Making music with nightingales

Folk musician Sam Lee writes about a very special performance.


There exists a moment every year, around late April at about 10.45pm, where I find myself wrapped in overcoat and scarf, huddled in with 30 or so people somewhere in a woodland, waiting for folk song to be sung.

We will be in complete darkness, sitting on crisp, winter-worn leaves, when a familiar thought crosses my mind. We are gathered deep in a thicket somewhere in Sussex, or perhaps Kent, having met only hours earlier, to listen as many other audiences will be listening that very moment in concert halls around the country.

This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. 

But ours is a very special kind of concert. This musical collaboration is completely different from any other happening that night probably anywhere in the world. 

Sensuous mastersinger

I and one other ‘trained’ human musician sit silently, listening reverentially, and then, when the spirit calls, join in interpretive improvisation with a male nightingale perched maybe only 10 feet away as he sings his night song.

His ear-throbbingly loud cascade of over 200 phrases and sounds is a declarative, primal and utterly decorative pronouncement of his urge to connect to other nightingales and this landscape we are immersed in, and in doing so hopefully to find a mate.

But a returning thought teases my mind as we crouch entranced by the fluid and staccato notes of this sensuous mastersinger weaving decorations around the night’s silence. It’s impossible not to think upon the scarcity of this bird and the privilege of our respectful proximity and the acres of land that are sadly no longer bathed in ‘nightingaleness’ or any other red-list species’ springtime song as they once would have been.

The music bit of my brain also imagines the many ancient songs of Britain, Europe and the Near East that revere this bird’s exquisite vocal prowess and liquid-like lamentation.

But more than anything I wonder: why do we not experience music like this more often? Naked to the elements, free of physical boundaries, of hierarchies, of stages, of platforms, of red rope or red tape.

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Music experienced intimately, in circles, knees overlapping one another, each person responsible for maintaining the silence, and architects of both concert hall and concerto, each a contributor to this experience.

Putting the environmental challenges aside – the cold, the possible wet, the lack of cushions – what we reap from taking this risk, of daring to experience music outside in Nature, is an exhilaration of all our senses simultaneously being fired off at once.

We realise that the context in which we have grown accustomed to hearing music nowadays denies us so much sensation that for millennia has been the forge in which our music, our language and our stories have evolved. 

This has become the philosophy and daring practice of Singing With Nightingales and many of the public events, campfire concerts, pilgrimages and musical experiences that we have developed at The Nest Collective, an organisation specialising in extraordinary music in unexpected places, in London and beyond.

The most pronounced of these are the Nightingale concerts, but also our Sussex Turtle Dove and Scottish Salmon pilgrimages – each one taking the songs born of the land back to the land.

Song repatriation

These radical ‘open to anyone’ experiences are all permission-granting interventions of communal song repatriation and Nature adoration.

Embedded in what we do in these events is the ‘broadcasting’ of sonic heirloom seeds in an attempt to restore and reinvigorate that ancient and intuitive coexistence with which our known (and long since forgotten) folk songs and the patterns of Nature have evolved. 

The reason is simple. We are Nature. And we need Nature as much as it needs us. Our collective repertoire of traditional Indigenous song has been inherited via a lineage of deeply connected ancestors whose attunement to the way of Nature is held within these songs.

As contour lines of OS maps can restore to a keen hiker’s memory a much-loved valley’s undulation, so too can folk songs. They suggest to those who carried and carry them an intergenerationally accumulated knowing of the significance of that particular bird or flower, that oak tree or meadow, that landscape and story, and how it’s hitched to every other tree, bird, field and indeed ‘pretty fair maid’ those old singers would have ever loved.

These songs of the land and about the land are declarations of our dependency on this Earth. 


Our own British tradition, though deeply secular, bears all the hallmarks of an atavistic and devotional practice that holds the land sacred.

Separate the song from both ‘echosystem’ and ecosystem, and the flame long tended within will turn to dull ash – ceasing to radiate that benevolent vitality held in the collective consciousness of its songful alumni.

Alas, many a folk song today can be seen curling like the dorsal fin of a captive orca destined for a life of mere entertainment. But, like the Nature-rewilding programmes The Nest Collective works with and emulates, another way is possible.

Take the example of Knepp Castle Estate, with its blossoming population of turtle doves (nationally in a freefall 95 percent rate of decline). Our annual pilgrimage charts the 20 miles to the estate from Rusper village, the original site of the ancient folk song ‘The Turtle Dove’, collected there in 1905 by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

As we peregrinate through Sussex, we declaim this wild hymn to wells, churchyards, river sources, ancient boundary oaks and unsuspecting village shoppers, declaring its vitalness in playful irreverent worship.

Reclaim meaning

The same too with our river Dee blessing pilgrimage, rewilding the Scottish Highland ballads to the rapidly disappearing Cairngorm salmon and their vital symbiotic partner, the freshwater pearl mussel.

By taking song back to its source, an indescribable act of restoration occurs, both inward and outward. The songs reclaim meaning and help heal and enhance our often complicated relationship with the land.

The payoff is an enhanced sense of duty to care harder and deeper. Folk song, like Nature, is in the participation – we do it through our feet, our voices and our hearts.

Join us on our journeys, or better still make your own ones up, but do it fast, before the land and the songs fall forever silent. 

This Author 

Sam Lee and Nest Collective curate outdoor concerts between nightingales and selected musical artists. Performances of Singing With Nightingales continue until 26 May 2019. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. 

Image: Kev Chapman, Flickr

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