He made his name sharing the vanishing folk songs of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. Now, for his most recent project, Sam Lee is working with another group of musicians fighting for their very existence – the nightingales.

The Mercury-nominated composer and musician has been going back to nature, setting up camp in the woods to listen to – and sing back to – the birds who fill the night sky with their beautiful song.

And after a series of intimate evenings in the forest conversing with the nightingales, Sam and his Nest Collective are coming indoors for a night of music at Oxford’s Old Fire Station.

There he will share stories about the iconic birds, play music related to nightingales and their deep connections with British and European folklore and live stream a link to the woods, where the male birds sing their courtship song.

“The project really came about through discovering nightingales some years ago and falling in love with their song,” he says. “I connected it in with their role in the BBC’s first ever live broadcast – indeed radio’s first ever live broadcast – of nightingales singing along with Beatrice Harrison and her cello in 1924, which was broadcast to the world and became a celebrated moment in history.

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“ I made a 90th anniversary celebration of that in 2014 and from that documentary I discovered that from going out to hear nightingales and play music to them that they actually started to sing back and respond. There was an amazing connection that we had, so I started to invite audiences to come and experience the nightingales outdoors in spring and in the dark with these incredible birds.”

The concert is produced by folk music promoters, The Nest Collective, who’ve been holding Singing with Nightingales events in the woods since 2015, taking place again this spring in Kent, Sussex and Gloucestershire.

Sam says: “The birds start singing after dark so we spend the evening sitting round the fire telling stories about nightingales and then, come dark, we go to the birds. They are males singing their courtship song for six weeks in the spring to call down the females flying overhead. And as they sit on their perches in the blackthorn, we start singing with them.

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“Nightingale are one of the many great singers and hold a very special place for many people because of the short period of time they sing. But they also hold this night-time song when no other bird is singing, except maybe the hoot of an owl or a nightjar. And the nightingales sing continuously from darkness until dawn – and it is that prolific flow of song which is phenomenal and has captivated poets and singers for millennia in British and European culture.”

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And why are they so engaging? “The phrasing and the humanity of their spacing is very attractive and anthropomorphic,” he says. “It is such an ingenious way to sing.”

And, he says, it all connects back to his earlier work with endangered human communities. He says: “I see it connecting with my field work in Gypsy-Traveller music in that it is about finding hidden songs which are disappearing and going into extinction. Nightingales have declined at a 90 per cent rate over the last 40 years and set to go extinct within 40 years. Their song also needs to be known and celebrated.”

  • Sam Lee is at the Old Fire Station Oxford tonight (Tuesday). Tickets from oldfirestation.org.uk