Monday 16 November 2020

Mystery lays: Stef Conner, 'Riddle Songs'

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This startling, life-affirming record somehow manages a feat that has otherwise eluded science so far: time travel. Stef Conner has composed a suite of songs that demonstrate how, through the arts, the past is all there, all at once, running parallel to our present. What are its secrets?

A bit of background (although Conner’s liner notes for the CD are so informative and engrossing, I don’t want to simply replicate extracts here). Conner takes particular interest in combining research with composition: the theme of this album rests on the intriguing fact that there are no surviving Old English songs. Or, to be more precise, we have poetry and text, but no extant musical instruction or notation to go with them. Conner sets out to bring the words to life with new settings. Among these are a group of riddles, which give the album its name, as well as an overarching metaphor for the central puzzle behind the verse: that we can never know exactly how the music would have sounded.

From the first glance at the evocative cover image, the disc looks set to catapult the listener back to an era when even ‘early music’ was in the future. Conner (alto voice, lyre) collaborates with Hanna Marti (soprano voice, harp) and Everlasting Voices, a ‘super-group’ of singers who assemble for specific projects, here conducted by Jonathan Brigg. Marti contributes or co-writes three tracks. The arrangements honour authentic instrumentation and tunings, without forcing anything material from the present day into the album’s soundworld.

However, this is not so much historically-informed, as historically inspired performance – and we are not listening to a reconstruction, some kind of attempt at reanimating a lost artform. This is brand new writing, brand new music – and it sounds like it. Conner is quick to flag where she references known early motifs and these can range from taking harmonic inspiration for a mnemonic rhyme from medieval Latin recitation settings (the splintered ‘Rune Poem’) to incorporating drones to simulate bagpipes (‘Song-pack’). But while at pains to acknowledge these launchpad characteristics, Conner is not reliant on them: instead, they are springboard for her own compositional verve and flair.

Less than two minutes into the album and second track ‘Fire’ makes it clear that this is something different: the unexpected full force of Everlasting Voices bending chords around a winding tenor solo, the heat-intensity audible. The arrangement then tracks the demands of the lyric (the Phoenix myth), calming and resolving before building again to agitated repetition as flame engulfs the bird, then into the ambiguous closing hint at resurrection. Mirror track ‘Ice’, near the record’s close, uses a similar pattern of tension and release (no spoilers, but listen out for the modest jump-scare!) on an even more epic scale, the group nudging the storytelling along with dissonance/harmony as the narrative dictates.

But even these arrangements are spare and steady, and much of the album is sparser still. It feels as though Conner has constructed a set of elements or patterns and made the most of the combinations they provide. Vocally, there is Everlasting Voices and the mix of sounds they provide; but Conner has also decided to sing both solo, and in duet with Marti. There are accompaniments by solo lyre, solo harp, sometimes both are together, other times both are absent. As a result, very few tracks present themselves with exactly the same mix of voices and instruments so, accordingly, there is always some variation in mood. There is no sense of chant or litany to fix this music in a tradition: its modern sensibility always wins through.

There are exceptions, of course, to prove this rule. The ‘Rune Poem’ I mentioned above is split into segments that provide a consistent, anchoring thread throughout the disc, and is sung in its five-part entirety by Conner and Marti. Their voices complement each other beautifully and blend naturally: following the same melodic pattern (with the different colours/timbres from their own registers) they almost sound like a multi-tracked entity. Two tracks, ‘Flint’ and ‘Night-bard’, feature Conner accompanying herself alone on lyre, and the added intimacy this provides make one hope – without diminishing the shared achievement of this project in any way – that a solo record may lie in the future.

(Video by Foxbrush Films)

The album overall is utterly unafraid of space (plaudits to Paul Baxter here, too, for such three-dimensional clarity in the production). Key pauses are embraced. Even the lack of sustain from the lyre is used ingeniously, offsetting any sense of ethereal fragility with its blunt pulse – try ‘Seed Spell’ to hear how the voices are suspended above the percussive strum, almost like an acoustic click-track supporting the song’s ritualistic nature. Elsewhere, on ‘Tide-mother’, Marti’s cascading, rippling harp figure recalls the suggested answer to the text’s riddle, water.

If setting a text to an onomatopoeic accompaniment calls to mind lieder or mélodies, no bad thing. I found this album spoke most clearly to me as art song, with its placing of existing verse in sympathetic settings that allow the instruments used to both serve the needs of the text while acting as the voice’s equal. And ‘Riddle Songs’ makes an excellent song cycle, with its multiple underlying themes (mythology, nature and the elements) and carefully-plotted sequencing that both builds to a climax and brings the album full circle.

The record company calls this a ‘concept album’, and Conner herself has described it as ‘prog-choral’. In both cases, this is a little like saying “we have created this CD especially for you, Adrian”: however, the descriptions are just, as this record can cross genres quite comfortably. Anyone who follows, say, Dead Can Dance, cherishes the ‘Mystère des Voix Bulgares’ albums, or keeps an eye on the ECM New Series label (think Trio Mediaeval, especially) is sure to enjoy ‘Riddle Songs’.

It’s a delight to discover an album steeped in history and heritage that, crucially, sounds so contemporary. A stunningly well-realised work.


‘Riddle Songs’ is out now on Delphian Records – you can buy it directly from their online store:

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