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Former seabird scientist spreads her wings

Folk musician Jenny Sturgeon is bringing a birdsong-inspired audio-visual production to Cecil Sharp House

24 August, 2018 — By Róisín Gadelrab

Inge Thomson and Jenny Sturgeon – the pair have collaborated to create a live show that combines elements of drum ’n’ bass, electronica and folk music 

I STUDIED as a seabird biologist for many years. Then the music ended up taking over. I’m a creative person and I think I was in the wrong job.”

Folk musician Jenny Sturgeon is explaining how she decided to leave her scientific post to concentrate on music.

“I realised I preferred to look at birds in a creative way, rather than studying minute details about their behaviour,” she adds. “My music has always been inspired by nature, but I didn’t realise it until I played a gig once and someone said, ‘It’s like being outside – bringing the outside inside.’ Only then I realised how important it was.”

Jenny has drawn on her years of experience observing birds on the Shetland coast for her latest project, Northern Flyaway – a birdsong-inspired audio-visual production combining elements of drum ’n’ bass, electronica and folk music, due to be performed at Cecil Sharp House on September 19.

The singer, who has a PhD in seabird ecology, collaborated with fellow folk musician Inge Thomson to write and create the show, adding to their line-up with singer/multi-instrumen­talist Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow, Rachel Newton Band) and vocal sculptor/beatboxer Jason Singh (Follow the Fleet, Tweet Music).

The ensemble is completed by the multitude of bird calls that are integrated into the performance.

Jenny said: “We knew we wanted birds to be like a band member – they’re our fifth band member.

“We approached (birdsong expert) Magnus Robb, who we got the bird samples from. He’s got an incredible catalogue of bird song.”

Magnus, whose job is to go around the world collecting bird calls, has an archive of 65,000 calls, and Jenny and Inge made the most of the access.

“We’ve got loads of samples of bird calls from Magnus and we trigger them throughout the show,” said Jenny.

“Each song is about different birds or a group of birds.

“We do bits of mimicking of bird calls, Inge and Sarah play flute and can mimic the call of a gannet. Jason is an amazing mimic of birds as well, so does a lot of sampling and manipu­lation of his own voice.

“Each show is based on songs we have written, but the live element and improvi­sation from Jason makes us perform slightly differently each time. There are over 50 different calls in the show

“The birdsongs are playing throughout, they are very central. We intentionally chose not to have conventional instruments, we don’t have a guitar or drum­mer. We chose to do something a bit different – there are elements of folk but no fiddle.

“We both wrote music based on birdsong, birds, ecology, folklore – not based on any genre, but there are elements of folk because we come from that background, but also different elements.”

As The Rosefinch Song is played, Inge will trigger the Rosefinch call and then play it back on the accordion, so it becomes like a conver­sation between bird and instrument, says Jenny.

The show is generally intended as a celebration of birds and how humans interact with them.

“We are hoping people come along and it makes them think about birds in a different way,” said Jenny.

The audio-visual element to the show gives it an added immersive dimension, as images are projected onto a flat screen but also over the musicians.

Jenny said: “We’re lucky to have visuals from Scotland: The Big Picture Richard Shuck­smith, and a few others as well. They are documentary film quality visuals, as well as some bits from people’s phones – really good quality footage. We weren’t sure how that would add to the project, but it’s become such an integral part and we react to that.

“It’s projected on parts of us and the screen – sometimes quite complicated and sometimes simple. That’s really special, it’s become such an involved thing.

Normally you go to a gig and watch people playing guitar, but here, we’re secondary to the visuals.

“There’s elements of drum ’n’ bass in there, and electronic, but it’s calming mainly because of the birds.”

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