Laura Cannell’s music flutters and swoops across the grand open space of the Barbican concert hall. Harmonies graciously interweave; splay dramatically into separate strands; re-align like birds reclaiming flight formation; dive and rise like leaves hurdling a light wind. When playing the overbowed fiddle (which replaces the standard bow with one that wraps around the body of the fiddle, allowing four strings to be played simultaneously), she tugs music out of the instrument like a thread unspooled from a blanket, firm in execution and ultimately graceful in output. When she switches to double recorder (two recorders played simultaneously), I hear snatches of imitated birdsong, quaint rural dances and melted medieval fanfare. About halfway into her set, Cannell starts to preface her pieces by explaining their narratives and inspirations: adaptions of 5th Century psalms, 14th Century Spanish songs, the music of King Henry VIII, murderous dogs in towering Suffolk cathedrals. I start to hear the ribbon of history rippling through her music, embedding the influence of ancient music within a musical dialect that ultimately seems rooted in personal instinct.
After a display of such delicacy, the 12-string acoustic of Thurston Moore feels particularly angular and heavy-handed. Some of the strums threaten to peel the strings away from the guitar, pressing firmly into the body of the instrument as the chords cascade in waterfalls of dissonance and octaval chime. It’s fascinating to hear those botched frets and missed strings without the noise of Sonic Youth to turn them from human errors into glamorous catastrophes – Moore seems to relax into his imprecision, as confident in those sonic blemishes as he is in those chords executed correctly. His voice wanders in and out of the music like troubled sleep talk, partially sung but permitted to slump into the intonation of weary and exasperated speech, rising gently above the notes and then diving back beneath them. Without prior warning, Moore’s closing piece extends until it reaches a good 15 minutes in length, veering into stretches of cyclical drone and pinch harmonics that glisten like crooked stars, while strange visual projections of supernova and swirling astral matter blaze upon the screens on either side.
Michael Gira is equally aware of how repetition can bring with it a heightened poignancy, and knows how to make a sequence of four notes take root within my own intimate vulnerabilities. Tonight he presents stark renditions of material by Swans and Angels Of Light, stripped of instrumental embellishment and reduced to a core premise. Swans tracks like “Jim” and “Lunacy” (the latter of which was played live for the very first time this evening) sound heavier acoustically than they do in the context of a full band; something about the heightened proximity to the lungs and muscles that bore them, with all of the propulsive drive originating within a solitary body. His voice bellows – in that classic guttural baritone – like an enduring ancient wisdom, ejected with a visceral weight that threatens to topple the melody beneath it, as vowels loiter in the air like anvils hung from the ceiling. Yet this sense of physical strength co-exists with its polar opposite – a deep, devastating undercurrent of weakness, declared with shameless sincerity. The closing rendition of “God Damn The Sun” is even more lethargic than on record, the pauses extended into deep breaths that house cycles of emotional collapse and momentary rebuild, lurching forward one lyric at a time. Every time that opening chord comes back round, I’m laid to waste all over again.