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Stef CONNER (b 1983)
Riddle Songs (2019)
Stef Conner (voice and lyre)
Hanna Marti (voice and harp)
Rec. 2019 at Phipps Hall, University of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK
Texts and translations included DELPHIAN DCD34227 [62:37]
Like another estimable musical archaeologist John Kenny (it’s surely no coincidence that a couple of his discs are among the jewels of the Delphian catalogue), Stef Conner has quietly carved out a niche for herself, one seemingly borne out of personal enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity. She similarly seeks to forge new music from ancient materials. If Kenny’s interest lies in the tone colours, mechanics and textures of arcane instruments, Conner’s preoccupation (if this disc is anything to go by) seems to be with the felicities of language, in this case Old English. It is notable that the booklet includes a heartfelt encomium from Benjamin Bagby, the founder of Sequentia and arguably the doyen of research into medieval performance practice; he is also one of Conner’s most influential mentors. (If readers have never witnessed Bagby’s exhilirating one-man performance of Beowulf, it is one of the wonders of the age and can be seen here, with subtitles).
On this new disc Conner accepts the premise that Anglo-Saxon poetry was more likely to have been (at least partially) sung than simply recited, and has thus joined those academics and performers who like to speculate about what such singing might actually have entailed, notwithstanding the apparently oral nature of its conveyance from generation to generation and the absence of any fragments of credible (or useful) musical notation. The present album incorporates a cycle which is utterly contemporary and through composed; one which seems to have emerged in part from the tensions deriving from the unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions provoked by such speculation. Riddle Songs is an exploration of the overlap between Conner’s involvement in what she describes as ‘free composition’ and the background of her co-conspirator here, the Swiss singer and instrumentalist Hanna Marti, who teaches aspects of historical performance practice at the renowned Schola Cantorum in Basle.
The core of the work is the Old English tongue itself – as Conner states in the booklet: “It is as if musical style (medieval or modern) is the body, but the words we sing are its soul.” In structural terms the starting (and end point) is Rune Poem, whose ancient text lives on in an early eighteenth century facsimile of an original manuscript which has been lost. Its text seems to serve the purpose of a mnemonic device for teaching as it is both repetitive and richly alliterative (a quality which evidently appeals to Conner). If, like me, you attended primary school in the 1960s, your “times-tables” would have been drilled with rhythmical, one note ‘tunes’ (“one nine is nine, two nines are EIGHTEEN, three nines are TWENTY-SEVEN ….”) that incorporate a similar form to this text, which Conner sets as five independent aphorisms, each of which concerns a single idea; Torch, Day, Earth, Star and Water. These brief songs begin and end the sequence and act as waypoints throughout it. Before embarking on the album as a whole I found it useful to play these five tracks in succession – they provide an accessible introduction to Conner’s style; simple, related tunes, arranged for one or two voices, earthily projected (unaccompanied) by Conner and Marti, at once simultaneously ancient and modern. (I have no reason to doubt that these methods were as effective for early Anglo-Saxon pupils as they were for me, regardless of what we were told at teacher training college decades later ….)
At the other end of the scale, the more extended numbers in Riddle Songs are perfectly formed arcs of imaginatively conceived choral sound, thrillingly executed by the fourteen members of the ad hoc choir Everlasting Voices (which includes both Conner and Marti). The texts of the three biggest panels - Fire (track 2), the melismatic Flight (track 14 – a dyad of bird poems) and the remarkable mini-epic Ice (track 19), with its ethereal tintinnabuli and barnstorming tenor solo (Nils Greenhow) - are drawn from the Exeter Book, the most voluminous of the surviving codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Each of these longer pieces simultaneously project austerity and complexity and somehow seem to connect us to an impossibly distant past. Conner has thus fashioned an unusual music whose modernity is far from inaccessible.
Other songs may be shorter in duration but are consistently distinctive and colourful; the exceptional singers are fearless in rising to their idiosyncratic challenges. The delightful riddle Hall-Joy is an atmospheric paean to a particular instrument (I’m trying to avoid offering spoilers for these riddles – the answers are discreetly provided in the booklet!); it’s one of two of Hanna Marti’s own composed contributions to the cycle – she accompanies her own fervent voice with harp. Caedmon’s Hymn approaches folk music (Conner herself is an alumnus of the brilliant band formerly known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset); the same is true of the evocative earth-song Seed Spell. It really rocks. The richly harmonised riddle Sky Lights starts more gently; a haunting confection blending raw solo lines with piquant, other-worldly harmonies. It features some brilliant writing for male voices. Song-pack begins with a fervent plea to a particular kind of instrumentalist - its melodic weave casts an unforgettable spell above a taut drone (that’s a bit of a clue…..) Conner and Marti’s spare instrumental textures are deployed tastefully and prove wonderfully apt - the rippling accompaniment to Tide-mother is especially hypnotic.
Riddle Songs is a delight. It’s as novel and refreshing as the texts are ancient and enchanting. Performances and sound are exemplary. Quite apart from the sonic delight Stef Conner’s most distinctive music provides I was also mightily impressed by her booklet essay. It is splendidly written - fluent, authoritative and richly informative, yet appropriately personal and thoroughly entertaining. If only other composers were able to discuss their work with such insight, enthusiasm and lack of ego. It is a joy to read.