Laura Cannell’s discography has continually focussed on a rootedness to nature, in particular, the sparseness of the English countryside in East Anglia.
Yet, drawing on classical and trad folk sounds and instruments, describing herself as ‘anti-classical’, she plays using the unorthodox technique of an overbow (bow restrung around the body of the violin) to create minimal and stark timbres, her music is inherently idiosyncratic and modern in a way that belies assumptions about rural England perhaps.
The ‘Modern Ritual’ tour which she is currently headlining – along with Charles Hayward, Hoofus (Andre Bosman), Jennifer Lucy Allan and Luke Turner – comes to London on 16 June at the LSO St Luke’s, and sees her collaborating to reconfigure notions of ritual. The tour appears to look at modernity through an age-old but ever-shifting ritualistic gaze, honing in on how we feel towards notions of ritual and being today.
I caught up with her to ask her about the tour and examine what the performances have to say about rituals in a modern age.
You’ve previously recorded in churches and a few of the Modern Ritual shows are taking places in churches. Your music also seems deeply rooted in the rurality of East Anglia. How important is place to your music – both in terms of acoustics and symbolism/meaning?
I am from East Anglia but have lived in Yorkshire and London before returning to Norfolk and now Suffolk. I didn’t set out to transcribe the landscape but it keeps showing up in everything I do, but really I’m approaching it from an improvisational and early music aspect. Having learnt lots of early renaissance and baroque repertoire I was fascinated by ornamentation and the ideas of musical rhetoric, call and response and antiphony. I grew up in a small village at the edge of the broads and marshes and learnt the recorder from an early age while being surrounded by rural countryside and old things (my parents are antique dealers). I like the freedom of space for the imagination that East Anglia provides, but it can also be stark and isolating. I feel that this perceived emptiness is a really good starting point for composition. Nothing is ever really empty, and the room to experiment and try ideas is essential.
I have tried out the acoustics in a lot of churches in Norfolk and Suffolk. There was a time when I did a lot of concerts in Arts Festivals or Early Music Festivals throughout the UK before I decided to start on my solo project, and churches made up a lot of the venues. Every person would proudly say that their church was renowned for its amazing acoustics, and I don’t want to undervalue this, but the church was built to be the original loudspeaker, to enhance the music and voices in the church and to give a theatrical impressive and overwhelming sound and feeling. Sometimes they have amazing acoustics and sometimes they are just amplifiers, which are not necessarily beautiful or magical.
I feel that as someone who goes into a lot of ancient buildings, I have discovered the different elements I look for in terms of sound and feel. My favourites are almost completely stone, with very few pews and not too much else. Even though it can be really hard to play in the winter, there is something different about the sound of the violin on a crisp winters day compared to a summer church. Sometimes the buildings which feel the weirdest or most uncomfortable produce an amazing sound. That’s why I try to take my recording equipment out with me. If I just go by how it looks or feels in the moment I might lose something special that I don’t realise was there until I get back to my studio and listen.
In terms of symbolism and meaning my association with churches is that they are quiet, rural and mostly ignored. These mammoth buildings with so much local history are amazing spaces. At times I do feel at odds with using them because I am not a Christian – I think of these buildings as being for all the people, left over from an age when everything else was built from wood, wattle and daub. It was probably the only time you could be alone with your own thoughts.
Ritual can often be associated, in much of our modern culture, with past spiritualisms, or religious ceremony. In an age where our perception of ritual can seem at odds with the more atheistic and less spiritual age we perhaps live in western Europe, could modernity and ritual seem like contradictory concepts? How do you resolve that contradiction in that perception?
The idea of Modern Ritual is to explore what it means to the performers. Some of the places we have performed have been churches, one has been an ex-working men’s club in Bristol, an ex-town hall in Barrow-in-Furness, a high tech contemporary concert room at Liverpool Philharmonic and some churches including a functioning church in Salford (Sacred Trinity) and the deconsecrated upcoming performance at LSO St Luke’s in London (16th June).
I think that ritual in music and words can mean repetition, habit. When I play my instruments I go through the ritual of putting recorders together, laying them out, tightening my violin bow. There are certain rituals which I do to check tuning or to prepare for performing, but these can also be transcribed into the playing, I often think of the music I’m playing as different voices responding to one another – having conversations, saying it differently at each performance but still being there in essence.
I don’t think ritual should only be seen as witchy or religious. It’s very easy to think that it is associated to a religious concept, but people are ritualistic. The Modern Ritual series has itself become a ritual between performers. We each bring our own ideas and we each perform and develop our performance. We take our words or music to a different space, and it has to adapt in certain ways.
It’s a really interesting process of making sure that we are not just going through the motions – it’s about being present for the audience. We are all people who have turned up for this performance, some are performing, some are listening, but we’re all part of it. We tend to look backwards a lot at ritual, and it’s tied up in rites and religious rituals whereas I think that what every person does every day in each individual life has ritual, we can’t escape it, it’s just how you frame it.
The concept stems from performances at Latitude festival. Music festivals – especially ones like Glastonbury – are often seen as the most obvious examples of rituals, or rites of passage, in modernity. Festivals have a real sense of collective feeling – or ‘communitas’ to borrow from anthropologist Victor Turner. How do the Modern Ritual performances try to bring about a form of collective feeling?
On paper, it seems like an unconnected group of people, but the line-up for Modern Ritual has a very strong core which enables us to bring our passions and voices to the table. I wanted to create something with other people, but I didn’t want to start a new band.
The core thread is what Modern Ritual means to you, and it never needs to be spoken about or overtly explained. But the fact that we have a common thread means that it instinctively makes sense.
Rituals are often written about as bringing about a ‘liminal’ state – a quality of ambiguity in which a previous state of being is interrupted. To this effect, how do the Modern Ritual performances try to interrupt the everyday, or the previous states of being, of the audience?
We play with perceptions of time with the performances. Jennifer Lucy Allan’s Social and Cultural history of the Foghorn in 30 interrupted acts is a perfect example. Lighthouse keepers would have to work their conversations around a horn going off for 5 seconds every half a minute meaning that their talking had to be organised in a new way. Her piece features the ghost of a long de-activated foghorn which is on a 15-second loop and she tells the history in the spaces between.
In contrast to this Charles Hayward’s 30 MINUTE SNARE DRUM ROLL sounds simple enough but the tensions and releases of this theoretically simplistic set up play with your concept of time, of patterns and pitch and imagined chattering voices, depending on the acoustic if can feel like an evocation.
Luke Turner talks about the failure of ritual in walking – the idea that by doing something repetitive everyone will get the same result out of it – he questions the ideas of ritual. I don’t want to give away too much, but it makes sense as a live performance.
Given that your music stands at this interesting tension between classical and anti-classical – using the tools, perhaps, of classical music, but towards creating something without the traditions and structures of classical music – to what extent is your music generally shaped by a notion of liminality and therefore ritual?
I spent a long time feeling the tension between classical and non-classical music. I studied the recorder at music college and a masters in recorder, while simultaneously being a self-taught fiddle player, learning the ropes at sessions in Norfolk and North and East Suffolk.
As a musician, I always knew that I wanted to be a performer but I felt conflicted about always performing compositions by other people – mainly male long-dead composers. Although I love so much baroque and renaissance composed repertoire, I felt that I needed to somehow find out what was in the spaces, what isn’t being said. What exists off the page, and outside the confines of a finished composition.
With the fiddle, I played the same traditional tunes over and over in sessions. As a recorder player I learnt and practised the tricky passages of Vivaldi or Malcolm Arnold over and over, but neither of these were my voice, they didn’t fulfil the feeling that I knew was there and continually tried to find. Neither expressed me as a musician, a person growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, connected yet disconnected I needed to find my voice. And I think that my voice draws on all the elements which have become tradition in my life.
The music I grew up on, the places and experiences, the love of the instruments and the challenges of playing them through periods of feeling like going through the motions of performing other people’s material.
I now feel that I have found my place and it isn’t a fixed place, but I can bring all of my traditions, study, experience and rituals into the music, playing these pieces of wood, strings and horsehairs that haven’t changed their technology in over a thousand years.
14/6/18 HEBDEN BRIDGE – THE TRADES CLUB
16/6/18 LONDON – LSO ST LUKES