Cut to the Quick … : I think it’s a lovely album. Absolutely gorgeous.
The first few times I listened to Quick Sparrows on headphones and found it incredibly, well… relaxing (and nicely-engineered, too – on some pieces the music seemed to curl back on itself, follow the violin bow back and forth and over and down; swirl in the dusty old, pollen-speckled air between my ears… but I’ve no idea whether that was a result of good mic placement, an accidental audio artifact, due to the natural reverb of the church she recorded the pieces in, or some weird projective thing on my part…), but Laura’s music - and her beautifully-paced / well-judged performances - also tap into / invoke a very strong emotional undercurrent. I really don’t know why that is – though I’ve thought about it quite a bit recently, asked myself why certain frequencies – certain clusters of sound – drones – should trigger certain emotional cues, especially in music whose origin sits outside of contemporary culture, so (in theory) shouldn't be linked to many of the cultural / musical cues that we pick up as we move through life. Oh, sorry: some context here: it blows my mind that one piece has its origins in the 4th century – or that the most ‘recent’ piece dates from the 1300s. No, it really does blow my mind.
(By an odd coincidence (though, thinking about it, I’m not sure it is… I wrote this a couple years ago as an opening salvo about… something; then I started reading more about heraldry, medieval symbolism… I was clearly starting to move towards something; a personal re-casting of the pre-Romantic Age as something mysterious and alien; a Sci-Fi Past; *takes deep breath*) I’m working on a commercial fiction project set within this time period, so Laura’s music is a perfect accompaniment to my current work).
Her music has so much space in it. It breathes – feels alive – not old, dusty, dead.
“Radiant Shaking Leaves” is… quietly breathtaking. Meditative, yet simultaneously evocative. It feels as if I should have heard this before – Deja Preview – that I ‘know’ this music, have heard it somewhere – and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
If the music on Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth sounds ‘timeless’, then perhaps we should ask what we mean by that. Do we mean, when we use that phrase, that some pieces of music speak to us in some over-arching ‘universal’ way? Maybe we do; certainly, some of the pieces here present themselves with a certain ‘blurring’ of geotemporal locality; I quickly lost track of whether I was hearing something that might have originated on the Scottish islands, or in Ireland, or Slovenia – one sequence of notes reminded me of Finnish Folk music, another of Russian Gypsy songs – does this fragment belong in an 18th Century Hebridean croft, or a 17th Century Polish inn or John Cale’s loft, 1963? Is it old, new or neither?
If I say that certain pieces make me think of ‘moorland’ or a pub I visited 25 years ago or the smell of a spit-roast pig or the caves under Tintagel Castle, is it because I’m the sum total of all the episodes of Robin Hood or Poldark that I watched as a child, or John Boorman’s Excalibar, or too many day-trips to Glastonbury, or a faded black-and-white picture of me, my late father and a monkey, 1966, taken on Castle Road – the pair of us smiling for the camera; a sign behind us pointing to a past I can never re-inhabit (‘stately’, ‘melancholy’, ‘mournful’, ‘sombre’…)? What does “Medieval” mean – to you, to me, to the memory-stack we carry round inside our heads, the associations / images / films – the cod-medieval neural-tat we’ve acquired along the way – all that mimetic baggage, our personal triggers, cues, sad 4am moments? What does “Medieval” mean?
I think that – maybe – just when we thought we knew where we were, when we thought we’d finally got a grip on Post-Modernism (the illusion of everything being a single mouse-click away, of time and space and linearity and ‘heritages’ breaking down into a morass of #atemporal easily-searchable data-objects – of the concept of ‘authenticity’ in music / art / whatever being swept way by a tsunami of digital simulations), History plays one last trick on us and it presents us with a new kind of ‘past’ - one that is ultimately unknowable.
Laura’s music is a beautiful, elegiac carrier-wave, a backwards-pointer to all those times and places whose smell, taste, physicality we can never truly know. What is gone – what has passed over; evaporated – without being fully photographed / recorded / documented (the ultimate curse of our own era, if we are to be completely truthful) is truly gone. All we are left with are fragments of something we can never fully understand or know or experience – and, of course, at that point, the concept of ‘authenticity’ itself also becomes completely meaningless because, well, that ‘older’, deeper section of history is mostly intangible to us. It’s too fragmented, too fragile to completely grasp or hold onto. All that's left is a representation of it.
What I think I sense in Laura's music is the tension that exists between what we knew but had forgotten (ourselves), what we thought we knew about the past (simulation), what we had but can tragically no longer inhabit (our memory of a / our own 'past') and that which 'was', but which was not inhabited by us (a deeper, 'real', but unknowable past).
If we sense the universal – the ‘timeless’ – in certain pieces of music, then it’s because it opens up those parts of ourselves that are no longer available. It opens up those unspoken tensions. The lives we once lead, the times we once had.
The fleeting and the eternal become intertwined.
But none of this is important; it's a terrific album.
I sent Laura a bunch of dumb, naïve and downright impertinent questions. She’s a classically-trained musician, but patiently answered my “not sure what I mean by this, but”-isms. Returning to some of the themes above – the illusion of an internet that provides access to ‘everything’ (but actually doesn’t) – as I get older, I’m increasingly fascinated by the minutae of things; that musicians such as Laura have physically dug out fragments of very old pieces – tracked them through time; reinterpreted them as tavern-players or minstrels might once have done - added to a slowly-evolving canon-piece that dozens of others have put their mark on.... so, you start wondering about notation and so forth – the 'permanency' of music -- when did people start writing music down? Has notation changed over the years? I know (‘cos I went to a lecture with Dan Pope!) that musical temperament has changed over the years – that tunings have changed, pitches – a ‘C’ now probably sounds different to a ‘C’ in the 13th century, etc (See, I told ya I was ignorant!). So, thanks to Laura for answering my vague questions…
“Initially what I'm doing is 'Historically Informed', but with a disregard to the rules to some extent. I didn't want to make an ‘Early Music’ CD… I wanted to take some bars of medieval music that I love and be free to do what I want with them. I trawled through loads of books and tunes, and other people's transcriptions (as I am rubbish at reading really early manuscripts and it takes too long!) I found bits of music, turned them upside down, inside out, played them backwards or literally used the score as a skeleton to improvise around or ornament.
“I think that maybe I inherently sound a bit medieval!
“All of the pieces are improvised to a greater or lesser extent, i.e. Track 1 is entirely improvised -- I just turned up at the church and pressed ‘record’.
“Track 2 is based on a medieval Christmas carol from a book someone lent me in which everything else was a bit boring, and I looped and extended sections in improvisation.
“Track 3 is a 5th century Armenian tune which I changed and added a 2nd recorder harmony part to.
“Track 4 is loosely based on another 5th century Armenian tune… etc…
“Some of the others - like “Marsh Land Lullaby” – were spontaneous pieces. I was thinking of another piece [of music], but avoiding the notes from it and that's what came out.
“Half of the pieces were based on notation, but on the last day I was recording, I forgot my folder and thought I'd just do something anyway, and I ended up preferring a lot of that stuff to my original plan!
“I'm playing on a normal violin - not a medieval one - so structurally they are a bit different and they had a couple of different tunings - mostly they had 4 or 5 strings and the standard GDAE is one of them. That's what I love about fiddles and recorders, hardly anything has changed! Medieval music now is mostly played at modern pitch (where A = 440), but it would have been different then, I reckon.
“I just remembered that I used two fiddles, one of them I dropped the bottom G to F so it I could get octave F's. This is getting rather specific!!!
“The music I'm using is mostly composed, but I like to think that it would have been played in the pub after the service or after playing in Court.
“There is also a lot of Scandinavian fiddle influence in there (even if you can't necessarily hear it!), because I spent quite a few months learning to play fiddle and bass drum, something I needed to go through!
“But I reckon I'll do it live again soon.”