An album with a broader purpose that conveys its egalitarian, inclusive message with discretion, confidence and superb musicianship
Hannah Peel’s reputation has soared in recent years, largely due to a combination of acclaimed solo albums, wide-ranging collaborations and film/television soundtrack work, but her latest release, The Unfolding, sees her break new ground in a different and commendable way. It features her teaming up with members of the Paraorchestra, an ensemble that comprises professional disabled and non-disabled musicians who play a variety of analogue, digital, and assistive instruments.
The project’s roots go back to when Paraorchestra’s Artistic Director, Charles Hazlewood, approached Peel to ask if she would be interested in working with them. What followed was a collaboration that engaged the respective strengths of each party, a deep and thoughtful suite of pieces that also had a focus that extended beyond the musical. Peel’s music to date has blended the electronic and the classical, something she also does in a different capacity as host of the Night Tracks programme on BBC Radio 3.
Her third album, Mary Casio: Journey Into Cassiopeia marked the moment when her profile began to rise. It told the story of an unnamed musical stargazer and her desire to leave her ordinary life to visit the constellation of Cassiopeia, utilising analogue synths and a full 29-piece colliery brass band to notable effect. Her follow up, 2021’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated Fir Wave, was more of an electronic opus that took inspiration from Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and further consolidated her position. Her background also includes a spell alongside Erland Cooper in The Magnetic North, playing with John Foxx & The Maths and time arranging strings for Paul Weller.
The Unfolding sees her pivot back to more of a classical sound. Opening track The Universe Before Matter strikes an elegant, tender note as vocals from Peel and Victoria Oruwari emerge from the slow build of the strings. Wild Animal is darker and more esoteric and communicates the ominous suspense of navigating through unfamiliar territory. It’s also percussively more prominent, a quality shared also by We Are Part Mineral. The alliance of brass and electronics in Peel’s music has previously recalled the work of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson and the association reemerges here. The title track hints at the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt while Passage offers some thoughtful woodwind explorations.
If After Weeks Of Early Sun is the centrepoint of the album and sees a marked uplift in tempo, all dramatic flourishes and choreographed movements. The accompanying press release speaks of the album addressing such weighty matters as what it is to be human, our place in the universe and connection to nature and there is certainly an organic quality running through the album. The final track sees Peel read out the credits, a nice idea to highlight something that often gets overlooked in this age of streaming.
The Paraorchestra also aims to make classical music more open to both performers and listeners with disabilities and The Unfolding should make a lasting contribution in that regard (their website proudly proclaims them to be “reinventing the orchestra for the 21st century”). As we’ve seen over recent years, Peel has always been an artist with an interest in translating big ideas into coherent musical works but on this occasion she’s added a new dimension. The Unfolding is an album with a broader purpose that conveys its egalitarian, inclusive message with discretion, confidence and superb musicianship. It succeeds in balancing the beautiful with the cerebral, simultaneously existing as both head and heart music.