Caught by the River

Woodnotes: Frost, a Bass Violin, and Falling Out With the Sea

Laura Cannell | 24th November 2017

After a short break, Laura Cannell returns with a third instalment of her monthly column on music, landscape, and adventuring…

I’ve had some trouble with writing lately, but today I feel normal again. I moved house exactly 4 months ago. We left the seaside and headed back to the countryside, to a hobbit house only a couple of miles from a train station, but far enough away from other people to play my violin at any time of the day or night. The nearest shop is a farm shop which includes the post office, so it’s not exactly ‘up the city’, as we would say in Norfolk. Today I was doing some posting of tapes & CDs (one of my favourite parts of running a label, a little trip out and a bottle of Fentimans from the farm shop), and there was an incredible sunset so obviously I took a picture. Turning to get in my car, I saw that the postman had got out a serious camera and was doing the same thing. He said he had five massive parcels to collect but knew it would be gone in a minute, so they could wait. He keeps his camera ready for the changing light in the sky. It made me happy that we had both stopped and soaked in the burning colours of the sky for a minute, then he collected the parcels, and I drove away down the farm track.

So what about the sea? After swearing off green and brown shades and textures of arable Norfolk farmland for blue and grey coastline, I found something missing — actually, a lot was missing. I had moved convinced that living in a town and being able to walk to the pub was what we needed. But I think I was wrong, or at least I only needed that for a couple of weeks. So maybe that’s what a holiday is? But for daily functioning I need the fields. The sea doesn’t inspire my music in the same way: it whitewashes ideas.

The bleak open water was affecting my brain on a daily basis — so much so that if I needed to turn left I squinted to the right to check for traffic because I couldn’t bear to look at it. I didn’t want to engage with the sea. It just kept being there, every day, still there, and the groundhog day of people walking past the door and coming to look at the sea was making me ill. We had majorly fallen out.

You aren’t supposed to say ‘I don’t like the sea!’ A walk along a picturesque beach is supposed to be idyllic and charming, and give one space to think, blow away the cobwebs, make you creative, mindful, able to just be. But for me it became a barren, dark trap of nothingness, and induced the worst anxiety I’ve ever experienced. This column is supposed to be about music and landscape, but as with music, I am unable to separate myself from it. My music comes from me, and everything that happens to me goes into the music — this is the way I have found to be authentic and honest and the most in the moment when I’m performing.

I am reminded of Luke Turner’s ‘Failure of Walking’, an extract from his forthcoming book which he is performing in my [Modern Ritual] series, where he talks about the woods and country walks in a similar way. A country walk doesn’t always clear the cobwebs or uplift you. I would have defended the loveliness of the Suffolk Coast to anyone who slighted it, but it came to resemble a difficult, empty and bleak creature that never changed. Of course I realise that the sea hasn’t changed, and that beneath the surface there is life and I hope we can be friends again, but we’re taking it very slowly.

I’ve since seen the sea from the sky and at the river’s mouth, and I feel that we can communicate again. I think it was that particular ghost town and the 1-mile stretch of beach that I found so difficult — a place which is so picturesque that you can never say out loud that it is not a good place to live. It is unhealthy to live in such a bubble, but the bubble is why everyone goes there. We have escaped now.

Today was so cold — -4 and I put on a long winter coat and walking boots over my pjs. The sun was pouring over the silhouetted church across the garden and the frost was outlining every shape I could see. Leaves were framed with a millimetre of white, the branches of the apple and pear trees glimmered, and back to this century, my car was frozen solid.

While unpacking (an endless and delightful task of discovering that I like the things I have surrounded myself with), I re-discovered a set of octave violin strings. I bought these ten years ago and only ever played two pieces on them. I was more concerned about playing wrong notes then, and my idea of improvisation was still fixed within the rules of Baroque or medieval music (now I do what I like the best and don’t worry about which tradition it comes from). So I re-strung my second fiddle and have introduced a cello pitch to my sound world. It’s one of those things which makes me wonder why everyone doesn’t do it! Maybe they do? Now it seems obvious to have a fiddle which plays an octave lower and the joy of no pedal or leads to get me there.

So on to more music…the past month or so has included performances and radio recordings in Poland (at Unsound Festival) and Cumbria, and recording in Liverpool, releasing a new short album, finalising the [Modern Ritual] project for our very slow UK Tour and creating a whole new body of work which is premiered at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (25th Nov). There is plenty in the pipeline, and I feel like the frosted fields of green and brown with the fiery sunsets and sunrises of East Anglia are going to feed my music and bass fiddle over the winter months. It’s very handy having the key to the parish room for a quick practice, and permission from the vicar to play the violin and recorder (experimental overbowed fiddle and dissonant double recorders) in the church during daylight hours. There are some good things about living in the country.


Laura’s most recent album, Hunter Huntress Hawker, is out now, and available to listen to/buy here.

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