Given the huge amount of music being released these days, labels are increasingly in need of strategies to catch and hold the attention of listeners. Australian imprint Flaming Pines gained international recognition for their ‘Rivers Home’ series, and curator Kate Carr has continued to develop the idea of themed series through the ongoing ‘Birds of a Feather’ releases, each of which is dedicated to a particular species of bird. From an artist’s point of view, the clear constraints laid down by a given theme can release enormous creativity and focus, so it’s no surprise that Carr has managed to compile a growing list of top-notch contributors. The latest birds to receive an ode in their honour are the crow and the common koel, courtesy of Marcus Fischer and Gail Priest respectively.
Fischer’s piece is an open and meandering drift through field recordings and guitar improvisation, with microphones placed both indoors and out to capture both the crows’ calls and the guitar simultaneously, though this is not immediately apparent in listening. Fischer’s approach seems to aim at expressing the emotional resonances that crows have for him and his family, who have become acquainted with a pair of the birds that regularly sit on the telephone wires on their street; one assumes that the inquisitive voice of a child that can be heard among the caws belongs to Fischer’s daughter. On its own “The Crow” doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere or introduce any radically new ideas, but it adds another layer to the emotional map of the west coast of the US that Fischer has been developing at least since 2010’s Monocoastal. His guitar playing is characteristically beautiful, and perhaps more stripped back and unadorned here than on other releases, with the field recordings kept mostly in the background. Chords are left to resound freely, their simple upward lift recalling both the swoop of birds in flight and the rush of wonder associated with watching them.
The approach taken by Priest differs considerably from that of Fischer, treating the distinctive call of the koel as raw sonic material to be shaped and manipulated. This bird is commonly viewed as a parasite because of its tactic of laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, but here it is Priest who puts the koel’s vocal resources to work to further her own musical ends. She uses various processing techniques to turn the sound of the koel into a reverberating wash of noise and a metrically regular melody, before launching into a retro sci-fi-esque number featuring an impressive human vocal performance competing with the avian one. The koel’s call is used as a creative springboard for sound creation and composition, rather than as a signifier denoting personal emotions and memories, or as a sonic specimen to be reverently documented and catalogued.
These two very different records highlight one of the strengths of themed series such as ‘Birds of a Feather’, which is that they allow various approaches and working methods to be compared and contrasted, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the individual practices of participating artists. As such, readers intrigued by the concept may also want to investigate other releases in the series, which includes contributions from artists such as Porya Hatamai, The Green Kingdom, and Simon Whetham. Birds enrich our world with much beauty, vitality, and mystery, so it’s good to hear them honoured with such great music.