In concert – Hannah Peel: Fir Wave Live premiere

by Ben Hogwood

How appropriate that Hannah Peel should be placed in Hall One at Kings Place for the live premiere of her 2021 album Fir Wave. The hall is, after all, constructed with the material from a single, 500 year-old German oak tree named Contessa – and here it absorbed music that could have been written in its honour, as part of Peel’s artist residency in the venue’s Sound Unwrapped series.

Fir Wave originated in lockdown, its open air textures providing solace for many – your reviewer included – during several different phases of isolation. Its appeal lies both in the past and the future. Peel based her musical inspiration on the music of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, re-sampling and regenerating their work, and absorbing it into her own style and processes. The resultant work is an emotive one, celebrating the environment while fully aware of the issues it faces.

Peel’s deeply felt electronic music is often achieved through a ‘less is more’ approach – as the vocals on first track Wind Shadow demonstrated. With her live accomplice, Hazel Mills, she proceeded to sculpture and layer some beautifully earthy sounds, the melodic motifs coming up from the ground itself but becoming airborne through their expression by voice, synthesizer treble, violin or piano. For Peel is a multitalented artist, her roots nearer to folk music but now fully embracing the electronic idiom.

This included the intricate and sensitively handled beats. These cut through the smokescreen in Hall One with clear precision, drawing back to enable the appreciation of bigger vistas, both in the title track and Emergence In Nature. Peel was an endearing presence, addressing the audience only occasionally as she preferred to let her music do the talking. While understandably nervous at the reaction to music that hadn’t played in public since its release two years ago, the warmth of the reception confirmed she need not have worried. Patterned Formation had an angular beauty to its repeated loop, while Reaction Diffusion packed a heavier punch.

The attentive audience became fully immersed in the music, transported to the natural spaces it was portraying. Fir Wave itself was a treasure, describing a remarkable process found on certain mountains in the world. When the wind hits a mountainside full of trees, it starts to kill off the front arm of the fir trees, allowing the ones at the back to grow. Over years and years, the steady pattern creates a beautiful sound wave across the mountainside that shifts through a long period of time. Peel somehow described this in her music, which left a lasting impression.

With the album ingrained in our thoughts, Peel returned for two charming encores given with the aid of a music box. This gave her the appearance of standing in a cosmic post office, preparing to dispatch a lettercard to a significant other. The music told compelling stories through a charming cover of Cocteau TwinsSugar Hiccup, dating back to 2010, and a revelatory interpretation of New Order’s Blue Monday, turning the music on its head in duet with Mills.

Even these were not the emotional peak of the evening, however, for in a final encore of Unheard Delia Part 1 we heard the voice of Derbyshire herself, caught in an interview in a sunlit room. This detail, imparted by Peel before we heard the music, helped us to capture the moment itself, and the track remained in thrall to a pioneer of electronic music taken too soon. Peel, to her enormous credit, stepped back at this point to ensure Derbyshire’s voice could, at last, be fully heard and appreciated.

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