‘The Unfolding’ is Hannah Peel’s timeless collaboration with Paraorchestra. Inspired by the imprints of life beneath our feet, it’s a document of all of Earth’s incredible history – in 54 minutes 

Have you ever wondered what the formation of a planet sounds like? Or whether rocks sing? Hannah Peel has. The Northern Irish musician and composer has taken on projects of increasingly bold range in recent years. Her 2017 album ‘Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia’ incorporated a colliery brass band amid a synthy collection inspired by space and the solar system. Before that, 2016’s ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’ attempted to capture the heartbreak and confusion of her grandmother’s dementia. Meanwhile, 2021’s ‘Fir Wave’ saw Peel reforming Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson’s library music record, ‘Electrosonic’, into a collection of pieces inspired by nature, for which she was rewarded with a Mercury Prize nomination.

But Peel’s latest release, ‘The Unfolding’, tops them all. A collaboration of planetary reach with Paraorchestra, it sees Peel set herself the challenge of documenting the Earth’s progression and, in particular, humankind’s place in that – a cacophonous, loving, miraculous and, ultimately, tragic blink-of-an-eye against an almost unimaginably vast backdrop.

A concept of enormous scale, it grew slowly – as is often the case with good things. The first tentative roots were planted in 2018, at which point Peel had spent so much time gazing up at the heavens for ‘Mary Casio’ that she had a metaphorical neck ache. For her next project, she decided to look down and ponder the world beneath her. 

“I was like, ‘Where do you go from space?’,” says Peel. “And I was thinking, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind exploring the underground and formations of rocks and geological, planetary, Earthy things’. I was starting to think about ‘Fir Wave’ as well. I had just moved to the coast [Peel relocated to Northern Ireland in 2018] and was also really interested in the stone sculpture work of Barbara Hepworth, as I’d lived near her artworks at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park when I was a kid. Everything fed into each other. I became really quite obsessed with rocks and how you could get an orchestra underground and perform in cavernous spaces.”

You could argue that the chances of finding a partner who would light up at the musical possibilities of geology or embrace the concept of a history of the Earth in instrumental form might be slim, to say the least.  

But in Paraorchestra founder and conductor Charles Hazlewood, Peel stumbled across a kindred spirit. Each had been familiar with the other’s work for some time and Peel had attended several Paraorchestra shows, but they didn’t meet in person until the morning following the ensemble’s 2018 performance at the Barbican. Over coffee, Hazlewood found what he describes as “a really interesting and close common ground” – whether it was Hepworth’s stone lifeforms (Hazlewood has his own “visceral” connection to the sculptor, having spent his childhood near her home in St Ives) or the underground, deep-listening experiments of Pauline Oliveros.

The pair also share a knack for reinventing the orchestra. Peel has frequently included classical instrumentation in her electronic work in unusual and innovative ways, while Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra is a modern virtuoso ensemble that integrates professional disabled and non-disabled musicians. Blending electronic and orchestral instruments, it delights in obliterating the fourth wall between audience and musician. Much like Peel, it also has a revolving door of collaborators, including Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. 

Charles Hazlewood and Hannah Peel Photo: York Tillyer

“We breathe the same air, Hannah and I,” explains Hazlewood.  

“We’ve got a lot of the same kind of values and preoccupations. Hand in glove.”

Hazlewood offered Peel a commission on the spot and it wasn’t long before the composer was travelling to Paraorchestra’s rehearsal space in Bristol for her first research and development session.

“Our orchestra is very much not the traditional model, where we’d commission a composer, they’d go away, they’d write a piece and we’d perform it,” explains Hazlewood. “That’s absolutely not how we work.”

Paraorchestra starts with the musicians, not the music. 

“Everyone brings their own particular colour, talent, personality and passion to bear on an instrument,” says Hazlewood. “So it was key for Hannah to meet the personalities. Then she could start to conceive the piece in the light of these musicians, so that when it gets to the final performance, everyone owns it in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to if it had just been a bunch of dots to read on a page. It’s bespoke music for very bespoke people.”

Peel wanted to capitalise on the group’s inimitable and lawless ability to make music well beyond the confines of a typical orchestra, to experiment yet still benefit from its organic nature.

“I chose instruments I felt were woody and underground and had a real earthiness to them to give it a deep-rooted feeling,” recalls Peel.  

“So I worked with the bass woodwind section – a contrabassoon, bass clarinet and alto flute. I brought along a load of synths and Adrian Utley brought loads of screwdrivers and tools to hit his guitar with, and there was a drummer. 

“In my head, the question I wanted to be answered was, ‘Do rocks sing?’. We have waveforms of rocks and rocks shift over time, but do they make sound? And if they do, what does our planet sound like? 

And how does it shift? These were the massive questions I had and we had great fun exploring all of them.”

Clips from the first session worked their way into the final cut of ‘The Unfolding’. You can hear them on the shimmering ‘Passage’ or used to astonishing effect – bubbling, primal and whooping – all over the likes of ‘Wild Animal’ (the title is inspired by a comment performance artist Marina Abramović made about Peel). Elsewhere, you can practically hear the sun rising in soprano Victoria Oruwari’s vocal on the track, ‘The Unfolding’.

For an album inspired by rocks, ‘The Unfolding’ is full of life. Listening leaves you in awe of how it accomplishes such magnitude and sensitivity. The scale of the concept is colossal yet, in all the right ways, so was the musical resource at Peel’s disposal.

“With Paraorchestra, we like to believe we offer the world in musical form,” says Hazlewood. “A family of passionately engaged and enriched musicians is a pretty good playground if you want to explore the whole nature of existence, you know? It makes you think of that line about ‘the world in a grain of sand’. Music is a fantastic form within which to study these issues, much more than words in a way.”

Although words did play their part. Following the R&D sessions, as the first of the lockdowns began to bite, Peel discovered Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 book, ‘Underland: A Deep Time Journey’. It documents the acclaimed writer’s explorations of subterranean spaces, underworld mythology and the clues to Earth’s huge and diverse history lying hidden beneath us. 

By considering humanity’s damaging environmental impacts and fleeting presence against this geological timeline, it also offers existential challenges.  

As Simon Reynolds puts it in his review, “Nature provides for Macfarlane… a form of religion for the godless, stirring sensations of awe, gratitude, and humbling insignificance”. Aligning with Peel’s thinking, with an eerie resonance, this gave voice to some of her musical ideas.

“There were a couple of lines in the book about finding dark matter,” she recalls. “Instead of going into space, they built caverns miles deep in order to hear. Macfarlane was saying that you have to delve into the darkness to see more clearly, and I thought it was a great statement, especially as we were in lockdown when I was actually writing this piece.”

More than simply giving Peel space to think, the pandemic played its role in highlighting inequalities and paradigmatic social changes. The cultural landscape shifted and left a fertile habitat for a piece like ‘The Unfolding’.

“It’s perhaps a controversial thing to say, but I think the pandemic offered us an extraordinary opportunity to embrace our susceptibility – the end of this old idea of the alpha male, strutting cock, keep-calm-and-carry-on bullshit,” suggests Hazlewood. 

“Denying it hobbles us because you can’t work at your full potential if you’re constantly pretending. In a funny way, Hannah’s piece meets that new sense of vulnerability head-on. We’re not invincible, we’re not implacable but we are greater because of our faults and our weaknesses and our challenges.”

Victoria Oruwari Photo: York Tillyer

The project first came to Paraorchestra vocalist Victoria Oruwari during the confusion and uncertainty of that time – a period during which she was staying with her partner and, having lived with blindness since childhood, feeling particularly disorientated. 

She remembers falling asleep with the music, willing it into her subconscious, while the titles – ‘The Universe Before Matter’, ‘The Unfolding’, ‘We Are Part Mineral’ – conjured escapist images. She envisioned sand dunes and primitive creatures, space travel and giant forces of the Earth. I ask her how she managed to create a relatable, personal connection with such a massive concept.

“What comes to my mind is humility,” says Oruwari. “It makes you very humble. And I felt like, ‘OK, it’s enormous but each and every one of us is a part of this’. And that’s what makes us whole. You have to give in to the sound coming out of your body and not try to affect it. You want to bring the purest version, the most genuine parts of your being, into it.”

Oruwari’s voice – the only one on the album – forms one of the key musical strata of the record. Her parts are usually wordless, almost as if Peel has written them like synth lines. A unique, honest energy is threaded throughout, with no ham-fisted rhymes or crowbarred meanings to distract the listener. 

Peel had first seen Oruwari perform at Paraorchestra’s ‘The Nature Of Why’ show at the Southbank Centre – a music and dance event where you could stand face to face with the players.

“I was next to her when she started to sing,” recalls Peel of the show.  

“And I honestly felt as if my whole stomach and my heart kind of gave way. I was nearly in tears because this incredible voice was right beside me. It was just the most amazing experience to hear her sing.”

Peel knew she wanted Oruwari to play a major role in ‘The Unfolding’, even if it’s taken her until now to fully understand why. 

“In some ways, her voice makes the record quite feminine,” she observes. “It has that sort of Mother Nature aspect.”

“Victoria is Mother Earth,” adds Hazlewood. “She’s absolutely amazing. She’s a powerful, unstoppable force, like an ocean wave or something…”

Oruwari has her own take on Peel casting her, perhaps subconsciously, in this Mother Earth role. 

“I think in keeping with what the psychotherapists would say, the good mother does not try to impart or affect – the good mother supports what is already there,” she says. “And I was thinking, ‘Be humble, and don’t try to affect it’. I see the music as something precious and delicate that I have to nurture. To try to mould it into something it isn’t would be cruel.”

Hazlewood calls it a “divine feminine energy” and sees it as part of a wider cultural movement.

“I hope the pandemic has, once and for all, killed off the alpha-male notion because my god, we’re sick of it, aren’t we?” he observes. “The whole patriarchal bollocks has got to go. There’s a new way, and I feel the piece has a kind of a softness and suppleness about it, which in some strange respect reflects that vulnerability. 

“There’s a sort of divine feminine energy about the piece. That’s the power it has. It has hard edges at times, you know, and a tremendous lust for life, thundering drums, and so on – a sort of Gaia energy.”

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about ‘The Unfolding’ is that it sounds so fresh and hopeful, despite the bleak implications of some of its source material. Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’, for example, looks at the evidence of the Anthropocene – a term for the era during which humanity has been the dominant and scarring influence on the planet – and posits that we are rapidly approaching the end of the road, not only for other species but also our own. 

Then there is the word humility, which keeps cropping up – the idea that humanity’s screen time, for all our machinations and self-aggrandisement, is a mere blip upon Earth’s film reel. Why then do I feel better about all this for listening to ‘The Unfolding’?

Each of the interviewees – only three of the many people involved in ‘The Unfolding’ – has a personal interpretation. For Charles Hazlewood, the piece provides hope in its encapsulation of the rising awareness of feminine power, which he has come to view as a force for overdue change.

“There’s a new energy coming in, new possibilities,” he says. “It absolutely gives me cause for hope.”

“It’s really hard to listen to something that doesn’t give you some sense of hope,” adds Peel. “So for me it was a reminder about living in the present and enjoying what we have, as well as being aware of everything else. I found ‘Underland’ really uplifting. It’s that quote about light in the darkness – you have to survey the depths of hurt and pain and other things to see more clearly. To see a different side of things.”

Of ‘The Unfolding’, Victoria Oruwari regards the macro view of Earth’s evolution – and humanity’s brief flare against that backdrop – as evidence for the significance of our times.

“The music all happened and everything fades,” she says. “But there’s always an imprint to say something was once here.”

Ultimately, ‘The Unfolding’ is an imprint in itself which, for all its scope, complexity and musical dexterity, still comes down to 54 minutes of audio. It’s a testament to the success of Hannah Peel’s composition, though, that it is so thought-provoking and inviting of analysis. Even Robert Macfarlane has been moved to write a response to it.

“The music turns and tumbles in my head still, a stramash of dark matter and star-glows. It is epic and lyric. There is a grandeur to this album accompanied by modesty and even comedy at times – the absurdity of existence, its sheer, preposterous unlikeliness, comes through.”

In that sense, ‘The Unfolding’ is the perfect encapsulation of its subject matter. One thing, everything. A light in the dark. The world in a grain of sand.

‘The Unfolding’ is out on Real World

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