Interview: Laura Cannell

I heard Laura Cannell for the first time only a couple of weeks back, while I was eagerly awaiting acoustic sets by Thurston Moore and Michael Gira at the London Barbican. Cannell’s supporting set – consisting largely of solo pieces for fiddle or double recorder – knocked me sideways; a mercurial dance between historical harmony and spontaneous improvisation, weaving Early Music into a beautiful ribbon of reflex. Below, Laura and I discuss her own perspective on the Barbican performance, her discovery of the deconstructed bow technique and her conscious disregard for the idea of “wrong answers” in music.

It was wonderful to see you perform at the Barbican the other week. It always feels like a great space for very vivid and dedicated listening. How was it for you?

Thank you! I absolutely loved performing at the Barbican. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in terms of the sound, especially performing solo on fiddle and recorders, but during the soundcheck and when I was having a warm up without the mic, I fell in love with the space. I felt really happy and privileged to have it all to myself and then to share it with the audience. I wondered if I would be nervous about filling the space, but it felt like a special experience and I embraced the incredible room.

I was particularly struck by the pieces played by deconstructed bow. It seemed to bring a more vigorous, almost visceral attack to the tone of the instrument. How and when did you start working with this technique, and does it take much time to get acquainted with a new playing style like this? Does it lead you to think different about your instrument?

I saw someone demonstrate the deconstructed bow technique at a folk festival in the late 90’s when I was just starting to play, and it captured my imagination. I remember trying it then, but I didn’t really explore it properly until 2013 when I decided to embark on my solo project. It took a while to get the tension right, and to gain enough control that it still has unexpected possibilities. It definitely has a different sonic realm to the conventional way of playing.

I love the attack and bite that you can get on the strings, it’s much more sustainable than using a regular bow and I can play two, three or four strings together. It’s like breathing, it has to go in and out, up and down. I try to play to the strength of that idea. I use a baroque bow for my other playing too, so that has a completely different balance and character to a modern bow. The overbow or polyphonic style of playing opens up many more possibilities and I love the rasping and unexpected chord combinations. There is a lot more chance involved and I try not to plan the harmonies so that it feels fresh and spontaneous.

There’s a beautiful fluidity to your playing. Every gesture tumbles so elegantly out of the last. I understand that your albums consist of one-take improvisations – do you find that the pieces solidify as you begin to perform them, or do they continue to evolve and adapt?

My playing comes from a place of believing that there is no wrong answer, there are no mistakes so that if I play something unexpected I incorporate it into the music and develop it or repeat it, I don’t freak out and stop! It leads me on a new path that, in the moment of performance, I have to go with. This has come from hours of playing and pushing myself to keep going no matter what happens. I think that’s what gives it a sense of fluidity.

The pieces that make it to the albums are usually the least planned and the most improvised, but over a period of performing them they take shape and do solidify. But, they are always different in every performance. I try not to get too attached to one way of playing them but some things will come out similarly because it’s what feels right but ultimately they keep a shape but the notes within are still evolving, even if it’s the tiniest details.

I’ve been listening to your most recent solo record, Beneath Swooping Talons. How and where did you record the album? My ear was particularly caught by the opening moments of “Cathedral Of The Marshes”, during which I think I can hear a bell clanging somewhere in the background…

I recorded both of my solo albums in a small medieval church on a country estate in Norfolk. The church is in the grounds of the house and set back from the road so really quiet apart from a few animals and farm traffic. The bell is from the coach house and it starting ringing just as I was ready to record. I thought it was so perfectly placed for the improvisation that it had to stay, the name “Cathedral of the Marshes” came after the recording. I’m glad you heard it! It was a really magical moment.

I understand that your compositional process involves going through masses of Early Music to identify fragments that speak to you. How do you know when you’ve found a snippet of music that’s going to be worth working with? I imagine it must be pretty exciting to stumble across a tiny phrase or harmonic detail that suddenly clicks.

Yes I read and play a lot of scores. This is something I’ve always done. It’s a great way to explore. I can’t really put my finger on what happens – I just know if it’s a fragment that I want to spend more time with. I usually surround myself with fiddles and recorders and a couple of music stands with a big pile of music that I’ve gathered and have a good session of trawling through. It can also be very frustrating, but it might be that a small passage or motif sticks in my mind or fingers and won’t leave. That’s when I know I might have something. Quite often what I play has no resemblance to the original – it’s just a starting point for inspiration.

You’ve been working this way for a while now. Is it hard work, or is the process interesting regardless of whether or not you find something worth using?

This process is actually quite short as I’m more interested in seeing what happens if I step far away from the page. Sometimes I’ll use a score as a graphic score, or as a way to imagine what isn’t written, the space between the notes. You’re constantly fighting against yourself and questioning your instinct. I don’t know if it’s hard work, it’s always different, I feel that my playing is always moving forward, I am extremely picky about what gets through, but it’s also completely joyous when I find something that I can explore. I step away from the page very quickly to start the improvising process. You know pretty quickly if it’s not working, but equally I will try lots of different techniques, harmonies, versions, inversions before I dismiss something which has potential. It’s really up to me whether it is interesting in a way you can make something new out of anything!

Are there any particular styles or compositional eras that you find yourself recurrently gravitating toward as regular sources of interesting material?

I’m really interested in Spanish medieval music as well as Hildegard von Bingen and plainchant. I’m gravitating towards chant as a starting point at the moment. There is a big poster on my wall which says CHANT so that’s a new area for me to explore.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

I’m listening to a lot of Icelandic medieval music by Sequentia, some very early Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian Pipes), always listening to Colin Stetson who I recently supported at the Scala, Rhodri Davies, Hoofus and Jordi Savall. So the usual mixture of very early, traditional, experimental and electronic.

What’s next for you and your music?

I’m currently recording a new solo album in lots of very atmospheric locations which will be out on Front & Follow in May 2017. I’m also recording a debut release with my fiddle duo with André Bosman which is out in November 2016 on my label Brawl Records. I’m in the middle of a new project with the Welsh violinist Angharad Davies called Mythos of Violins which just premiered at Counterflows in Scotland with Aidan O’Rourke from LAU. I’m just off to play ATP and have a selection of festivals throughout the summer and a duo with This Heat’s Charles Hayward coming up in May.

Laura Cannell’s website – www.lauracannell.co.uk
Brawl Records – www.brawlrecords.co.uk