Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Laura Cannell

Laura Cannell | 3rd December 2023

The power of space and spaces of power: Composer and performer Laura Cannell looks back on a year of sound made in Hobbit houses, shipping containers, steam rooms and cathedrals.

At the beginning of 2023 I moved from the cottage I rented on the edge of a farm in rural Suffolk, to a terraced house in the Waveney Valley. As with all of the best adventures, it was not planned. A house became available to rent, and though we had never considered living in the town, we said yes and embarked on a 2 month programme of gutting and painting in exchange for a couple of months’ free rent. Now we have blue floors, white walls and a very large inherited she-holly bush.

A major benefit of moving is that I don’t have to duck to get through every doorway anymore, and I can stand up in my bedroom! The last house was idyllic, thatched; it had a 5-tree apple and pear orchard and there was wildlife outside of every window, but it was built by and for 15th century hobbits, and a bit like Alice in Wonderland, we have grown too tall. I still catch myself awkwardly putting on a jumper horizontally because I became so used to grazing knuckles on the rough plastered bedroom ceiling that I have formed a weird jumper habit, even though I can do windmill arms in this house ’til the cows come home.

More importantly, I can again stand up to play the violin in any room I fancy. It’s these small pleasures: there is now no danger of my bow hitting the ceiling when I get over-excited. I did invest in a shed at the other house, it was my pride and joy, my studio, my place for writing music, recording, covering everything in sight with faux gold leaf and writing for CBTR. Ceilings really are the least that we can hope for but it has also taught me so much about what I am grateful for, and space is a major player that is easy to take for granted. 

Space is powerful, upwards, sideways and all around. Growing up at the very edge of a small village on the Norfolk marshes meant I never felt trapped within it — though obviously the first thing I did when I was old enough was move to London. I found that being either really extremely rural, or in the middle of a city has been good for me, but now I crave a middle ground; it doesn’t need to be ‘all or nothing’ as I once thought. I never could fathom why, but I always felt uncomfortable in the middle of things, audiences, choirs, orchestras, trains, crowds, pubs — I think you can see a theme. I’ve always wondered if it was because I had such space when I was little — we lived in a small 2 up 2 down cottage on the edge of the village, but the garden was huge, and surrounded by water meadows. There was also a fun slope to roll down a hill in (not really a hill, but steep for South Norfolk and inside a barrel!)

Musically, I have always enjoyed finding spaces to play in, magical sounds which sing back to you. I never feel alone when I’m with an instrument in a resonant space. I went to a funny local mini spa/pool in a barn the other day, funny because it had no pretensions — the button for the jacuzzi didn’t work, but it was under £10!!! The steam room had the best weirdest acoustic, luckily my sister and I had the whole place to ourselves so we had a little improvised sing. Obviously my first thought was that I would definitely need waterproof instruments and recording equipment to record in there. Or perhaps I could go on a closed day? Or was it crossing the line to go from a leisure environment to a sonic exploration? But I am seriously considering it. Thank god for plastic recorders…watch this space. 

Here are some of the spaces I have enjoyed making sounds, music and recordings in this year 2023. There are far more than I thought.

The Guildhall in Norwich – Magistrates Court Rooms inside the medieval Grade 1-listed building

Norwich Cathedral – Exploring the sound for a solo concert in 2024 and recording music for my Midwinter Processionals album

Mistley Towers – at the churchyard where Matthew Hopkins the Witch Finder General is buried. I spoke and played for the amazing FolkLands podcast, which is very much about place, space and location, presented by the actors/writers Tim Downie and Justin Chubb

The Louis Marchesi Crypt on Tombland in Norwich – Giving a talk and playing for the Norfolk Folklore Society Podcast

The Undercroft of Norwich City Hall – For the series Even.Norwich

A 40ft Shipping Container in a Norfolk Field – I recorded an improvised EP No Sound is Lost

Another Magistrates Court turned venue at The Cheltenham Festival

The Old Granary Barn recording studio/concert hall at a Priory that houses the world’s largest piano

The Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle for TUSK Festival

Outside on a bridge over Geldeston Locks – A short walk from the pub over to the marshes on Summer Solstice – no audience

Walpole Chapel – An Elizabethan farmhouse turned non-secular church. Recording gongs with Nina Bosnic (Paper Dollhouse)

Raveningham Church – Norman Round Tower Church. It always has my heart, I try to pop in there whenever I can with an instrument and zoom H4.

Finishing with the ultimate space — outdoors. I curated a Sound Walk over 5 weekends from November to December, placing music outside among 3 acres of wild and tame winter gardens. There was music among the owls, muntjac, Red Kites, buzzards, fungi, oak and pine trees. Hundreds of people have roamed through into spaces and hollows filled with commissioned site specific music. There were times when the music was playing into the landscape and the visitors had gone; the slow pace and the November winds churning and filtering the sounds of Rhodri Davies’ harp, Lori Goldstone’s cello recorded in a Brooklyn apartment, and many others. See the piece here on Caught by the River for more details about the Sound Walk.

Next year I know I have a solo concert in Norwich Cathedral (12th May) and I will be all ears searching out interesting places for sonic explorations. I will go where there is space and time to draw sound from the walls and offer it back into the ether.

The inspiration from space and location is so valuable and if like me, you’re feeling the need to create, write or compose, don’t forget to look in the unexpected vaults, crypts, forests, shipping containers and libraries near you. We can make the most of what’s around us if we look through a different lens. There is still so much to explore even in dark times, and sometimes, something that you create alone or by chance can be carried, give comfort and be listened to anywhere in the world.