Littlebow, the project of multi-instrumentalists Katie English (Isnaj Dui) and Keiron Phelan (State River Widening), drop out of the sky with Pi Magpie. Flutes fly in a flurry, swooping high on post-ambient wings, soaring over steamy, tropical waters and ducking into the lush green entrances that cover the rainforest openings. The scenery is exotic, open and lively, but it keeps its peaceful tone; the pastoral green stretches as far as the eye can see, coloured in by the natural, green scribbles of a crayon that has been set to the land.
The flushed climate of this paradise is responsible for the flute’s braver, more adventurous flight, making her flutter in more expressive tones, loose in conversation and free-spirited in nature, as if it exchanged a bottle of pink champagne in favour of the rocketing centigrade. The slightly humid temperatures stretch out before the listener, interspersed with the staccato-led lines of rhythm; like birds hanging on the lines of the stave, the rhythm produces a black line of monotone morse code.
Bar by bar, we journey further into this balmy climate, one not known to be a magpie’s native home (the birds prefer to be found in the United Kingdom), but anything is possible with music. There’s a major increase in instrumental activity, coming close to the borders of chaos but never quite crossing over. The flute is poetically woven throughout English’s music, and the flute is the primary instrument here. It isn’t plain sailing, because the flute has to battle for its gentle dominance and feathery control as she is joined by other curious additions: electronic melodies and some hard-hitting percussion for a start (the first quarter is wracked by the strobe lightning of a stuttering rhythm).
Pi Magpie is curious as to the ‘intelligent, mischievous theft’ that glints when the brilliant, prismatic fingers of caught sun linger on an object of desire, doing what opportunistic magpies are so infamous for doing. The duo take musical concepts and phrases from a plethora of genres and instruments. Despised by many, the magpie takes what it wants out of instinct. Noisily uttering its dissonance, a cry that only its mother could love, the magpie has an attitude similar to an upfront, aggressive teenager. Pi Magpie is a peaceful listen, but it has a very strong tendency to entertain the dissonance of youth. Like a sour mood-swing, the dissonance comes as quickly as it goes, snatched from the grasp; the wispy melodies shine in victory.
Not everything is black and white. On closer inspection, the magpie’s jet black wing feathers subtly turn to purple-blue. Similarly, Pi Magpie is a very colourful listen. The removal (theft) and subsequent insertion is interesting to listen to. However, it feels pretty harsh to say that they’ve been stolen. City born, the London based duo keep their pastoral promise to the green belt of countryside and the musical freedom of the roaming land. But it is also smoothly connected to the hustle of the inner London network. The staccato rhythm of the opener almost lags behind in the lanes of metallic traffic. The sung vocal halfway through transports the listener to a place closer to home – perhaps the jungle was just the poster, the object of desire draped to the upper side of the rattling train carriage. Littlebow’s music has the same exotic combo you can find in London itself; colourful, cultural differences living together (in sweet harmony?), under the values that make London such a diverse, thriving city.
Jazzy piano stabs are interludes against breezy electric guitar chords, sustaining against the wings of a flitting flute. It is the flute that best characterizes the magpie, soaring on the currents of melody and then falling peacefully in a controlled dive. ‘Hosianna Raft’ is accessible but deep in its wayfaring paradise – that’s more like it. The reefs, the tropical vibe, rub away the dirty streets like the removal of teenage graffiti. Lilting phrases blow softly against the palm-trees. You feel refreshed, like well-slept eyes awakening on a Saturday morning.
Trippy intervals come and go, but ‘The Pin Point Night’, based on Stravinsky harmonies, shows just how intellectual and well thought out the duo’s musicianship is. Pi Magpie’s bass sections, played on duo pizzicato cellos and structured on complex gamelan rhythms, give a real sense as to the spacious nature in the sound design, as well as highlighting their musical skill in composition and rhythm. The magpie doesn’t often get a fair rep, but here its birdsong is that of freedom. Littlebow promise much, but we will have to wait and see if this is a beautiful flirt or a long lasting romance.