If you want to wrap yourself up in the work of a sound artist that is restlessly, thrillingly creative, then meet Hannah Peel. Not only is she a well-known presenter of BBC Radio 3’s exploratory evening show, Night Tracks, but she’s one of the most individual, multifaceted composers and collaborators working in the UK today. Exploring how sounds from analogue, electronic and classical instruments can come together in energetic, epic and even intimate ways, her recent work, both in the studio and live spaces, pays testimony to her many talents.
In 2022, she released The Unfolding, a stunning collaborative album with the Paraorchestra of Great Britain, about nothing less than the beginning of the very atoms of human existence, the miraculous awakening of life, and how we all eventually return to the earth. Before that came 2021’s Fir Wave, a feast of pulsating organic techno that was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, plus acclaimed soundtracks for film and TV (in 2020, The Deceived won a Music Guild Awards award, while 2019’s Game Of Thrones: Last Watch score bagged an Emmy nomination).
Hannah is excited about being part of Sound Unwrapped for several reasons, she tells me. ‘I love that it’s really diverse both in terms of the people involved and the genres of music, but also that offers a kind of immersive experience that I’ve not really seen any other venue do before. That makes it very intriguing to see how everything’s going to be, and also very exciting for me to think about how I can use that as a musician.’
For starters, Sound Unwrapped has given Hannah the opportunity to perform Fir Wave live for the first time. The roots of that album come from the vintage library music label, KPM, approaching Hannah: they wondered if she’d like to rework a 1972 LP, Electrosonic, by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson alongside Australian composer Don Harper. She reworked it, of course, in her inimitable far-reaching style. During the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, she sampled its sounds, edited and reprogrammed them to build her own digital instruments, and made new compositions.
‘But I thought that was it – I never considered it would ever be played live. Performing it is a dream, and it never would have happened without Kings Place.’ Hannah has put a new band together for the gigs. It features Hazel Mills who plays with Goldfrapp, Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble and Supercollider (‘she’s an amazing synth wizard!’) and Alex Thomas on electronic drums and tape. ‘We’re really likeminded electronic souls, trying to do new things.’
Hannah is also putting on another concert with virtuoso percussionist, Beibei Wang. They met when Hannah wrote a piece for the Manchester Collective in 2021 called Neon, inspired by how breath and touch help make a material that once lit up so many cities. ‘Beibei was performing with the Collective that night and we got on really well – I loved her energy.’ Neon also made Beibei nostalgic for the times she’d spent in Tokyo. She was staggered to find out that Hannah had never been there.
‘a gig…should be about having an idea and really really wanting to try it.’
The new friends started talking about how music has the power to trigger memories, even when sounds may come from the imagination rather than direct experience. Hannah wondered if they could explore these ideas further by playing together. Their collaborative concert will revolve around improvisations around ideas of imaginary places, and it will be called Spirits of Eden after Talk Talk’s groundbreaking 1988 album of the same name (they’re both big fans). The concert also provides Hannah with an opportunity to push herself out of her comfort zone. Wang is a seasoned improviser, she explains, ‘while I’ve very rarely done that on stage. I thought it would be really cool to push myself into a place that I wasn’t expecting.’ She laughs. ‘Although I bet a few weeks before it, I’ll be cursing myself going, “Oh, Hannah. What have you done now?” But I know a gig shouldn’t be about worrying about being proficient. It should be about having an idea and really really wanting to try it.’
Another event is in the planning too, to be announced later in the year, Hannah confesses to me. It will involve more live performers, and an appearance from the electronic music legend John Foxx, formerly of Ultravox, who had a huge influence on her early development as a musician when she played violin and synthesisers with him in the late 2000s. ‘I can’t wait to talk to him about how our creative journeys have developed since we first worked together, and where we want to go next.’ Always pushing forward with her ideas – this is the Hannah I love, and she will add so much spirit to Sound Unwrapped, her ideas unwrapping themselves in fascinating ways through old connections and new collaborations. Let’s hope she’ll push us all out of our comfort zones, expanding our minds in the many dizzying possibilities of sound.
‘Fir Wave, a feast of pulsating organic techno, will be performed live for the first time’