Michael Quinn reviews 5AM by Ute Kanngiesser & Daniel Kordík (with writing by Evie Ward), released under Takuroku — Cafe Oto’s digital label supporting artists in lockdown.

Cocooned within a moment of suspended but simultaneously elasticated time, Ute Kanngiesser and Daniel Kordík’s 5AM is also a retreat into the empty, liminal spaces of early hours. A deeply personal response to lockdown, it finds the cellist seeking solace in the relative wildness of London’s Walthamstow Marshes and succour in the sound of the dawn chorus.

Kanngiesser’s secret tryst with nature takes root in the liquid transition from day to night, from quiet and stillness to the bright, animated cacophony of a multi-voiced avian choir. Vital and immediate as Daniel Kordík’s field recording is, it’s Kanngiesser’s tentative negotiating of it, her attempts to insinuate the darker, bass-baritonal timbre of her cello into and though the soprano-high sonic gauze of multiple bird songs that makes for rewarding eavesdropping.

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She’s not the first to attempt a musical conversation with nature, though what’s here is more considered, less serendipitous than the nightingales that famously accompanied Beatrice Harrison’s Elgar recital in her Surrey garden – a pioneering outside broadcast by the BBC in 1924 that produced unintended but felicitous results. Kanngiesser adroitly inverts that relationship, maintaining a discrete distance, only tentatively attempting to insinuate herself into a dialogue with her feathered vocalists.

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Kept low in the mix, Kanngiesser’s cello increasingly mimics the enveloping birdsong as other ambient sounds begin to cut through. We’re far from Messiaen’s obsessive translating of birdsong into music here where the emphasis is on allying the artificial voice of the cello with the natural, organic soundtrack surrounding it rather than simply appropriating it. The conceit provides Kanngiesser with ample room for subtlety and occasional spikes of quizitive commentary.

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There’s a taut, controlled quality to her lightly-worn array of techniques where various bowing and fingering choices accent emotional spaces beyond the merely descriptive, striving to re-connect to a world made newly remote by the prohibitions of movement during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Part meditation on, part mediation of the natural world as a place of refuge in troubled times, 5AM also queries what and how music can function and contribute to profoundly changed circumstances. If it has any meaningful analogue, it can claim some kinship to a morning rāga, something to escape within to explore the daily ritual of the world itself awakening from slumber.

Music by Ute Kanngiesser & Daniel Kordík. Writing by Evie Ward.Artwork design by Oli Barrett.

You can buy the record here – 50% of profits support the artist and 50% support Cafe Oto.

Michael Quinn is a freelance journalist and music and theatre programming consultant who has contributed to titles as diverse as Songlines, Gramophone, Opera, Choir & Organ, Limelight, R2 and The Stage.