Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis’s EP for August offers up a Witches Harp (Telyn Wrachod) played by Rhodri Davies, a personal ode to the ‘Virus Summer’ written and read by Stewart Lee, and the layered sounds of a village pipe organ and cello.
August is a different colour this year and last. As the months blend and the seasons morph, four people come together to create this month’s EP. Our emotions are not where we think they will be and there is a sleepless energy in the warm and turbulent atmosphere of summer.
I think it would be strange to keep a diary with another person, yet when you write and record music, it can feel like that is exactly what you are doing, especially when it is improvised, and especially if you decide to do it over an entire year. A personal moment in tandem is caught and documented. If I wrote my thoughts down simultaneously with another person it wouldn’t make sense, but our common language with sound means we can communicate in many situations. It can feel as open, yet more malleable than words. Inner thoughts and inflections laid bare.
For the August Sounds EP we approached our monthly output in a new way. The Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies had emailed me in July about his new Bray harp, also known as the Telyn Wrachod or Witches Harp. It is said to “bray like a donkey”, and is fitted with tiny L-shaped wooden pegs (the bray pins) which hold the strings in the soundbox and also lightly touch them. This contact causes the buzzing sound — like playing a prepared piano where you put various objects in contact with the strings, or, as indicated in baroque composer Heinrich Biber’s ‘Battallia’ putting paper under your cello string to vibrate while playing. Rhodri is no stranger to manipulating and preparing the harp. I think when I first met him to play together he played a fully locked and loaded concert harp with two cello bows, an adapted battery powered fan and an eBow. It only makes sense to go to the source of prepared harp, which dates back four and a half thousand years ago.
Rhodri knew that I would appreciate his excitement because on our first meeting about 15 years ago we had bonded over our love of crumhorns (I performed on one at a festival under the decadent chandeliers of Bush Hall in London). The email from Rhodri read as follows, and I think the over use of exclamations point to our enthusiasm:
RD: Just wanted to let you know i now have a bray harp!!!!!!!!! I’m so excited!!!!!
LC: This is VERY exciting news indeed! Thanks for letting me know!!!!
RD: yes it is! i was thinking you might be the only other person who would get my excitement!
LC: How long have you had it?
RD: since last night
LC: What have you played on it?
RD: some notes trying to set the brays in place
…it went on a bit more, discussing improvising and the little brays being named after bent-over witches. A few weeks later, I was still thinking about his new harp and so we invited him to work with us on August Sounds. Kate’s double bass and cello with my fiddle and voice answered the call of the braying harp. There is something about all of these vibrating strings, bowed and plucked, ancient and modern. We spent a happy day in August remotely recording together over the phone and with files flying between Essex, Swansea and Suffolk.
In July we had also asked Stewart for something new. He wrote and sent us a new recording, and the morning after our session with Rhodri, I woke and realised that the poem would work perfectly with the new music. We were waiting for the right combination, and this was it. I layered the track and it all came together. Stewart’s poem ‘Virus Summer’ appears on the track ‘Spend the Day with Me’, carrying on from the more personal writing that he began when working with Kate and I on These Feral Lands Volume 1 during the first UK lockdown, on which he said, “Contributing to These Feral Lands was a lockdown lifeline”. Here is his poem/lyrics:
Between lockdowns one August day
I packed the car and drove to Wales
Shiver river borderland
I laugh and hold my daughter’s hand
Girls jump off the packhorse bridge
Sheep are bleating on the ridge
Dragonflies crawl from cocoons
The children will be grown-up soon
A man is slumped upon a stone
Carlsberg. Crutches. Mobile phone.
He says he walked here from Hay Bluff.
He says he has camped here all month.
Campaign boots and breathing breath
A shadow of his shadow self.
Wants to talk. Needs an excuse.
He offers fags. He offers booze.
“We learned to kill in Hereford.
We crawled up nets. We crawled through mud.
And what I’ve seen I cannot say.
Now I just sit here every day.”
Behind the chip shop with the kids
We drink canned drinks and eat our chips
And what he’s seen I cannot say.
Now he just sits here every day.
Virus summer. Virus summer
The sun sinks in the Western sky
On fishcakes and a Peter’s Pie
We drive back to the glamping site
And toast marsh mallows in the night
This month I took on the local ‘Tradition of the Key’ at the village church (they don’t know I’m not religious but I don’t think it matters — does it?! We are all part of the community). I open and close the great oak door once a week, turn the open/closed sign around, and of course put out the hand sanitiser so that passers-by can marvel at the hammer-beamed roof and ancient wall paintings. I quite like this job, as without whoever opened all the churches I recorded some of my solo albums in, I would not have been able to have these incredible and ancient spaces to myself to develop my solo practice, to be left alone in solitude to develop my music — something I am truly appreciative of. I am also ‘helping out’ by playing the organ, keeping the bellows moving, and the pipes clear of bats and mice (I’m assuming, based on the treasures they have left around the ancient building). I am doing my bit to keep the centenarian (and then some) pipe organ alive for its occasional services.
Sleeve notes for this month’s EP…
1. WOVEN BRANCHES HIDE THE SKY
From the dappled ground we try to part the dense summer leaves with our arms. The branches have woven themselves together and entwined like lovers; we will have to wait for them to tire to break our way through again.
2. STONE WALLS
Words are extracted from the poem ‘Inscription for an Ice House’ by Anna Laetitia Barboald (1795). An improvised song in response to Rhodri & Kate’s improvisation.
3. THE INVISIBLE HOUR
Laura is ‘helping out’ at the village church by playing the enormous pipe organ to keep it in working order as the church is used less and less. Layered pipes oscillate under the hammer beamed roof and bat infested arches while the cello swims through the invisible hour.
4. SPEND THE DAY WITH ME
‘Virus Summer’ poem by Stewart Lee spoken by Stewart. With extracts from ‘The Daisy Fairy’ by Cicely M. Barker (1923) sung by Laura.
5. WINGS WERE IN MY HEAD AS I WALKED
As the sound flutters and expands, wings jitter and land. The beautiful grit of the plucked braying harp are coupled with bowed and plucked strings. All of these instruments are built for us to explore our inner wings as we walk.
Find the EP here.
Our film this month is by rural Suffolk-based musician, writer & film-maker Polly Wright, who has created visuals for the track ‘Wings Were In My Head As I Walked’. She worked by candlelight in an ancient glasshouse potting shed in the grounds of a derelict castle, and sent me these words about her film:
“My film is a direct emotional response to the music. From the first listen I felt drawn in to the inner world of the track and thought it had a hypnotic dreamlike quality as well as evoking a visceral response in me. I thought of folkloric rituals, psychedelic sequences from films as well as traditional dances and woodland raves in days gone by. I shot at night, lighting the set with vivid changing colours to visually accentuate the psychedelic dream I was imagining. I danced to the music, and then spliced and layered gestures to give an unsettling and otherworldly quality. I used the image of the fly as a reference to the poem of William Blake from his collection Songs of Innocence and Experience and the message the poem imparts and questions, as to our place as humans within the whole.”
These Feral Lands – A Year Documented in Sound and Art is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.