Do music and nature seem worlds apart to you? As I think more about how art, music and nature can all draw together to enhance wellbeing, I’ve seen how music and nature in particular can be interwoven on different levels. Song titles might reference nature: think Nat King Cole’s Ramblin’ Rose or I Talk To The Trees from Paint Your Wagon. A piece of music might set out to present a particulat species or other aspect of nature, such as Saint Saens’ The Swan or Holst’s Planets. Sometimes musicians set about transcribing nature’s sounds into music, such as the 20th century French composer Messaien’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, or the present-day Australian musician Hollis Taylor, notating and composing around the song of the pied butcher bird. And then I heard about folk musician Sam Lee.
Sam Lee mirrors this interplay in a different way. He duets with nightingales, arranging nighttime woodland performances in springtime, when nightingales sing. Guest musicians attend, and a small audience. During lockdown, performances (like so many others) moved online, once Sam created a digital studio in the woodland where he could stream the performances.
It’s now ten years since Sam Lee entered the music scene, when his debut album, Ground Of Its Own, was shortlisted for a Mercury Music Prize. Over this time he has recorded, performed, collected, performed and shared songs. His connection with nature has seen him mark Earth Day and now interact with nightingales.
For folk music is rooted not only in community, people and heritage but also in the land and the cycle of nature.It’s these roots Sam draws on as he sings with nightingales, perhaps the bird species most famed for their song. This is far more varied than the song of most other species. As migratory birds, they are seen and heard here in the UK only in spring and summer, and sing only at night, all of which has added to their allure.
Folk music’s oral tradition, shared and passed on from one generation to another, has become very important to Sam Lee, who absorbed this tradition during childhood – going to Forest School Camps with his family – and also through time spent seeking out Gypsy and Traveller communities.
In 2021 Sam Lee published a book, The Nightingale: Notes On A Songbird. This, and most of all his night singing, have become an opportunity to celebrate the nightingale and also to raise awareness of the decline of this now rare bird: as when he led a concert in London’s Berkeley Square, highlighting how the famous song now represents a lost world.
I feel that interlinking music and nature in such innovative ways has real power – also – in lifting mood, boosting wellbeing. It’s multi-sensory, particularly in outdoor performances like this, where the audience experiences sights, sounds, the feel of the (night) air…It combines subtly different soundscapes – the soundscape of the natural world, calming to most of us, and the music that it inspires and feeds. It’s interactive so it responds to nature. I wonder whether there’s a particular species you would like to duet with, or a natural sound you particularly respond to, like wind gusting through a tree or what music it might create. It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002
To learn more about Sam Lee, go to https://samleesong.co.uk