I am walking in deep darkness through Sussex woodland, part of a shoulder-holding chain of about 25 other audience members, to attempt to hear a singer who’s going to come on very late and may not show up at all.
No, not Pete Doherty – Luscinia megarhynchos, the nightingale, who’s just back from Africa and noisily looking for a girlfriend in a dense bush on a disused railway line. We’re following London folk singer Sam Lee to the spot, with Surbiton cellist Laura Moody next in line. The white instrument case on her back provides the only slight illumination on a journey that heightens every sense.
When we arrive, around 11pm, the invisible “master musician”, as Lee calls him, is already in full vocal flight. It’s a remarkably varied, jazzy sequence of trills, jabs and volleys, plus a noise that sounds strangely like a dog whining. In the darkness, when every other singer bar a distant owl has clocked off, it’s also loud.
The humans begin to sing and play alongside the bird – traditional songs that reference nightingales from Lee and something more improvisational from Moody, who has her own extraordinary vocal repertoire of whistles and ululations. She echoes the nightingale’s notes and rhythms with her cello and as they mix together it becomes tantalisingly hard to tell if there’s a real conversation going on – different languages with plenty in common.
Lee is doing this ever-changing gig with various guest musicians here, on another farm in Kent and in theatres (with a live stream of the birdsong) until the end of the month, when mates are found and the singing stops til next May. He started in 2014 as a tribute to Beatrice Harrison, whose garden cello duet with a nightingale was the BBC’s first ever outside broadcast in 1924.
He has vowed to keep it up for as long as the birds, whose UK population has dropped drastically, keep returning. So he should – it’s a live music experience unlike any other.