jansch

There’s a struggle whenever you try to invoke something. How exactly do you communicate to someone something they have to imagine? There was a time when naturalist John Audubon had to struggle with art critics who looked down upon his realistic depiction of birds. Painting with watercolors, chalks, and pastels he’d distill to the bare essentials what made a specific bird, so specific. If you take a look at this image of the common mockingbird (the state bird of Texas then) or of a woodpecker you can instantly see what made his take on nature paintings different. Rather than ornament the bird with unlikely postures and ethereal environs as Romantic painters of his time had done, he’d take its most important constitution (the anatomy of the bird, a branch from a tree, or an interaction with another animal) and make that its focus while removing everything else that was superfluous.

Using true-to-life movement, color, and form — all things he gathered from hours long observation, and in his studio by manipulating stuffed version of them — he did something revolutionary then, he allowed any person to feel as if he was experiencing the animal in person. Its no wonder Birds of America influenced a legion of natural historians, evolutionists, and conservationists. Something about the book and the prints, so vivid, spare, and elegant, spoke to the natural beauty of the world as it is. By not striving to fill the canvas, we as the audience could fill out the space with whatever the bird invoked. Its this magnificence that I have to extend to Bert Jansch’s instrumental neo-folk masterpiece, 1979’s Avocet.

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Before recording this album, he had joined up with fellow musical vagabond Martin Jenkins from Dando Shaft. Tired from singing, and taking stabs at solvency through earlier recordings he’d done in America, he retreated back home, resigning himself to give up music and become a farmer. Occasionally, he’d do side gigs to maintain his form, but most of the time the guitar would just remain by the wayside. Although he had half a heart to tour, in support of minor releases of his, problems with alcohol and disappointment with the music industry itself left him less wanting to play and sing his own music. Folk music was on its way out and he was going through the motions of its dissolution.

In 1978, while touring Scandinavia there was one new song that he did love playing. The title track from Avocet, itself taking up one half of the album, originally didn’t have a name. All that Bert remembers is that he and Martin Jenkins, of Dando Shaft and his tourmate, would play this long, evolving bit of instrumental music. He so loved to let Martin take more of the lead either with violin, flute, or mandocello, because it allowed him to focus on creating beautifully simple chords and counter lines that evoked a bird, the cuckoo, he had stirring in his mind. What he didn’t care enough to sing, he could paint through its sound. What in the past might have been overrun by instrumentation was pared down to some bare essentials. His manager heard this song live and asked him if Bert ever recorded it. To which Bert replied, that no one had ever asked him to.

avoceet

Immediately recorded after this gig, in a Danish studio, the track started to take a different turn. Now joined by bassist Danny Thompson, also ex-the Pentangle, something about his bass lines started change the feeling of the song. The track itself started to take a more elegant and joyful sound, ah this was something else! No cuckoo could ever be deemed as elegant, but something else could…the avocet.

This bird, depicted on the cover of the album bears the distinction of being aggressively defensive. Whenever any other bird species tries to get close to its piece of wetland it lets out a pied sound to ward them off, and whenever any predator comes around they’ll switch their sound to one of a doppler-like sound effect to dissuade them. With all the space they have to operate, they focus on a small parcel to display their own unique behavior:
The mating behaviour of avocets is very elegant. Initially both birds can be seen preening vigorously, then the female lowers her head, stretches it low over the water and stands almost motionless. The male continues to preen excitedly, frequently dipping his bill in the water and moving first to one side of her and then the other, switching sides many times by walking behind her (if he passes in front copulation is unlikely to take place).   Eventually he jumps sideways onto her back and with wings spread and bill open sinks down onto his tarsi whilst she swings her head from side to side.   After copulation, the male drops sideways into the water and the pair run forward with bills crossed, the male with one wing over the females back. Finally they run away from each other in a hunched posture.

— detailed here.

Few, if any, animals court and comfort each other, before and after mating quite like the avocet. To perform such a display, they require space. All of this, in turns guarantees that their side of the wetlands remains some of the most densest and hardest for most flightless species to navigate through. This environmental wherewithal allowed them to reintroduce and resuscitate themselves from near extinction by the British in WWII, and in turn aid the war effort by effectively dissuading German sea to land invasions through all the land they were transforming.

Can’t you hear this elegance and form in “Avocet” though? When Bert’s female guitar sound gets courted with Martin’s preening male violin sound, with Danny playing his watery bass…that’s when you hear the undeniably natural, pastoral sound Bert was hoping to evoke throughout the album. This aviary theme continues wonderfully through the rest of the album, with each track using the barest of musical tools, some undeniable aspect of the bird it shares the title with. I’ll give you one to start with, how about the phasing electric mandocello mystique of “Bittern”, its swooping bass sound brilliantly capturing the real bittern’s own distinct sound, and giving you the listener a view of its behavior:

A thickset heron with all-over bright, pale, buffy-brown plumage covered with dark streaks and bars. It flies on broad, rounded, bowed wings. A secretive bird, very difficult to see, as it moves silently through reeds at water’s edge, looking for fish. The males make a remarkable far-carrying, booming sound in spring. Its dependence on reedbeds and very small population make it a Red List species – one of the most threatened in the UK. — detailed here.

Look at the following image with numbered annotations of the birds invoked on the cover. The questions I pose for you think of are these: Can you feel how the sound is representative of each bird? Can you hear how the melodies describe the movement they make? Can you feel how each of the three musicians adopts certain layers of the sonic picture? Can you see how the songs are connected to each other?

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A long time ago, before the rise of television, radio, and all sorts of progressive media, all one had to do was turn a page to fall in love and wonder about a creature that seemed foreign but felt more alive than the staid greyness of industrial life. Those pictures displayed something increasingly marginalized through some chase for modernity. Be that as it may, for a few minutes, one could let a mind wander and intrinsically imagine the rest. These moments of natural respite are few and farther in between this day-to-day life where space is so finite to do such things. For those times, when you wish to make some time to escape elsewhere far more vivid and lively, all you have to do is listen to 37-or-so minutes of bird songs that’ll let you fill in the rest…

Listen to Avocet at Youtube…

1. Avocet
2. Lapwing
3. Bittern
4. Kingfisher
5. Osprey
6. Kittiwake