Monday, 29 October 2012

Kites and Buzzards

Driving home from the west country towards Oxford from Bristol we saw 3 kites today. I only very rarely see kites in Ashcott and then flying high with the buzzards.

On the M4 however I saw all 3 low to the ground, clearly recognisable with their red brown plumage, forked tails and deliberate movements. I have previously seen them from the M3 hunting low over Salisbury Plain but when I used to drive the M4 regularly 10 years ago I don't recall seeing kites, just the ever present west country buzzards sitting on the roadside posts and tree branches. The kites move in a different way from buzzards, more mechanically with clear lifts and tilts evident in the wings and tail, unlike the buzzards with their slightly more lugubrious and relaxed attitude. I also saw a buzzard above the trees near Thurton in Norfolk and although common in the west country they were not something I saw in Norfolk as a child.

This all fits with the increase in raptor numbers across the country as populations climb after a reduction in pesticide use and cases of poisoning and persecution. A man on a radio 4 programme recently was explaining that although some people read the 'sudden' increase in birds of prey as a problem and 'out of control' it is infact a gradual rebalancing of native populations in recovery. The attendant, but apparently low level and largely localised, taking of farm bred and abundant pheasant chics is of course an inevitable side effect of this recovery and no doubt a motivation for those who have tragically been using poisoned baits to kill birds recently, a crime that is apparently increasing.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Crow Country

As autumn ticks inexorably towards winter, it is time again for the gathering of the crows. One of the most remarkable sights in our part of Norfolk is the huge corvid roost just north of the river from us at Buckenham. Tens of thousands of rooks and jackdaws gather from across the landscape as dusk approaches. Drifting in in small numbers at first, the volume rises and rises, before a huge influx streams in across the twilight. After settling in droves in surrounding fields, just as dark sescends they rise up in tumults before hurtling down to settle in the carr to sit out the night.

The phenomenon has been thoroughly documented and explored in Mark Cocker's fantastic 'Crow Country', which I heartily recommend. Having observed it several times last winter I look forward again to the sight again this year. This short film culled from footage I shot last year cannot convey the awesome spectacle or indeed sound, but I hope gives some taste of the scale.

I wrote the music as a response to this experience. For me there is a sense of foreboding and high drama about the spectacle, which I tried to reflect. I made no attempt to imitate the actual sound, instead drawing inspiration from the mix of sounds; the deep organic chatter of the rooks mirrored in acoustic guitars whilst referencing the higher, almost electronic noises of the jackdaws, using a theremin.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

A saturday morning visitor

Saturday morning. Woke up, opened the curtains. Got back into bed, looked out the window to see this:

Cue silent garden. Even I was slightly mesmerised by those glaring yellow eyes, so god knows how a sparrow feels. Thanks to some stealthy work grabbing my camera from my assistant, I was able to get off a couple of shots before sudden death no doubt descended on some unsusepcting passerine.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Reliquary - Exhibition Opens

My new sculpture exhibition opened in Bath on Saturday and, after many weeks of late nights, my work is now finished and on display for the next 3 weeks. Amongst the new works the 'Dordogne Collection' is now assembled, containing all of the natural history specimens that I found during our week in the south of France back in August. The 'Reliquary' wall triptych is now also complete with its hundreds of organised mouse and shrew bones collected from the many barn owl pellets picked up in barns in recent years. A shrine to the joy of collecting and observing the natural world around us.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Conference of Birds

I was lucky enough recently to meet composer Peter Cowdrey, who along with the company 'Opera Unlimited', explores the relationship between birdsong and music. As well as guiding birdlistening walks and undertaking educational activities in schools he has composed and compiled music directly inpired and derived from birdsong in the ensemble piece ' The Conference of Birds'. You can read more about this and hear extracts at the website

For me it was particularly inspiring to hear how he has managed to use the structures and sounds of birdsong as a creative 'jumping-off point'. Although the musical structures of birdsong are not always as clearcut as human-composed music, familiar musical tools such as repetition, clear motifs and rhythmic contrast are evident, particularly once the song is recorded and slowed down. I've never really found a way of incorporating birdsong into my own music-making, but Peter's work affords an interesting and inspiring model for how it can be done.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Theatre of Insects - Lacock Abbey

Fantastic insect photography exhibition at Lacock Abbey by the artist Jo Whaley. Theatre of Insects consists of many images of preserved insects photographed against carefully arranged backgrounds and sympathetic objects. The artist was in the gallery for the opening of the show and able to talk to our students and also provided a table of sketchbook imagery. The illustrated pages and photographs demonstrated how the work was created, with careful lighting and reflective mirrors used to highlight the features and details in these miniature dioramas. Terrific.