I only recently heard Laura Cannell’s fabulous album The Earth With Her Crowns from 2020 and could easily spend 500 words praising its dazzling allure and stark—yet comforting—beauty. Time marches on, though, and since she already has two new releases in 2022 I am focusing on the present year. Both are excellent but, of the two, I am most immediately impressed by Antiphony, wherein Cannell uses alto, bass, and tenor recorders to riff on the birdsong of rural Suffolk , where she lives, which called to her amid the quietness of lockdown. It is riveting and a work that I am unlikely to set aside any time soon.
Laura Cannell’s background in baroque, medieval, and renaissance music suits this project down to the ground, as does her understanding of folk music tradition. Her playing makes it easy to visualize figures throughout the centuries inspired by the call and response of the winged creatures around them to blow into recorders in castles, churchyards, classrooms, farmyards and meadows. Cannell can play double recorders and also create a third tone between the two oscillations. This ability, along with her penchant for drone and delay, indicates a sensibility which honors tradition without being rooted in any regional spot. She clearly understands the power of simplicity and repetition without becoming predictable, and embraces imaginative abstraction without sacrificing melody or sounding feeble. All of which lifts her compositions on Antiphony of the Trees away from the mimicry of nature and into a magical realm closer to sacred chamber music.
This is her seventh solo album and it is loaded with brilliant tracks. It was followed by the hyper-minimal four track EP Unlocking Rituals featuring single-take recordings made on a full church pipe organ built in 1899. The slow peaceful recordings make the organ appear lifelike, with air moving like breaths through the instrument. At some points this old life form seems close to flatlining, and when the end silence comes it is an abrupt shock. Three of the pieces have titles taken from John Burnside’s book Black Cat Bone and the other one, “Lay Down By The Golden Reeds” is dedicated to her friend, musician and sound artist Mira Calix who died this year.
In collaboration with cellist Kate Ellis, Cannell has also released a regular series of monthly EPs on which she typically uses overbowed violin, church organ, and vocals to striking effect. Much of Laura Cannell’s music may be heard as a collaboration between settings with unique acoustical qualities (such as a lighthouse and a hydraulic power station) and whatever is her chosen instrument (to which she brings an idiosyncratic twist). So it is with Antiphony of the Trees wherein she absolutely shreds whatever preconceived notions I had of the recorder. I once attended a concert in Lichfield cathedral where the choir moved to and from different areas in the building. The effect of this was incredibly moving and the way Cannell pays attention to her surroundings offers a similar experience.