Unpopular advent 2021 – day 6

Hannah Peel – ‘Ecovocative’ from Fir Wave

The first time I came across the music of Hannah Peel was back in 2019 when I picked up her collaboration with Will Burns on the Rivertones label. ‘Chalk Hill Blue’ (a live recording is available on Peel’s Bandcamp) is one of those pieces of work that give lie to the Romantic vision of landscape and nature, showing it instead in its truer colours of disintegration, disease, decay and desolation, particularly in the context of human beings’ relationships with it. There is beauty in there too of course, not least in the sounds conjured by Peel to accompany Burns’ words, but its not exactly a record of pastoral gentility and is all the better for that.

Now it is entirely possible you may have heard Hannah Peel’s music without realising it, for she has composed pieces for documentaries about ‘Game Of Thrones’ and Lee Miller as well as thriller series ‘The Deceived’. I’ve watched none of these, although the Miller documentary is one I really do want to see and I am cross with myself for missing it whilst it was on the BBC’s platform. But TV and film is as bad (or as good?) as music these days in that there is so much available and so little time to consume it. I am sure I am not alone in having play/watchlists in multiple digital locations, each crammed with curios doomed never to be reached. And don’t even get me started on the piles and shelves of ‘to-be-read’ books, never mind the digital wish-lists of e-books. Still, it can be fun dipping into all these lists on occasion and wondering what on earth some of the items are and why they might possibly have found themselves there. Before launching off on yet more trips down rabbit holes and bookmarking multiple new artefacts for possible excavation at a future date. Wishful thinking or avoidance strategy? Both, perhaps. Oh, and to get back to Hannah Peel, you may also have heard her toy piano cover of ‘Tainted Love’ which has had over ten million Spotify plays and has likely earned her tuppence.

Peel’s work on soundtrack composition, particularly within the realm of electronics, naturally brings to mind the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the almost mythic Delia Derbyshire. In the case of 2021’s ‘Fir Wave’ album, however, this is no mere stumble into the easy and unthreatening ground of familiar reference points, for ‘Fir Wave’ finds its roots largely in a musical excavation and reclamation job on the 1972 library music record ‘Electrosonic’, by Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and Australian composer Don Harper. Not that you would know it from listening, for ‘Fir Wave’ retains only trace imprints of its source material and is a cohesive force that sits confidently amidst electronica from the likes of Pye Corner Audio, Lomond Campbell and Bicep that mine similar realms of wired nature. It’s the theme of nature’s circularity that Peel is particularly interested in here, which perhaps lends the music its rhythmic elegance as sequences loop around themselves and supple beats worm their way into the psyche. This is fluid techno, a blissful drift to the centre where we discern the idiosyncrasies and glitchy inconsistencies of existence. Perhaps too then it is not so distant from the preoccupations of ‘Chalk Hill Blue’ in that it casts these undercurrents of resistance, the itches of reality that scratch the surface of the Romantics’ persistent vision of Nature and pull on those threads until we see a much more complex and nuanced beauty.

Like the great fictional Inspector Knollis, I do not believe in coincidences so it makes perfect sense to discover that Peel worked as arranger and conductor on Dot Allison’s ‘Heart Shaped Scars’ that featured on day 2 of this advent-end-of-year-review-series. A shared interest in the point of flux between nature and technology, the here and the there, the shape-shifting dreams of perception marking out ‘real’ and ‘imagined’, perhaps. It all fits because we make it all fit and there is nothing wrong with that.

Mention too really must go to ceramicist James D Pegg whose artwork graces the sleeve of ‘Fir Wave’ and its associated ‘single’ releases. Working within the same theme of nature’s circularity, Pegg explored the Japanese Ensõ movement and produced a sequence of pieces that make for a delicious visual accompaniment. The series of seven exquisite porcelain vases that Pegg created to celebrate ‘Fir Wave”s nomination for the 2021 Mercury Prize may have all but sold out (at the time of writing, one remains for sale in Pegg’s online shop) but if you are lucky you might still find a 12″ vinyl release where Pegg’s designs resonate as powerfully as Peter Saville’s inner sleeves for ‘New Order: Substance 1987’.

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