Darran Anderson steps into the aviary of Laura Cannell’s latest record, ‘Antiphony of the Trees’.
Long before there was ambient music, there was birdsong. Most of the time, it remains ambient in the true background sense, heard but not always intently listened to, familiar enough to be part of as Satie put it, the ‘furniture music’ of life. It becomes noticed when conditions change. This happened historically — during the First World War, for instance, in the lulls between ferocious bouts of shelling, larks could be heard singing on both sides of No Man’s Land. It also works on a personal level. In youth, while camping in woods, I’d be woken astonished by the enormous sound of the dawn chorus that seemed to come from all directions. Several years later, in fathomless nocturnal abandon, I would come to my senses in strangers’ houses as the first cheep of birds before sunrise abruptly ended the reveries in what felt like the tolling of an executioner’s bell. In recent times, emerging from hospitals in the early hours, in a state of shock after witnessing the births and deaths of loved ones, the avian music that greeted me seemed to confirm that nothing would ever be the same again, and the morning was overwhelmingly new.
It’s worth imagining how they see us and whether we come and go from their consciousness as they do ours, which is to assume that we could ever entirely imagine what a bird’s consciousness is truly like. Due to the fact they’re ubiquitous and unassuming, it’s easy to forget how fantastical these creatures are, and how liminal they are — bridging not just the earth and sky but the ancient past and the future — last surviving descendants of the dinosaurs, darting and soaring around the heavens like sci-fi creatures, goading us with their gift of flight for millennia, making their homes in trees that are equally familiar and equally strange entities, wizened hands reaching up towards the light. They are reminders that, in the right perspective, the terrestrial appears alien.
When we do notice birds, our view is often subjective, even expressionist. In Burden of Dreams, the film that documented the making of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog speaks at length of his disgust with the jungle that surrounds him, “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing…They just screech in pain.” It’s a hilarious sequence not just because of its mix of rhetorical excess and deadpan Bavarian delivery but because it clashes with centuries of cultural anthropomorphism, from cuckoos beckoning in Summer to bluebirds on our shoulders to nightingales singing in Berkeley Square, whereby these supposedly happy and harmonious creatures sing specially for us. There is little such romance to be found amongst carrion crows plucking out eyes on battlefields or shrikes and butcherbirds impaling their prey on thorns for later. Whether or not Herzog’s Hobbesian view is true, the soundscape of birds is certainly not what it seems or what we would like it to be. Rather it is a babel of different languages, most of which are territorial and Darwinist in essence, whether in terms of conflict or consummation. It is only human though to project and extract stories in human terms, and birds do tell us things just as they communicate to each other. They speak of changes, boundaries, opportunities and threats. They speak of hours and seasons. Even their absences are illuminating.
Yet there are limitations to how much we can understand of them, a point where birds enter the realm of enigma. Poets operate at this border, and books of verse are often populated by birds, many as ciphers for a wide range and depth of human emotions — the nightingale, raven, albatross, swan, hawk, crow and so on. There are few works however that approach the strange otherness of these creatures, and even in such remarkable works, which stretch the boundaries of language and vision, as J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, the essence of birds remains always beyond reach. You might see one from your window right now or within a minute or two. Bystanders to almost everything we’ve ever done and yet inhabitants of another world entirely, barely concealed within our own. They remind us that we live side by side with other worlds. They remind us of time, existing before and no doubt after us. ‘There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground /And swallows circling with their shimmering sound…’ Sara Teasdale’s apocalyptic requiem begins.
Perhaps it was from birds that we first learned music. Certain types are still cherished for their skill in mimesis — parrots that talk, lyrebirds that mimic machinery — maybe it has always been a two-way process. We can hear birdsong weaved in lilts and trills through millennia of human music, ‘the silver chain of sound / Of many links without a break / In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake’ as it’s put in ‘The Lark Ascending’. You can hear it in the extraordinary angles of flight of the Queen of Night’s aria in The Magic Flute, an opera that centres around birds and their capture, written by a composer who had had a beloved pet starling who he shared songs with, according to his notebooks. You can hear it throughout Kate Bush’s entire career from her early demo of ‘Something Like a Song’, which sounds like a prelapsarian radio transmission, to the blissful crepuscular accompaniment to the second half of Aerial.
Birds appear over and over in the landscapes of Laura Cannell’s discography, as album titles, installations, pseudonyms. Feathers Unfurled. Isobel Raven. Sing as the Crow Flies. Hunter, Huntress, Hawker. Feathered Swing of the Raven. Antiphony of the Trees could be seen as an aviary of sorts, ‘minimalist solo chamber music’ gathering together all that has previously flown through her work. It certainly feels, from the opening track ‘For The Raven’, like being beckoned into a unique kind of place, the way that venturing into a copse or a forest does. Even if you don’t buy into superstitions or mythic tales of transformations associated with such places (the song ‘The Girl Who Became An Owl’ is in that long tradition) you still feel a very different atmosphere from the outside world. It calls to mind those times when breaching the outskirts of woodland, you hear the sudden call of a bird in the canopy that could be taken as a greeting but sends a note of trespass and warning audibly rippling through the forest. For the half hour of the album that follows, wherever you happen to be listening to Cannell’s music, you are there, surrounded by trees and the music, with all its hidden intentions, emerging from within its branches.
There’s an intimacy to the album that comes from Cannell’s method of playing alongside and in reply to the sound of birdsong coming through her windows and doors, and down her chimney, in a fen valley in Norfolk. Though there is a mirroring at work, rather than simply mimic the repetitions, drones, wing beats and flourishes of the birds Cannell adds her own surprises, improvisations and inventions. ‘For The Raven’ demonstrates how surprisingly versatile raven vocals are, more in spirit than in direct sampling. ‘For the Hoarders’ has a nesting lullaby quality. You find yourself both listening and translating. In the pulsing, ominous ‘For the Gatherers’ for instance, there is a call that could be a war whoop or a desperate cry.
Much of the intimacy comes from the recorder as Cannell’s primary choice of instrument. An underrated woodwind, unfairly maligned from its unimaginative use in schools, its use here chimes with the subject matter. When it’s been used in modern music, it’s often to convey a sense of naivety (‘The Fool on the Hill’, ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ etc), yet it’s a more unusual and rich instrument than it seems; its timbre calling to mind its medieval infancy. It’s fitting that an album of the woods should be created from an instrument of the woods, and the results are enchanting and subtly pagan from the hint of Wickerman eeriness in ‘For the Sacred Birds’ to the puckish title track. Yet it is an unmistakably contemporary album born of plague and lockdown, recorded in Cannell’s kitchen as site-specific work was impossible, as the musician confirms, “When the roads and skies were forced into quietude, the birdsong took over. The skies and branches were full of clarity with avian voices echoing through the crisp air of the fen valley. Every day it felt like the dawn chorus was getting louder, longer and stronger. The hyper focussed trilling of antiphonal calls permeated the stillness. The birds were singing so loudly that I had to sing back.”
The magic here is in the mystery, as songs like ‘Hidden in the Marsh Thistle’ attest, and Cannell’s ability to suggest spaces far beyond the immediate time and place. In doing so, Antiphony of the Trees becomes part of a library or network that stretches back centuries, something you can remarkably sense in the music, an antiphony both in the sacred sense and as a call and response, as the composer points out, “We have mimicked and tried to capture bird song, learning their melodies by ear and playing them on these pastoral recorders, in the fields tending to sheep, in the courts of castles and the parlours of great and small houses. In the churchyards of Holland, and in recollections and depictions of angels and deities. We have captured birds to teach them our songs that we may keep them in our homes. We have trained them in caged classes to give to our lovers, as living, breathing, music reciting machines. We have collected their voices, notated them and used them in our music. We have conjured folklore from their wordless stories, and attached lessons and meanings to their songs.”
It seems as if the birds sing for us, and Antiphony of the Trees is full of their aubades, serenades, lullabies and dirges. Yet this fascinating album also suggests they are immersed in another way of being, barely concerned with the earthbound listeners who inhabit the margins of their world.
‘Antiphony of the Trees’ is out now on Brawl Records.
Darran Anderson is the author of ‘Inventory’, which has been shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize, and ‘Imaginary Cities’, chosen as a best book of 2015 by the Financial Times, The Guardian, the A.V. Club, and others. Visit his website here.