The folk musician Sam Lee will perform in the beautiful surroundings of Battersea Arts Centre's Council Chamber together with a live-streamed soundtrack from the nightingales - directly from a secret woodland location near Lewes, Sussex.

This unique experience brings together the famously-beautiful singing of the birds from the wilds of Sussex and some very special human musicians. A technician in the woods will seek out the finest voiced nightingales and transmit a high fidelity live performance directly into the venue to which Sam and special guest musicians will improvise.

Ahead of this performance as part of the Borderless Series, I chatted to Sam about the dynamics of the project, the history between folk music and the natural world, and the importance of Art in elevating conservationism and the necessity of nature protection.


How's it going with the project so far? Have you been performing it sequentially?

Yeh I've done seven shows in the last ten days, and they're intense because you start setting up around four o'clock and don't finish until between one and three in the morning.

Sounds nocturnal.

It is nocturnal. But it's also the most glorious work I ever do, and I love every second of it. Sitting around campfires, telling stories and singing songs; and what better way to earn a living. Every day I've been opening a new site around the country as well. I've been doing several days at the start of each site, so I've been building campsites, get the show going, and then someone else continues at that site, and I move on. It's become quite a big operation.

Interesting, I knew about the Sussex/Lewes site; where else are you opening up?

We've got a site in Cambridgeshire, a wildlife trust site in Essex, quite a bit of land in Kent, and then the Lewes site.

Reverting back to the geneses, where did this idea originate for you?

Well, I've always listened to nightingales. Every year I'd try to make a pilgrimage to listen to them somewhere in the country or abroad. One of the most fascinating radio broadcasts the BBC have aired is of the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing live accompanied by nightingales in her Surrey home in 1924. It became a massively famous moment, an annual tradition, and in 2014 when it was the 90th anniversary I made a documentary on Radio 4 about it. It was a hugely successful documentary, became pick of the year, got lots of attention. In the making of it I went outside and took some folk songs to the nightingales and discovered that when singing with the nightingales, they actually responded back. I wasn't expecting that, that they'd have such a powerful collaboration. And you can get really close - two or three metres away from them - and they don't stop singing. So you're in ear-splitting proximity and they don't stop, so you have this beautiful dialogue. It got me thinking "why am I just doing this for radio? Let's turn this into a live experience." So I started inviting guests down, including guest musicians and ornithologists, where we have dinner, conversation, and a big event that happens; this year it's expanded to four times its size, and now it's at Battersea Arts Centre as well.

One of the more curious thoughts I had when I heard about the project was about the response of the nightingales to groups of people, but the idea of them as such a social animal is really cool. Just signing their tunes, completely chill.

So there's this exclusive six-week window where they sing. They live half their life in Africa, and then they migrant up to England and Europe to breed, and it's their mating season right now. They are marking out their territory, but they only sing at night, from about eleven o'clock; and the point of it is that they're calling the females out of the sky. They've got an intensity and beauty to their song, as they're trying to show off their prowess as well as their territorial markings. The song becomes almost decadent in conversation with the females, a lot of call-and-response, repetition. They're really brazen during this nightsong, it's kind of like an amazing time to be close to an animal that would never usually let you that close. You know, they're in thickets, the land's covered in dark, and they're protected.

That brings me onto my next point actually. What the concept evokes quite beautifully is the traditional - almost historical -relationship between folk music and nature, that's something going back centuries if you want to delve into the mechanics of what constitutes folk music now in relation to then. Why do you think the natural world and folk music are so convivial?

Well, the reason being I would suggest is that folk songs, British folk songs, Gaelic etc, songs of our islands; all traditional music of all cultures, returning to those tribal roots, are fundamentally devotional - although in the British sense more noticeably evolved coming from our prose tradition - but ultimately they hark back to a time where music was a way of worshipping nature, the environment, and man's relationship with them. What that means is an incredibly atavistic, ancient quality in our connection to land and the things that live upon it, and our dependence on it as indigenous tribes and societies. So there's something beautifully synonymous with folk songs, particularly since nightingales have always lived close to man's habitation, as they love the undergrowth and forestry created by man's development. Nightingales would have spent centuries singing loudly around campfires and dwellings, and they become associated with the fecundity of the springtime. Hence why loads of folk songs have nightingales in them; they're now so innately associated with this time of year, the return of the wealth of the land.

Even outside of folk music, the project itself as a naked concept, quite vividly recalls the films of Terence Malick and Walden-esque manifestos and essays on the importance of naturalism and conservationism. A lot of this Art; there's a divide in it between the hermetic Art - excluding themselves from modern society - or they stress the commonality that sustains itself between our technological world and the natural. What's your take on that, as expressed through this project, was there any deliberate import?

What a beautiful question. And what a big question! I think it's Thoreau that I actually will misquote here, that when it comes to aspects of nature when you tug at one thing, you realise it's connected to the rest of the world. I think that as a concept today is as valid as it ever has been. It's now ever more obvious, and ever more likely. We live in a time when we are so removed from the fluctuations, the patterns and rhythms of nature, that our connection to it on a global scale is much depleted. Yet it's so close to us, and we don't have permission as a society to find ways to enter into nature where we can create those meaningful connections. There's been a recent revival of nature writing, through Richard Laymon, Robin Turner, so on and so forth, and a wonderful reappraisal of our modern relationship in practice rather than theory, an application of how we can make these interventions into the natural world, and listen in a deeper way. It's really hard because these are skills which are inherited, but we've lost that along the way; we need to be guided now, person-to-person, and I feel my role in this project, is; well, the nightingales in these folk songs, they're trickery, they're a wonderful way of inviting people on an experience. There's no artificial light, no torches allowed, before getting to the performance you must walk forty minutes, fifty minutes, in the darkness, we do it in total silence. It's ways of encouraging a sense of mindfulness, and allowing ourselves to go into nature in a more disciplined and controlled way, but also a sense of joy because we're being guided. And the reward at the end isn't an owl hooting, but actually, we get exceptionally close to something natural and uncanny. The rewards of natural connection are normally really hard-won, yet ironically this is an easy one. But everyone comes back thinking "why don't I go out at night? Why don't I listen to nature?" We had a couple that came last night, and came back to the campsite where the fire is, and said, "we just stayed up all night and watched a weasel playing on logs, right in front of us, we sat there in silence." The intention of the project is nature connection, and the nightingales and folk songs are devices and catalysts for the experience.

Globally, but especially with this Conservative government, there's been a lot of quite regressive attitudes towards protectionism and conservationism. What you're doing is a powerful statement, as is all the nature literature from John Burnside etc, do you think Art is one of the most economical languages to debate the anti-conservationist - or purely complacent and indifferent - discourse?

As an artist, of course, I'm going to say yes. But I don't think it's as simple as that, and they're all inter-related. I need as collaborators direct action movements, political campaigners, the lobbyists, every community group that are working in their way; anything that brings people together to bring about a process of change is important. My romantic excursion is brilliant but if it's not done hand-in-hand with other concrete approaches making an impact then it's meaningless. It's a holistic thing, it works from government and policy-making all the way down reaching the community. What I'm doing isn't exact activism, it's abstract activism through Art. I often say it in the conversation before my event, that every time we develop a string with nature, all of this is about bringing to attention what we have to lose, the fragility of it, and if people start to feel emotionally involved and responsible, they'll realise the significance of the natural world as critically endangered or at risk. The most dangerous thing is apathy and carelessness. The last nightingale stops singing, only then will we have realised we should have fought harder to go listen to them.

Do you have any plans to expand or diverge the project into new territory? Maybe operating in a different part of the country, and then maybe a different fauna?

Yes and yes, is the short answer. The nightingales only live in very specific territory, and they only sing for six weeks, so as a project it has a very short life. I am looking at doing a bigger festival; we have an opportunity to plant musicians all around the reserve, so people can experience different concerts through the night. But also I do run a different series called The Campfire Club, through my events company, where we take all sorts of different locations throughout London, and we do concerts around the campfire. It's a way of getting people out of conventional venues and into interesting spaces. I have lots of ideas about nature and music and how they can work. There isn't anything quite like the nightingale project, but there are a few things brewing at the moment. The Battersea Arts Centre is the first attempt in broadcasting the nightingales across the country.

Obviously the Borderless Series is to promote experimental and underground projects, innovative and untouched upon ideas and concepts, how significant is this platform?

It's great, as a folk musician - beyond the nightingales - my work and folk music as an ideal is very much about the 'no borders' concept, about transcending the borders and margins of the society. On top of my nature projects, I do quite a lot of work also with the travellers' community; and so much of that is about precluding the borders and speaking to social pariahs, that there's is a community culture, much unheard of. So when there's a festival such as this which is an opportunity for artists who are dealing with these slightly intangible and dangerous areas, and they're given the prestige of a platform, and the opportunity to bring in an audience to be challenged over their concept of where art can be derived from, and platformed, and presented; it's fantastic. I love these events, where it's not just good music, and Art, but odd shit!

Sam Lee is performing at the Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Borderless Series on Tuesday 16th May. Tickets can be found at here.