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Twitching Music

We’re almost there! Society seems to be opening up like springtime. One thing I’m (William) really enjoying at the moment is the birds coming back. We use birds quite frequently in our music. One of our first ever soundtrack commissions was for a short film called Silent Roars. One of the women featured was a birdwatcher called Mya-Rose Craig (who has since gone on to achieve some amazing things, including becoming the youngest ever Briton to receive an honorary doctorate), and for her bit in the film we put the sounds of different birds through a Korg MS20 synth, which has a fun circuit inside called a ‘frequency to voltage converter;’ in other words you feed it a sound and it tries to convert it to synth noises as closely as possible (often not very well, which makes for some great results). You can also hear it on my voice at the beginning of our song ‘Mercy Seat’ from the red EP. On the Silent Roars soundtrack the distinctive rhythm of the birds, which only birds seem to have, came through in this really interesting way even though I don’t think we included any of the actual bird sounds. It’s just synths! You can watch it for free via the BFI here.

In my opinion it’s really difficult to use bird sounds in music effectively, even though the idea of it is so alluring. In Voka we’ve often tried and decided against it, or realised that what we thought would sound rad actually sounds like a total mess. When we were recording Start Clanging Cymbals there were masses of Starlings roosting in the trees by the room we were in, in Wales. They have this amazing sort of guttural, chatty warble, which is then multiplied by hundreds when they’re all together. We spent ages recording them on a Tascam field recorder, only to realise that placing them on the album was almost impossible. There are a few birds on that album, though: oystercatchers on ‘Oystercatcher,’ for example, or house martins in the opening to ‘Xerxes ’19.’

Cosmo Sheldrake had an album last year, Wake Up Calls, which I thought was great. He somehow retained that natural ‘other’ musicality birds have, but sort of nursed it into human-song form. The band XTC also open their album Skylarking really effectively with what certainly sounds like birdsong, even though it could be synthesised. It doesn’t really matter though because it does just what it needs to with the birdsong vibe. If you don’t know it, Skylarking is one of the ultimate feel-good-summer-post-lockdown records. All killer no filler.

It’s funny, birds also seem to be musical in loads of ways beyond singing- there are a handful of great spotted woodpeckers near my house, and they become really active at this time of year, pecking unbelievably fast like a drum roll. Occasionally you can hear several of them around you at once like some kind of stereo installation. I don’t suppose it would be possible to sample them up close as they get spooked so easily. They look amazing as well- red and black and white. You’d never think they were a British bird just by looking at them.

There’s also so much musicality in the way some birds fly- I consider myself really lucky every time I see a lapwing, one of my favourite British birds. A pair of them is always a sign of spring. Their wings are weighted in such an amazing way that they look like they’re disappearing and appearing again out of thin air. Watching them fly is like looking at a kinetic sculpture- it’s so hypnotic you almost want to bob your head in time with it, like you’re dancing. You can also call them green plovers, and apparently the name ‘lapwing’ came from ‘lapwink’ because looking at them in flight it was like their wings were eyes winking at you.

Great Spotted Woodpecker © Simon Booth

Lapwing in flight over wet grassland at Lapwing hide. By Ken Turner

There you go. Some birds to think about. And have a listen to those records I mentioned if you haven’t already. Much love!


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