Laura Cannell shares reflections on composing, woodpeckers, and the sound of electricity pylons in her first column of 2018.
Traditionally the first couple of weeks of the year are performance-free, but 2018 started as I hope it intends to continue. I was commissioned to write a piece for bass recorder and to perform it as the closing notes at the sound art conference Large Objects Moving Air, alongside papers and talks from international researchers, including field recordist and fellow Caught by the River friend Chris Watson.
I soon discovered that I can’t just write a piece for solo bass recorder, immediately finding myself wondering what two basses played simultaneously would be like, and not considering the lung capacity that would be needed to pull off such a feat. But that didn’t stop me. I bought a second bass – a plastic one to go with my handmade Yamaha. They’re two extremes in tone (and price). The first hurdle was realising that there is a reason organ pipes have bellows. It was nearly impossible to sustain a chord, like blowing into an open room. Almost no resistance and a teasing, oscillating tone with harmonics gone before it started, and then I needed to draw breath again.
I continued on this path for the whole of December, making myself light-headed in the name of art. Having to sit down to play so I wouldn’t fall over. Eventually I wondered if singing through the recorders at the same time as blowing in the beaks would be easier. I had gone from one bass recorder to two and was now adding a voice as well, all with just one person playing/singing. Why couldn’t I just compose a piece of music like a normal person? The vocal technique worked well, suddenly enabling polyphony, and strangely easing the breath control. But the commission was for a 15 minute solo piece, and I could barely manage 4 minutes.
Back to the drawing board. I allowed myself to exchange one bass for a tenor recorder and it changed everything. I stand by the process and it reminds me of the one essay I can remember writing as a music performance undergraduate, “if people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done” – Wittgenstein. This has stayed with me; not that I think playing two bass recorders is silly, it’s just a matter of having a big idea and then refining it.
On a roll from LOMA and the bass performance, that same week I had been invited to give a guest lecture to postgraduate composition students at the Royal College of Music. So Christmas was spent building up lung capacity and stamina, and writing a lecture with musical extracts. I looked back over my musical career, starting with my early work as a classical performer but marking the beginning of improvisation and composition with recorder & electronics in 2003 at the now-defunct University of East Anglia Sonic Arts and Electro-acoustic music department in Norwich. I spent a happy hour in the Royal Albert Hall cafe before heading over into the unknown. I knew it was intended to be informal, and to show examples of different composers and careers, but it was still quite a long time to talk about my practice. I was nervous. I had this very formal concept of how it would be, expecting the most serious high art classical composers. I was judging it on my experience of music college at the turn of the 21st century. But these preconceptions were soon dissolved – every student had a different story, was there to develop their own voice, and just happened to be there under the same heading. My biggest and simplest piece of advice to them and to anyone listening or reading is to make the music you want to hear.
The day following the lecture I returned to London to perform at LSO St Luke’s for BBC Radio 3’s Open Ear series – a performance with a live audience which is recorded for broadcast on The World Service and Radio 3. If I could do this kind of performance every day, in this kind of space, I would be one of the happiest people in the world, but the transience of music and performance doesn’t permit, and it needs to constantly change and develop. It’s one of the best things about being a musician: you don’t know what’s next and however much you plan, it’s the alignment of so many factors that leads to performances.
At the end of December on a blue-black night, we drove around a bend to find the lane filled with a herd of deer. It looked like a lino cut of stylised shapes, their legs crossing one another, their heads held high, their faces triangular in the shadows cast by the car headlights. How had we passed into their space? We weren’t invited to the meeting, yet somehow we had turned up. They looked at us and then at each other then leapt upwards onto a bank and disappeared in one golden movement, as if they were all connected by an invisible web of reins.
On a walk, I paused briefly to take that bone-jangling shot into the geometric centre of an electricity pylon. The humming and brain-rattling buzz and hiss hides behind the copse where the Little Egret hangs out. We have a new Green Woodpecker foraging in the garden. Even though they are apparently ubiquitous, his outfit still looks too special to be hanging out in rural Suffolk – doesn’t he have a court to attend in the company of Lear’s ‘Mr Daddy Longlegs and Mr Floppy Fly’? Actually, maybe he would eat them.
Then there was the almost missed magic of a thousand clouds in the sky being whisked along by gale force winds. Almost missed because had we not locked the keys inside the house (within view) we would have been cosily in the cottage enjoying the early evening and not traipsing the lanes for the farm manager’s house, hoping he had a spare key.
The January supermoon emerged beside the silo, a playground for birds, hares, partridges, the occasional cat and some secretive squirrels (I know where they’ve hidden the nuts, and I don’t want to judge, but it wasn’t their best work). As I finish writing, a collared dove is perched on the silo’s spout – as it is most mornings.
Until next time.