Hannah Peel: ‘It’s been a journey, and a beautiful one at that’

Now with her third Number One album in the space of two years, Hannah Peel could be forgiven for getting accustomed to lofty heights.

Hannah Peel. Picture: Phil Sharpe
Hannah Peel. Picture: Phil Sharpe

After arranging strings on Paul Weller’s chart-topping records On Sunset and Fat Pop Volume 1, last month the 36-year-old composer reached another pinnacle, this time in the UK classical charts, with The Unfolding, a collaboration with Paraorchestra, the world’s only large-scale virtuoso ensemble of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians.

Peel, who was born in Northern Ireland but raised in Barnsley, giggles at the thought of joining exalted company in the contemporary classical world. “It was very unexpected, that’s for sure,” she says, adding: “There is no doubt about it if something goes in (that high), especially if you’re up against (Ludovico) Einaudi and Max Richter, they’ve been there for 300 days or whatever, you just start to go ‘oh wow, that’s amazing’. But then the reality sinks in that they’re shifting those records every single week. The fact that we’ve made it there is phenomenal, I feel really honoured.

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“At the end of the day for Paraorchestra it’s incredible because it’s their first album.”

The Unfolding wasn’t intended to be a record at all, she says. “It was supposed to be a live show that we were touring, then because of lockdown when I presented the music we were like ‘well, there might not ever be a chance to perform it, it could take two or three years’, so in order to keep the momentum we decided to make it into an album, to see if we could find the money to put together to make it happen. Luckily we were able to do that.”

The seeds of the collaboration were sown four years ago, when conductor and composer Charles Hazlewood contacted Peel asking if she would be interested in working with Paraorchestra. “At the time I was doing the Mary Casio album so I was working with a large ensemble then and I thought ‘OK, now I know how it works with a large group I’ll start to think about this’. But the reality was they commissioned me, we got together, I went to see them perform a few times – they did different shows exploring the work of Kraftwerk and minimalism, Pauline Oliveros and loads of really experimental music production, even Terry Riley’s In C.

“I got this overwhelming sense because there are so many incredible musicians they work with. When I asked for a list they sent me 75 different musicians who I could have access to, all unique, all individual. So we did a research and development day at the beginning of 2019 and loads of samples and sounds and atmospheres came from that, but it was not until 2020 that I managed to sit down in that first lockdown and go, ‘I’ve got the time now, I need to sit with everything I’ve explored and face my fears of writing for a group of incredible musicians that are not a standard classical orchestra.

“So you’re not writing for a string section, you’re writing for a string individual or a soprano or a percussionist or a drummer that doesn’t use a kick drum and you’ve got to always think what kind of music would I write for them. What could bring out the best in them and in me. It’s been a journey, and a beautiful one at that.”

Hannah Peel with Charles Hazlewood and Paraorchestra.

Peel also had to bear in mind that “quite a few of the musicians memorise all the parts or they might use braille or even assistance to help them get through a piece”.

“It does affect the way you write something,” she says. “It shouldn’t, but for me it was about writing for those individuals rather than just going, ‘Here we’re going to have a really complicated soprano part that’s going to take off and go this direction’ because actually that’s not true to them as individuals and personalities.”

Peel has described the album as a yearning, a reaching for love and to be part of something. It was, she admits, a feeling that was compounded by the pandemic. “Going back to that time when Charles asked me to do the project, before the R&D, I’d been doing a lot on Alzheimer’s and dementia (on her 2016 album Awake But Always Dreaming), and the Mary Casio album was based in space, so there was a side that I needed to feel more grounded in life.

“There’s a feeling that I’m getting from living this digital life of everything being up in the air and in our heads, and not feeling like we’re grounded. So I was really interested in looking back at human history in terms of where we lived and rocks and how we used the materials of the earth. Even artists that really go for that, like Barbara Hepworth who’s majorly influential on the album cover, Henry Moore and people who shaped things of natural beauty and examined the human form, and I thought that was a wonderful way to approach writing for Paraorchestra because they challenge that perception of what the human ability is and what we can do.

“That first couple of days of that R&D period was me taking loads of ideas about limestone and rocks and basically saying how can we make rocks sing, what is the sound of our earth and tectonic plates and just even thinking about how when you go to different villages around the UK they’ve all got a different look and different colour because they’re all from that landscape that’s local to them. Even that questioning of who we are and where we come from and where we are going was from the early days. It definitely became compounded when the pandemic hit and we were all living in this online presence and looking at the news and getting upset and stressed out about it.”

Peel cites two books, A Land by Jaquette Hawkes and Underland by Robert Macfarlane, as key influences on The Unfolding. The former considers the Earth and its life cycles while the latter is an exploration of the underworld and deep time.

Hawkes’ 1951 book, she says, “is such a wonderful insight and a reminder that we are on this planet and whatever has gone before us is underneath our feet”. “I think that, combined with the fact that Robert Macfarlane has done the foreword for the (republished) book and I was reading his Underland book in 2019 just made the puzzle fit together.

“Also the way that he was exploring the netherworlds and that to be connected sometimes you need to delve into that darkness in order to see the light again, I thought that was a beautiful way of summing up where we are going. And also just touching into that self-care and mental awareness and feeling that you can make sense of the world through music and exploring that deep connection to who we are and not worrying about the future of the present; just kind of sitting with it.”

Peel says there is “a lot more internal fathoming going on” in this record, explaining: “I don’t write records about what goes on personally, I always try to think and attach what I’m going through to the wider scope then that helps me deal with it, like trauma or even from childhood, living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

“There’s always an essence of trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. This is definitely a really strong collaboration between individuals that have probably had to go through that as well because they are different and could have been treated differently, and here we are playing music together and there is no difference. It is just one big unity of music, and I think that’s really precious.”

As well as a short tour with Paraorchestra, that includes Bluedot festival at Jodrell Bank on Thursday July 21, Peel has also been working on the piece Neon for Manchester Collective. “They were putting together a programme that uses Steve Reich’s Sextet,” Peel says. “When I think about Steve Reich, I think about the American side of landscapes and buildings and how his music echoes the city vibes.

“What I always take from it, especially if you go to cities like New York where that sound just seems to generate from, is the night time is really important, and the night time qualities of what you see on films is so iconic, and it’s always through neon and light. Thinking about Blade Runner and things like that, it’s always to do with the light and reflections of rain and buildings.

“I was reading about neon and how it’s a dying artform because everybody’s replacing it with LEDs and a found a line from an old guy in Japan talking about how he used to have 20 to 30 people working for him and now he was just on his own and the art of breath and touch and fire and the sparking of life was dying out. I just thought it was a really beautiful symbolism of again being able to touch and feel. It takes a lot of labour and knowledge to make that art and that knowledge is disappearing, hence why I wrote a piece for them. I really wanted to reflect that homage to that iconic imagery as well.”

The piece includes field recordings made in Tokyo by Peel’s friend, the electronic artist Hinako Omori. “She was going to Japan and I said, ‘Please can you take your recorder and capture some sounds of the streets so I’ve got something to manipulate and use’, so that’s under one of the tracks.

“Interestingly the whole piece is written for them and tape – we don’t use tape as it is now, it’s just referred to as the sound – but it was really important to have the sound guy playing as much as the musicians were, so he’s triggering quite a few things at the same time as they’re playing so it does feel like there’s a kind of joint body of people bringing together the two worlds, which is nice.”

Peel is a “massive” admirer of the work that Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo have done with the Collective. “They’re brilliant,” she says. “From the very basics of what they started in the beginning, taking classical music to places that you don’t expect, to commissioning people to now write music in new and exciting ways.

“I have huge respect for them and Rakhi is an incredible performer anyway, so the energy that they bring to their pieces, I’ve loved everything they’ve done, especially when they’ve been over to Belfast, I’ve been able to see a lot because they do make the effort to travel and go places.”

Peel has also donated a track to an Earth Day fundraising initiative by Brian Eno’s UK and US-based charity EarthPercent. It was originally composed for Greenpeace with a light installation by the company Celestial. “It features the Ulster Orchestra and it’s just really beautiful,” she says.

“Greenpeace approached me asking if I would write something for Act Now campaign for the G7 summit, but they wanted it huge and I was like, how am I going to do this with just electronic music? Weirdly enough, the Ulster Orchestra had contacted me and said ‘if you’ve got anything going on, we’re up for recording, we’ve got some money left over from funding for the pandemic’ and I said, ‘What about this?’ A couple of weeks later I went and recorded with them in Belfast and it all came together. It’s lovely to have a huge string ensemble playing it.”

While awaiting another opportunity to work with Weller, Peel has been composing music for a Sky TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwitch Cuckoos, which starts on June 3. “It stars Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley, it’s a really amazing adaptation. That’s a fully electronic, almost Radiophonic Workshop type score.”

“I’ve spent ten months since Fir Wave came out working on that and the Paraorchestra record,” she adds with a smile. “Now I’m just going to take on a couple of little things and take it a bit easier before I completely burn out.”

The Unfolding is out now. Manchester Collective will perform Neon at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on May 19. www.hannahpeel.com