BBC Wildlife Magazine
Songs in the key of life
Getting lost in music inspired by wildlife and the environment can renew our connection with the natural world.
On a raw evening at the tail end of last year, I found myself huddled among a gaggle of likeminded people in Somerset. As the light faded, so did our chatter. The whisper of starlings performing their sinuous aerial ballet mesmerised us; spirits took flight, soaring and swooping with songs and wingbeats clattering softly like hundreds of paper fans unfolding.
Then, after the last of the birds’ calls ebbed away, we were led along a stormlashed shore, and ambled upriver along meanders writhing with elvers. A trio of microadventures – all experienced not among the reedbeds of the Somerset Levels or on the Quantock coast, but in a small arts venue in central Bath.
My lyrical guide for the evening was Bristol-based singer-songwriter Kitty Macfarlane. Starling Song, which opened her joyful set, features recordings of a murmuration but, in truth, captures the essence of that luminous experience more in tune, rhythm and rhyme. “Above, a leviathan assembles in the sky… They fly over the stories held in the peat / Telling their own in a million wingbeats.” Macfarlane is among a swelling wave of nature-inspired musicians, particularly folk singers – but not exclusively. “Today, in a very evolved music industry, it’s interesting seeing how nature is starting to appear in many different genres, artistic styles and usages – from the highly conceptual and avant-garde to the straight-down-the-line folk,” says folk singer and activist Sam Lee.
It’s surely more than mere coincidence that these voices are in tune with those of activists tackling wider environmental and conservation concerns, at a time when climate change and plastic pollution dominate headlines and consciences. Rather than preaching, though, at the heart of their songs – lending them their inherent beauty and appeal – is a profound love of the natural world.
“I think that seeps into my songs, but hopefully in a way that isn’t just pastoral and twee,” says Kitty. “The thing I really want to investigate with music and words, and recordings of the sounds of nature, is our relationship and fragile ties with the land.”
It’s hardly a novel idea, of course. British folk music was born from our countryside and wildlife. The love songs, the eerie tales, the post-battle laments, the murder ballads – so many evoke the land, the sky, the sea, and the creatures and trees living in and on them.
“Look at the traditional music of any culture – not just British folk – and it’s devotional music towards our relationship with the land,” muses Sam. “It may have evolved into a very human and intellectual relationship, but that’s what its purpose was.”