The twelfth in Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis’s year of monthly EPs draws on ancient carols and family folklore.
Welcome to the twelfth and final instalment of my monthly column for 2021 and the stories behind These Feral Lands, a year-long documentation featuring new compositions and films from UK and Irish artists. At the end of every month Caught by the River have hosted us, and I’ve tried as best I can to capture the project, music and moments in time.
As I write about the final part of this adventure, I am at home in Suffolk and my duo partner Kate Ellis is in a recording studio in Dublin. Throughout the year we have both been working on other projects — the ones we’ve been doing all these years before we embarked on a yearlong musical commitment only having met each other once. It has turned out to be an enriching experience (I didn’t doubt it would!), giving ourselves the space to explore and follow threads, to challenge each other, to challenge ourselves, to question, to take risks and to support each other through the music and emotion of a whole year. Capturing, holding and letting go the moments in a way neither of us ever had before.
We made music every month, the aim being to share how we really felt at the time. We didn’t want to create an album or to curate something from a huge list of tracks into a final output; we wanted to let it evolve and travel in a more diary-like form. The outside world and our inner worlds have been magnified in so many ways this year. We were aware of the changing seasons and all of us have had this other layer of concern on top of our normal human experiences and thoughts. We have had to carry this around with us, while navigating new ways of working. Making this music has enabled us to break through our own boundaries, and refocus on communicating in a visceral and open way. We accept that music is a language — an intense, emotional experience, highlighting our innermost thoughts — and when no words will reach the feelings we are trying to express, we need these extensions of ourselves even more as both musicians and listeners. We especially need it when we are not in the same palpable space, feeling the air between us, the sound around us and the energy and atmosphere of the art form.
I often think about musicians who have had a massive impact on my life. The artistic and personal decisions that they have made, the music they have written, and the hours they have put into becoming an artist. I think about how I have never seen most of them perform live, and some I never will either because they are no longer with us, or because they are out of reach, a different country, or they don’t tour, or simply because of misaligned timing. I am so grateful to people who make music, art and words, whose life decisions and emotions impact other people. We make music to make sense of everything, and I feel like I will be revisiting this series in the future, as though I’m looking through a personal diary of the year. Both Kate and I wore our hearts on our sleeves and some months and moments were raw, and some were blissful. We have come full circle, creating a body of work which is both new and personal.
For the final set, we have drawn on ancient carols and family folklore, building new music from musical fragments and improvisations, always trying to capture the emotions of the time in which we were creating.
On the opening track we were joined remotely by the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir, Directed by Katy Lavinia Cooper. I met Katy a few years ago when she was singing with the group Crying Lion and I was trying out some ideas with Alex Neilson (who was also in that group) from Trembling Bells. I knew that she was the Director of Chapel Music at the University of Glasgow and so when I was thinking about December Sounds, I wondered what a deconstruction of the Coventry Carol would sound like, and Katy and the choir very kindly obliged.
We have produced an epic 48 new tracks (the equivalent of about 4 full-length albums). We have journeyed around the sun together, sharing ideas, improvisations and melodies and creating a space in which no sound is lost. Violin and cello are at the core of this year of music; these sounds are the common thread alongside viola, crumhorn, hulusi, recorders, church pipe organs (in Essex and Suffolk) and voices. We also invited in some special guests throughout the months, including Rhodri Davies, Stewart Lee, Chris Watson, Milène Larsson, Adrian Crowley, Adrian Hart, and the 32-piece University of Glasgow Chapel Choir, directed by Katy Lavinia Cooper.
Thanks for reading and for listening and being by our sides during These Feral Lands: A Year Documented in Sound and Art.
1. FARE THEE WELL TOGETHER
The Glasgow University Chapel Choir sing our new version of the 16th century Coventry Carol, stripping away the words and changing the meter. 32 voices were recorded in the impressive Glasgow University Chapel with the rain beating against the windows, and the wooden door at the top of the tower swinging and banging in the stormy winds.
Inspired by a conversation with her dad about her grandad (who she never met), Laura took the words he would say, instead of goodbye “Fare thee well together”, in a broad Norwich accent which would rise in pitch half way through. As the Carol ends and the choir leave the chapel, Kate is left alone picking fragments from the air and playing softly to herself.
2. IN MEMORY & LIGHT
We kept playing to let in the light, even when it felt like there was none.
3. TOGETHER WE CIRCLED THE SUN
We have circled the sun.
We have passed through spring, summer, autumn and winter.
We have shared our inner most thoughts and feelings.
Through light and dark we have been true to ourselves and to you all.
4. FOR THE EQUINOX
We stole the melody from the medieval carol ‘Nowell, Nowell: Tidings True’ a melody which has been used in sacred and secular traditions. We fragmented the roots of the tune making our offering for the Winter Equinox. A track which brings together all of the disparate rituals of the darkest season.
Find the EP here.
These Feral Lands – A Year Documented in Sound and Art is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.