Nightingale Variations – A Kooky review

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Glapthorn Cow Pastures, Northamptonshire. A Place Of Remembered Beauty that I used to know well.

In the late 1970s and early 80s I would be among those birdwatchers climbing over the rusty wire fence into the woodland, creeping through the blackthorn and overgrown clearings to experience the atmosphere of an overlooked, wild and mysterious place.
It was home not only to Nightingales, but also the shy, rare and sibilant Golden Pheasants that have long since disappeared. Nightingales become mere sparrows when we got one of these magnificent woodland creatures in the open, unaware of our presence, which we concealed by lying in one of the many ditched and furrows that traversed the pasture. I have no doubt that there were elves and ghosts in there too, quietly watching us watching them.

But it was the Nightingales we returned for, several times every spring as April blossomed into May. Occasionally armed with tape recorders (ask your Dad…) which we would set up at the edge of thickets and play the bird song back to the hidden singers. And they would come, inquisitive, aggressive and territorial males – popping out of nowhere onto the deck to sing. And sing. And sing again.

NIGHTINGALE VARIATIONS opens with a wonderful minute of this birdsong, which in turn introduces the gently treated minimalist piano of John Foxx – an artist who has an endearing habit of appearing on these ‘obscure’ compilation projects alongside artists with silly names that you’ve never heard of. The tracks submitted to similar in the past 30 years are often among his best work too, arguably more creative and ‘free’ than the stuff that sells his Metamatic label. More importantly, these projects serve as portals to other worlds, parallel universes of beautiful, creative, challenging and experimental music populated by little-known musicians whose work is an integral part of our cultural biomass.
Through albums like ‘From Brussels With Love’, ‘Meridians’, Orphee’ and ‘Sugars’ I have found myself wandering in a world of undergound sound-art that is utterly engaging and informative. Nightingale Variations is absolutely no exception.

Foxx piano accompanies the bird In A Small Wood In A Big World, whose vocal weaves in and out of focus across the channels. Layered, looped and lovely.

Over there. Shhh.. what’s that? The shadowy figure of Michael Tanner, tolling a bell. Listen. tense, a little frightened. Apollyan in D – mournful, delicate string washes accompanying the laboured, whispering breath of a vagrant spectre.

Fly recreates the birdsong with percussion and plug-ins, building up an almost dance-able pop tune from which it restrains just in the nick of time. Till the beat kicks in, and moves everything up and onward. Mark Refoy’s lyrics celebrate the joyful freedom of being a bird – sadly his vocal doesn’t quite carry the message.

Matthew Eaton from Pram returns to a more ethereal dimension. His interpretation finds the listener beside a stream carrying leaves of static and glitches, flowing faster as the track builds and Amiga soundtrack bleeps and squelches replace the song of the subject.

Over there by that huge briar is Mark Tranmer, a versatile musician of many aliases. This time out, as usuisubari he plays it rather safe. Nice. Pleasant and summery. More of a blackbird…

From here, the woodcraft folk take the stage and I struggled to ‘get much on it’ as we birders would say. A little brown job that flitted across the binoculars without making much of an impression.

Windy and Carl take the project further into the dark underworld of Current 93 on a drone piece called ‘Night’ that engages despite initial resistance. David Tibet meets Nico. Enchanting melancholia. Thus we are introduced to Andrew Liles, who leads us from the heart of the woodland via a labyrinthine path of textures, surrealist cameos and strange, discomforting noises. The voice of ‘Annie’ – guardian of the pheasant people – encourages us to leave her secret place with haste, and we feel the urge to run…

The Durutti Column’s Laurie Laptop brings back the ambience with a haunting, ethereal piece that is as delightful as it is disturbing, echoeing John Foxx early distant piano. I wanted the album to end here when I first heard it, and I think after a dozen hearings I have returned to wishing it did.
Oliver Cherer’s ‘Judy Makes Three’ is a pleasant enough folk-pop tune and brings us back to why we came to this other green world. But its dark now and getting cold. My thoughts turn to home, but I know that if I leave with too much haste I would miss the last magical of the last minute or so.

They say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Nightingale Variations is a charming and absorbing example of exactly that. The individual contributors each bring a different approach, their own trademark styles, encouraging us to wander off with them into the undergrowth.
I think I prefer the instrumental tracks but as a whole, it is mesmering, flourishing and rich and I will be forever indebted to visionary curator Phil Cleaver.

I haven’t been to Glapthorn for twenty years now, and I am aware that it has information signs.
There may be a management strategy at work in the blackthorn and glades, but I expect its still haunted…

The Nightingales return in the same numbers every year and enchant new generations of bird lovers.
But don’t go there for those alone.
Watch out for the black hairstreaks and fungi among the oak and ash.
Feel the secrets and the history. Engage and react.

Experience the Variations and you will be forever enriched.

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