define the music to help people understand it.
FW: Does that mean you think Horses Brawl approached its music too commercially?
LC: Yes, possibly. We felt we had to continually explain ourselves and the music to make it accessible. We were constantly justifying it and we should have been comfortable with what we were. Perhaps, it had to do with making a living. Maybe we weren’t really as sure as we thought we were about the music. Also, I think there was a certain amount of fear that people wouldn’t get it, there was that and not wanting to be too risky.
FW: Is there’s always the fear that people won’t or can’t understand?
LC: I think there was at the time. It’s different now. Ultimately, I ditched the idea of doing something that people would like commercially and adjusted my music accordingly. I found that I was searching for something not quite tangible, it was always just out of my grasp. There was a certain fear I suppose but there was also a deep dissatisfaction and that was the stronger emotion. However, with ‘Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth’ I feel as though I’ve got closer to where I want to be. I’ve found what I’m searching for and I’m working with it. The feeling is now: ‘This is me, accept it or don’t’.
FW: Listening again to Horses Brawl it does sound like someone reaching for something.
LC: I always felt that with Horses Brawl I was trying to find something that wasn’t quite there. I could reach towards it, nearly feel it, almost taste it but it always remained beyond reach. We worked really hard and enjoyed the process but I felt a certain level of dissatisfaction with what was coming out. It didn’t always sound like it felt, or more precisely, how I wanted it to feel. When Adrian decided not to continue with Horses Brawl it was a tough time because we had worked together for ten years. However, I’d reached a point where I knew what I didn’t want to do. Now, I feel that this album is the most ‘me’ that I’ve ever felt. It’s the closest I’ve been able to be with my music and I feel more confident with that.
FW: So does ‘Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth’ show someone where they want to be?
LC: Yes, it does. If something moves you it moves you and there it is. This music moves me and it’s where I want to be.
FW: Do you subscribe to the view that this music takes on a spiritual form?
LC: Yes. I’m not religious at all but I really like playing in churches, not from the religious aspect but for the spiritual elements they evoke. I feel like there’s something powerful in the walls to do with people’s feelings and emotions that buildings absorb. That creates a spiritual essence. It’s an intangible, untouchable quintessence that just oozes from the buildings. There’s hundreds of years of atmosphere that soaks through their fibres.
FW: Playing in churches is a big chunk of the forthcoming tour.
LC: Yes, as I said, there’s an indefinable something in churches that reaches me. They are simply beautiful places to play music.
FW: Does the reference to sparrows in the album title have anything to do with their role as spiritual guides?
LC: Not consciously. Why do you ask?
FW: Because spiritual guides or ‘psychopomps’ (from Greek, meaning ‘guide of souls’) are responsible for escorting newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Those ‘guides’ can manifest as creatures or spirits and frequently shown as birds, such crows, ravens or sparrows. They not only accompany souls of the dead out of the world but introduce new-born souls into it, giving both safe passage on their journeys. To my ears, listening to certain parts of the album conjured up images that could fit quite well with that. I suppose it comes back to that essence of spirituality and what people visualise through your music.
LC: Interesting but that intention is not there at all, however if my music creates powerful images that works for me. It’s also interesting to talk about the spiritual side because I’m really divided between sacred and secular music. Take the work of Hildegard of Bingen or Mesrop Mashtots, that’s based on religious themes. At the time, that was where a lot of music was created. That sacred music was absorbed into the people and grew into secular music, a lot of sacred chants evolved into acapella singing. It’s what people took with them when they left the sacred environment and it’s interesting how it evolved.
FW: Does that come down to a conscious choice between sacred and secular?
LC: Personally, I can’t make a choice between the types of music I play. No more than I can make a choice between recorder or fiddle - I love them both with the same passion. That’s where I wanted to go with Horses Brawl, not wanting to make a distinct choice for a certain style. For me it always comes back to the ‘need’ for the music. I need to play early music, I need what Renaissance and traditional English music gives me. I can’t just choose one. Only today, I was asked to play a concerto with a Baroque orchestra, and I really want to do that, however I couldn’t have that as my only musical diet. I could not work within the restrictions.
FW: They may be pleasant restrictions for a time but not ones you want to work with on a permanent basis.
LC: Exactly, however much I might want to do that I can’t. The restrictions in music can become too limiting. I have to draw on all the musical elements I feel to make ‘me’ become ‘me’. I need freedom to explore and experiment. I think that freedom is what gives you your personality. It makes me who I am as a musician and I hope that comes through my music.
FW: So returning to the album title, what does it mean to you?
LC: A couple of years ago somebody suggested to me that I should read the Fragments of Sappho. They’re just fragments of poetry and thoughts put together from surviving papyrus. They’re not necessarily making sense as a ‘complete book’ but you can pull interesting influences from them. They are only random phrases and fragments but I really like the words. The title of the album is an extract from the collection. For me, the words ‘Quick Sparrows’ has a lightness, energy and excitement about it. There’s also a reflection of the depth and intimate attraction in the words ‘Black Earth’. There’s no negativity in those words. They are not depressing at all. The blackness of the earth has nothing to do with darkness, it’s a reference to the soil, solid and rich, a source of life, a strong foundation that still allows you to be free. Perhaps it’s a connection with where I live, surrounded by fields, woods, reed beds and marshes.
FW: You state that the album was recorded in single takes. Is it totally free or to a plan?
LC: I set off with a plan. I spent six months finding fragments and tunes and gathering them into a folder, collating them and gradually whittling down the content until I found the ones I really loved. My plan was to then work with the instruments and discover what worked. In Horses Brawl we did improvise but in performances things became fixed, we knew exactly what was going to happen. Here I wanted to truly improvise.
My intention was to have a piece of paper with a few notes, use that as a skeleton, as a graphic score and then see what happened. I went to do the final recording after months and months of preparing and it’s strange but I kept feeling that it was too obvious. Eventually, I went to do another session at the church round the corner and found I’d left the skeleton behind, so I went with what had fed into my head over the months and worked with that.
FW: When people write about images your music creates do they match your expectations?
LC: Interestingly, you’re the first person that’s actually understood what I’m saying and managed to put it into words.
FW: That’s kind of you to say so.
LC: No I mean it. When I read your words I was really happy. I thought that’s absolutely what it is. Sometimes, I feel people don’t get what I’m doing or understand what I’m trying to achieve. When I read what you had written I thought: ’Oh yes, he’s absolutely picked up on what I’m about’. It made me feel more confident in what I’m doing. Because I completely believe in it if people get it, they get it. I don’t feel obliged to explain it and justify what I’m doing.
FW: The creation of visions and images is powerful. Is that something you consciously work towards?
LC: I’ve tried to do that before. To attempt to control what people feel. I don’t think it necessarily works. The only way it can work is when you one hundred percent believe in what you’re playing and let the music carry what people feel and imagine. The way that I’m improvising now, I feel that it’s easier to take people with me, rather than rehearsing endlessly to get it right. Even if it means that fewer people ‘get it’, I can’t compromise.
FW: So does that mean some people won’t take the journey because it’s too difficult?
LC: That may be true, but even if it is, I feel the music is more honest. What it’s ‘about’ is all it’s ‘about’ and if it reaches you then that’s brilliant. If it doesn’t that’s a shame. How can you live your life second-guessing and writing what people might like to hear? It’s more honest to play what you want to play, or to be more precise, what you need to play.
I’ve struggled with this before by trying to play something more straightforward. I wouldn’t be honest doing that anymore. I believe a fundamental key to any type of music is being absolutely the most honest you can be and that’s what I’m doing. In a way it’s hard because it can make you feel a bit vulnerable, however I feel that it gives me what I need when I’m performing. It has to be your choice otherwise where is your individuality?
FW: Those are pretty strong feelings.
LC: It is what it is. That’s how I feel about it. I’ve tried hard to fit myself into ‘wrong-shaped’ holes with my music and it doesn’t work. That’s why I say this album is my most honest and truly ‘me’. In fact it’s the most ‘me’ that I’ve been. I don’t want to create my music around what I think people might want. I want to give them what I need to play. After Horses Brawl I experienced some tough times deciding what I wanted to be, now I’m happy with that. And my playing has improved because of it.
FW: So where to now? Is ‘Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth’ a stepping stone towards something ‘different’ or the road to more of the same?
LC: I have another album under development. Essentially, at present it’s a collection of thoughts and ideas that didn’t fit into this one. ‘Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth’ is the beginning of the new career and the next album will develop from that. I want to expand on the double recorder playing and other instrumental techniques. This music feels like it’s what I should be doing so I’m going to work hard to develop that.
FW: Does your current position makes it easier for you to progress?
LC: Working on my own has taken a little bit of getting used to but I’m doing what I want to be doing, so yes I think moving on from here is less daunting than it was setting out. There’s masses in front of me that I want to push my music and my playing to do. This is not a case of ‘ticking off’ points and going forward in steps, it’s more finding the flow and going along with it.
I’m hoping to try singing but that demands a lot of confidence. I’m a bit scared of singing but I’m prepared to experiment and see where it goes. So I’m working up to that, probably with fragments of words rather than a song as such. Perhaps in the past I’ve been too aware of what everyone else is doing. That’s changed now. You have to do your own thing.
FW: Thank you Laura, it’s been a pleasure.
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