CORACLE – Murmuration (Tam Records)

MurmurationAs Murmuration is Coracle’s first album, I didn’t know what to expect from it. All I knew was what the accompanying publicity told me, and that suggested it was going to be a bit different. To start, Coracle consists of three very different musicians who came together remotely during lockdown, to experiment, and improvise together, embracing new influences and sounds. Add to that the diverse range of musical backgrounds – folk, jazz, early, contemporary classical – with an interesting collection of instruments, and my curiosity was definitely piqued.

Of the three members of Oracle, the most familiar might be Paul Hutchinson, accordionist and former member of Faustus. Karen Wimhurst is a clarinettist and widely commissioned composer of classical and musical theatre works. Along with her classical background, Karen is very influenced by jazz. Anna Tam is a former member of The Mediaeval Baebes, with a background in folk, classical and early music. Her two solo albums, Anchoress and Hatching Hares have been widely acclaimed. On this album Anna sings and plays nyckelharpa, viola de gamba, hurdy gurdy and cello.

Murmuration starts with a composition by Karen, ‘Swash’. A swash is a turbulent layer of water, running up a beach after a wave, and the accordion bellows represent the rushing water here. Solo accordion leads off, giving the opening a very traditional feel, before a jazzier vibe arrives with the clarinet and nyckelharpa. The clarinet continues into a slightly discordant sequence, bringing a more classical sound. This sequence then repeats several times.

A traditional song follows, ‘The Undaunted Female’. This version is from Norfolk, but the song was widely collected from the early nineteenth century. It has similarities to ‘Undaunted Mary’ or ‘The Banks of Sweet Dundee’, in that the heroine dispatches a villain, after grabbing a pistol from off of his person. The setting is different though, as it’s a robber and his four accomplices who meet a violent end. Another difference is that the protagonist receives some help (but not much) from a ‘gentleman’, who is so impressed by her courage that he decides to marry her. Coracle have added an extra two lines, in which she politely tells him to get lost – quite right too! Anna sings and accompanies herself on the hurdy gurdy. The clarinet has a big role again, and the accompaniment reminded me of fair ground music or street theatre.

‘Stoke in Uproar Variations’ refers to Stoke Demeret, in Plymouth, that was besieged by Royalists during the Civil War. A stately opening sequence, played on the cello, gives way to a livelier dance tune, as nyckelharpa and clarinet join in. The tune was developed by Paul, from an original that appeared in ‘Twelve Fashionable Dances for the Year 1800’.

Coracle are taking part in the Pub to Pulpit concert series, celebrating the life and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. This gives context to what might otherwise have been the surprising inclusion of two items from the 1906 English Hymnal. ‘Down Ampney’, was named by Vaughn Williams for his Gloucestershire birthplace, and is the tune to the hymn ‘Come Down, Oh Love Divine’. The words, sung by Anna, were written by 14th century mystic poet Bianco da Siena. The accompaniment, on nyckelharpa, bass clarinet and accordion, conjures images of Church bands before the coming of pipe organs.

Karen composed ‘Tender As A Green Leaf In Spring’ during the first Spring of lockdown. The interesting opening sequence has the accordion accompanied by the cello, plucked and sounding like a jazz double bass. The clarinet then comes in with a dreamy sequence that brought to my mind the music of Frederick Delius, and pastoral scenes on a summer’s day. Well, it was a glorious Spring, and the lockdown hadn’t been going for long enough to wear us all down. The final sequence has a country dance feel, led by the accordion. This is a complex and rather lovely track.

Another of Vaughn Williams’ tunes for the 1906 English Hymnal follows. ‘Sine Nomine’ (‘Without Name’) is the tune of ‘For All the Saints’, paired here with a traditional dance tune, ‘Mr. Isaac’s Maggot’. An interesting combination! This is an instrumental track and the hymn tune, played on the accordion over what sounds like a low drone, has a haunting quality. A burst of hurdy gurdy then takes us into the dance tune. Mr. Isaac was a late 17th century dancing master, who taught at the Court of Louis XIV and introduced English country dancing to France. The tune appeared in the 9th edition of ‘Playford’s Dancing master’ in 1695.

‘John Blunt’ is a lively, ribald song, telling of an alcohol fuelled domestic quarrel. Versions have been collected across England and Scotland. This one was sung to Dorset song collectors the Hammond Brothers, by Mrs. Seale, in Dorchester Union in 1906. If anyone doubts that traditional folk song has given a voice for some of the poorest and most marginalised, just remember how much material was collected in workhouses. Anna and Karen both sing here, with a simple nyckelharpa and accordion musical accompaniment. ‘John Blunt’ is paired with Paul’s arrangement of ‘The Rout’, a tune that first appeared in ‘Twenty Four Tunes for the Year 1786’.

An interesting composition from Paul follows. ‘True Lies Matter’, was intended to be called ‘Retreat From Kabul’, inspired by the British withdrawal from the city, but developed in such a fun way that this was no longer appropriate. With that in mind, the early part was confusing. I was hearing a tune infused with a sombre beauty, and with an unmistakeably Central Asian atmosphere. The mysterious nyckelharpa sequences are great. Then, a complete change, as the clarinet and accordion play what sounds like a boisterous and joyful Balkan Gypsy tune. I’d love to know about the thought process behind this, but for all its strangeness, I like this track.

The last song, sung by Anna, is ‘Golden Glove’, an optimistic romantic ballad. The story is of a young woman who avoids marriage to a man she doesn’t love, and gets the one she does love, by way of a cunning plan. I won’t go into all the details, but it involves pretending to lose a glove and (of course!) dressing up as a man. This has been widely collected, and appeared as a broadside, but is said to be based on an event from the Elizabethan era. It’s appropriate then that the viola da gamba – a sort of small, 16th Century, six stringed cello – makes its appearance here. This version was collected in Kent in 1916.

As with much of this album, diverse influences are evident on ‘The Beast’, a new tune from Paul. He composed another called ‘Beauty’, but it didn’t make the cut. There’s a real trad jazz feel to the clarinet playing, but there are also strong folk dance elements. This is a fun final track and makes a good end to the album.

There really is a lot to like about Murmuration. The musicianship is top quality, the compositions are imaginative, and the choice of material helps to bring an appealing quirkiness. The range of influences also make for some fascinating arrangements.

I’ve recently praised several albums for their fresh approach to folk music, and potential appeal to a wider audience, but I can’t really say that here. The influences feel less contemporary, and this is the most classically influenced folk album I’ve heard in a while. It’s also an album that demands to be listened to, and I don’t think it can be properly appreciated while doing housework or driving. None of this is really a criticism, but I do wonder how wide the appeal of this album will be, and whether it will connect with a more general audience. Perhaps though, that’s not the point. Coracle are a group of fine musicians collaborating together, experimenting and creating the music that they want to. I certainly found plenty to enjoy on Murmuration.

Graham Brown

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Introducing Coracle: