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  • Writer's pictureJoel Dwek & Danny Wiser

Interview: Riddle Songs - Stef Conner

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Stef Conner is a self-proclaimed dead language enthusiast, as well as a musician and singer whose passion had led her to some unique avenues of exploration; she sat down with us to speak about her latest Anglo-Saxon album and much more...

“We’re dealing with fantasy when we’re dealing with the past because we can’t help but project ourselves onto it, however for me there needs to be a certain amount of evidence and reality mixed in with that fantasy in order for the artefact to have any integrity and for the work to feel compelling."

A professor at the University of York, Stef Conner has also performed in folk bands, as well as producing albums in both ancient Babylonian and now Old English. With her latest album Riddle Songs being taken from the Old English text named the Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon codex written in the 10th century, we were curious to know whether she feels any responsibility towards the preservation of ancient languages and music. Conner indicated that whilst she didn’t feel like it was her responsibility, she did, however, acknowledge the importance of accurately representing the scholarship of those with specialist knowledge of this area. “What I want to be doing is representing as much detail as possible and that is known about how that language actually sounds, otherwise what I’m engaging with is some sort of… total fantasy construction of the past.” She told us she wants up-to-date research of the phonology of Old English, alongside the metre of the poetry and the accentual patterns.

Conner jokes that “I’m living in extended childhood.” While some children dream about the infinite nature of the universe or are fascinated by dinosaurs, Conner’s childhood fascinations were ancient cultures and languages, which she continues to pursue to this day. However, turning this passion into the rather unusual career that she has had has not been a straightforward journey, and she has had to dedicate herself to this craft to be able to do it. Her previous project, The Flood, based on ancient Mesopotamian texts, received no funding, and like all of Conner’s work, it was “driven by obsession.” Whilst her drive and motivation has certainly helped her get to where she is now, as a classically trained musician she recognises that the limits imposed on her creativity by working with ancient instruments and texts helps her to focus her efforts. “I tend to overcomplicate everything… and having really, really tight limitations placed on my creative process I find to be really helpful because it means I am forced to work within constraints and forced to do something relatively simple. As a result of that I think I write better music.”

Conner has had an extensive career in performing, most notable to us was her involvement in Streetwise Opera, an initiative that seeks to devise an opera with people who have experienced homelessness across the UK. Moreover, one thing that marks Conner out from the crowd is her use of ancient instruments, which include the famed and oft celebrated Golden Lyres of Ur. Though she has played on major stages, including at the acclaimed world music festival WOMAD (where she quipped that Peter Gabriel “just gets to you telepathically” to inform you that they want you to perform), UK, Spain, New Zealand, and Australia, the first ancient instruments she had the pleasure of using were the aforementioned Lyres of Ur, which had been reconstructed by Andy Lowings after the originals had been badly damaged during the Iraq War. Conner recounted to us how she had been put in contact with Lowings after working with another Anglo-Saxonist called Clive Tolley, where she wanted to sing medieval music in a church setting. Once put in touch with Lowings, who then introduced her to “some of his lyre cronies”, the rest was history. Unfortunately, however, she is unable to perform live often with the Gold Lyres of Ur, as they are tricky to transport, and as such the Lyre ensemble could not have much success on the world music circuit, despite obvious interest.

The Queen's gold lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Iraq Museum, Baghdad (Credit: Wikipedia)

Detail of the "Peace" panel of the Standard of Ur showing lyrist, excavated from the same site as the Lyres of Ur. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Upon hearing this, we were fascinated to discover that there is, in fact, a thriving ancient music scene of sorts. According to Conner, it is a mix of scholars who learn these instruments for their academic work, as well as total amateur, new age enthusiasts. She classifies herself as somewhere between these two disparate groups, as she has a background in music and performance, as opposed to archaeology. “I went to one conference on archaeoacoustics where, on the one hand you had an amazing multi-disciplinary team of neuroscientists, acousticians, [and] archaeologists all working together on this incredibly well-funded, rigorous scientific project, and then there’s a stand with some people saying God created the world 4,000 years ago, so all this stuff about bone flutes is a lie! And then other people who just wanted to come and touch the temples to feel their mystical vibrations, so it’s a very broad church.” Despite this, there are no established places for people who work with such ancient materials, and she wishes that there would be more collaboration between people who specialise in performance and people who specialise in studying the evidence.

In some respects, Conner is forging the path ahead in this due to her work on Riddle Songs collaborating with Hanna Marti, a medieval music specialist who trained at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, a school that specialises in early music and historically informed performance, which contrasts with Conner’s own classically trained background. While Conner appreciates Marti’s method of working, rooted in historical performance practice, Conner’s own process is “driven by emotion first and technical interest second.” It was their different approaches that caused the creative tension necessary for making interesting music.

Conner’s understanding of the texts enable her to find a sense of connection with the people who produced them many centuries ago, and thus emotional empathy is formed. One example of this was from a song that eventually had to be omitted from the album. It told the story of a wife’s lament from the woman’s perspective, and spoke of themes such as abandonment and heartbreak, themes which Conner rightly states are still relatable in the 21st Century. “I'm not writing songs about breaking up with my boyfriends or whatever, but this is still very, very much personal self-expression, that's the core of it,” Conner mused. She also notes that there is often a rather crass style of comedy to be found, such as toilet humour and bawdy sex jokes, as well as a reverence for the natural world, which she finds “existentially comforting”.

Conner likes to celebrate these themes within her music, partially around her own anxieties around death and mortality. She freely admits that she loves the idea of people knowing who she is after she passes away. In that regard, she believes that she has a self-preservation instinct just like the writers of the Exeter Book whose work she is reinterpreting, inasmuch as leaving cultural artefacts for future generations guarantees some level of immortality. Conner is in a more fortunate position than her ancestors, not only due to the lack of marauding Vikings, but also because she is able to leave behind an oral tradition through recordings of her music that was of course impossible in the past.

We were also curious to know if there was a connection between the music she is reviving and the continuous tradition of English folk music. Conner stated that due to the ongoing inhabitation of the British Isles, alongside waves of invasions and later on immigration, “it would be kind of crazy to think there aren’t vestiges of the tradition from back then in today’s music, and the modal vocabulary of modern folk music is an obvious connection because the same modes, the same eight modes that we find in medieval music still appear in modern folk music today.” Furthermore, Conner has a background in folk music performance, and recounted to us that she looks to contemporary folk music for inspiration, as a way to counteract the biases she inherited from her classical background.

With an awareness of the complexities that surround the notion of English patriotism and nationalism, we thought we would ask Conner about her sense of English identity. This prompted a full and nuanced answer that reflects the many facets of Englishness. She articulated that while it has been a powerful and enjoyable process for her, it raised several problems. Instead of mangling her response, we have decided to replicate her words almost verbatim to get across the full meaning of what she is trying to say:

“When you talk about what’s your own, in order to define what is yours you have to exclude. You have to say ‘if this is mine then that’s not mine’, or ‘if this is mine then it’s not yours’… we’re all part of cultures because we’re born into them, and we’re born into places and we inherit certain values and those have the baggage of history hanging off of them. So, this culture is a culture I am part of, and the problem is that it’s a culture which in relatively recent history was responsible for some hideous atrocities, for going out into the world and spreading itself and imposing itself on other cultures, enslaving people, drawing them in, and as a result, quite rightly, there’s a feeling among people who share this culture of embarrassment in celebrating that culture, whilst also wanting to applaud and support the celebration of other cultures that have been marginalised by this one, which was historically a bit of a bully, to put it in the most innocuous way possible.“

“But the downside to that is people within this culture who are marginalised economically and socially, who are prevented from participating in things that they might perceive as the so-called liberal metropolitan elite to be a participating in, there’s a sense of alienation in seeing the celebration of diverse ‘other’ cultures which leads them to react and need some identity to celebrate themselves, right? Which is where you get this English patriotism, and which leads to things like white supremacists going around with runes on placards and wanting to claim… ancient Germanic culture as this kind of superior thing. So, you see a lot of white supremacists marching in the USA with Viking imagery and costumes, and Anglo-Saxon slogans and runes. That’s become a huge problem for people who seriously study that period of medieval history because they have been infiltrated by these evil white supremacists, which means there’s a degree of embarrassment in presenting creative work which draws on that period. So, I think we have to have a conversation about that, because it is a problem for me. I do worry, because there’s this fashion among white supremacists to celebrate ancient Germanic culture, that someone like me who comes along and makes an album of Old English is going to have to face the problem that it’s maybe not so fashionable among the rest of us for that very reason.”

“But, the way I see it, it can only be a good thing to celebrate ancient cultures – all ancient cultures in the most inclusive way that you possibly can, and in the most realistic, detailed way that you possibly can, because the more we talk about our past… the more we learn that we share that past with diverse cultures, that there was interpenetration between all kinds of different peoples, that there was trade, there was artistic collaboration. The first coins by Offa of Mercia were based on Islamic coins… there was constant trade and exchange between cultures then, so the notion of purity in the past is a fantasy that should be challenged. The more we celebrate ancient culture, the more we can have that conversation. The more we sort of avoid it, the more that conversation gets pushed to the margins, and then the margins is where you get the white supremacists and people who are using it in the wrong way.”

These problematic elements aside, it is clear from the above answer that Conner is conscientious about these issues and her work stands on its own right. Conner’s understanding of history and academic concepts and ideas, whilst admirable, is not the only thing that is impressive about her work. The music itself is often soft and beautiful, but it is her voice that stands out. Reminiscent in some ways of Norwegian Sami singer Mari Boine, her vocals are powerful and clear. They project a clear sound that verges on the operatic, but it is unlikely to be overwhelming even for those who are unfamiliar with the Anglo-Saxon style. She shows off her vocal range on songs like Flint, with a softer lyre accompaniment, to Caedmon’s Hymn in which she is almost battling against the power and intensity of the harp and lyre in order to take centre stage.

In terms of her future plans, everything is up in the air due to a certain global pandemic that you may have heard about in the news. That said, she still dreams of performing her music at Exeter Cathedral, and she is also working on an album of Ancient Greek music with Aulos player Barnaby Brown. A perennial issue for Conner remains financing her passion projects, but she remains hopeful that she will be able to acquire funding. Whatever the case, we remain interested to see what early music project she produces next, as well as understanding the intellectual reasoning behind it.


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