10" EP | 2017
‘Avocet Revisited’ is a four track EP, commissioned by Earth Recordings as a companion piece to Bert Jansch’s 1979 avian-themed masterstroke ‘Avocet’.
Again drawing inspiration from the resplendence of birds native to British waters (Bert himself was a keen ornithologist), Earth invited this quartet of artists to each choose a species that particularly speaks to them, and base a track around it.
The results have been universally graceful, evocative, and majestic – much like the creatures themselves.
A1 Edwyn Collins & Carwyn Ellis – Fulmar
A2 Modern Studies – Curlew
B1 Alasdair Roberts – Goosander
B2 Trembling Bells – Golden Plover
Karine Polwart wrote this short piece about our process in making this track.
A loss. A longing. A liquid keening that seeps up out of the bog and rolls in the wet air. Curlews bubbling to the boil across Staups Moor, between Hebden Bridge and Burnley, where Modern Studies’ sound-conjuror, Rob St John, stands in the heather one spring morning with a Rode NT4 microphone and an ATI Audio Field Mixer. Listening.
Staup is a local, onomatopoeic term, Rob explains, for the sound of a boot getting stamped in and hauled out of mire.
Whaup is the old Scots name for curlew. It’s onomatopoeic too. A low whistle.
whaup whaup whaup whaup-wha-whaup whaup-wha-whaup
And so too is curlew itself. A worrying. A lamentation.
uu-ee uu-ee uu-ee
uuuuuui-ee uuuuuui-ee kr-r-r-r-r-li-ewe kr-r-r-r-r-li-ewe kr-r-r-r-r-r-r-li-ewe
This largest of European wading birds, with its downward, new-moon bill, is one of the most mysterious and unsettling sounds of our shifting, liminal places: foggy moors and mudflats, salt marsh and sandbanks. It has long been a mythic harbinger of storms, of sorrow.
Rob gathers in the song snatches, transferring them at home onto an Akai 1/4 inch reel to reel recorder. He offers the tape loops back to the moor, for two weeks, hanging them, he recounts, “in the wind worried hawthorns on the old field margins, the ones that carry a trace memory of the winter wind”. There in that peat landscape, founded upon aeons of decay, life and death, the magnetic strips begin to disintegrate and decompose in the smirr and mist.
The curlew is exposed too. Breeding numbers have halved since the 1990s, with decreases of over 80% in both Wales and Northern Ireland. Increased predation, intensive afforestation and shifting grazing patterns contribute to the ongoing decline. The RSPB considers the curlew the highest priority conservation species in the British Isles.
That plaintive cry is a warning.
Fragility informs the music that Modern Studies create, with Rob’s aqueous guitar at its heart. “It never quite repeats itself but echoes what came before”, says Rob, a little like the curlew call itself. String parts emerge from mimicry and improvisation around the field recordings, bassist Emily Scott calling up childhood summers of curlews echoing across the Sussex shingle at Aldeburgh, matched by cellist Pete Harvey, the two weaving, ascending, tumbling, pulling away. Each invokes the ghost of Benjamin Britten. Curlew River. Curlew Moor.
According to legend, the curlew is one of the Seven Whistlers (the Golden Plover is another), which, once they are reunited, prophesy the end of days. The legend of St Beuno is kinder. The 7th century Welsh abbot was sailing one day when he dropped his prayer book into the ocean. A curlew rescued it and brought it ashore, for which Beuno blessed it and swore to protect it. And this, according to the tale, is why its vulnerable ground nests are so well concealed.
Perhaps the curlew needs a new charm?
Joe Smillie’s organic drumming and percussion earths and contains, whilst Victorian harmonium deepens the ground. Peat and moss. The track crests, bright and clear, with Rob’s synth mimesis. A Jen SX1000. Pitch shift and tape echo.
And then there’s stillness. A curlew on a stark fell side.
ee-ewe ee-ewe ee-ewe.
– Karine Polwart