In a braver world a work such as Laura Cannell’s second album, Beneath Swooping Talons, would likely be released on an imprint such as Hyperion or even Veritas. Instead, the issue falls to the catholic tastes of the ever eclectic and adventurous Front and Follow. For what we have here is a bold collage of (only slightly) updated early music and while Cannell makes no hostage to history of herself, acutely and consistently bringing her own aesthetic filter to the fray, this is still very much the ‘real deal’. The ten pieces present are all solo performances (recorded in single takes) by Cannell herself on fiddle or utilising the unearthly sounds of double recorder; the entire weight of the work, therefore, falling squarely on her shoulders. It’s a fairly high risk way to make an album and to pull this off successfully any musician needs both a considerable understanding of the underlying source material and the sheer instrumental ability (yup, sometimes you just have to be able to really play!) to interpret it. Fortunately, both these qualities are present in abundance and Cannell’s daring performances, expertly balanced between intuition and technique, are executed with precision and a level of instinctive intensity that borders on the vehement.
While Cannell isn’t the only musician to be currently exploring the musical modes present in early music (the largely flute-based work of Isnaj Dui comes to mind) there is a singular bravado and voice present in this album. Drawing upon fragments of both sacred and secular music from as wide a range as 5th century Armenia to 14th century France, Cannell utilises a deconstructed viola de gamba bow and alternate violin tunings to engender an atmosphere fusing near-icy precision with an (what should be a contradictory) ‘life-depends-on-this’ quality of delivery. No apologies if that has a hint of ‘muso-talk’ about it, as the result is every bit as exotically and evocatively satisfying as the description is meant to be.
Yet, where does this kind of music, with its extensive historical reference points, reside in the modern pantheon? Some of the track titles (“Be Not Afeard”, “For Sorrow Salt Tears”, “All The Land Ablaze”) are suggestive of the more thoughtful, soulful and frequently gloomy end of the ambient world. Within that genre many a ‘take you to a desolate place’ piece of music can be found; music largely to be enjoyed eating crumpets in front of a big fire in a humour of enjoyable melancholy, which is likely to have been the mood of the composer. Beneath Swooping Talons, however, takes you to that desolate place and leaves you there, bootless, hatless and coatless, with night coming on. There’s an almost pitiless quality to this music that makes its closest, emotional, comparison the anti-romanticism of Schoenberg’s early Modernist music. Arguably, modern psychology (the sense of oneself primarily as oneself and not as part of a ‘type’ of people) begins with the Renaissance which, naturally, includes how people relate to, how they ‘hear’ music. How then, to ‘hear’ such music as this in a modern context? Forgive me if I over-intellectualise but what is so compellingly stirring about Cannell’s work is the specific lack of comforting (or false, take your pick) romanticism, present. Indeed, should Fargo ever be re-filmed for British television and set in Laura’s own backyard of rural East Anglia, this would make for a perfect soundtrack.
Ultimately, this is not music of either the head or the heart. It’s more elemental than that, this is music of blood, skin and bone, music of the viscera. Therein lays its power and its ability to reveal how deeply music lies within us is what renders Beneath Swooping Talons into a notable success.