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Review Music: Spelling out the threat to the natural world

WILL STONE sees a stirring musical response to the danger of species extinction

Lost Words and Spell Songs
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

THE FOCUS of this unique folk concert is the best-selling book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

As its title suggests, the work is both a homage to those words relating to nature that have fallen out of common usage and a response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary replacing them with those from the digital era such as broadband and chatroom.

This seemingly innocuous act reflects not just the death of the natural word but the death of the natural world too and, as Macfarlane points out in a Q&A ahead of the concert, a few days ago a major global scientific study found that more than 40 per cent of insect species are declining and many are at risk of extinction due to the collapse of nature’s ecosystems.

He’s quick to stress that Lost Words is not an exercise in nostalgia but about the present and the future.

Beautifully illustrated by Morris, the acclaimed book has already inspired a theatrical production and here it’s transformed into a live concept piece that marries its themes with musical accompaniment from some of the most accomplished folk musicians around.

In the line-up are singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, Scottish contemporary folk musician and songwriter Kris Drever, singer and harpist Rachel Newton, cellist Beth Porter and multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux.

The “spell songs” they perform are all newly commissioned pieces, the culmination of a month's residency that saw the musicians collaborate on and write individual pieces inspired by the book.

Newton’s wonderfully harmonious Acorn opens proceedings and it’s followed by Porter’s Goldfinch, warning of their demise, and the vibrant Heron, with a brilliantly catchy chorus, from Keita.

Morris joins the group at the back of the stage for the second half, where she accompanies the music with live painting projected onto a big screen, including a recreation of her incredible illustration Otters.

There's an apt conclusion to the night as the ensemble perform the spell song Blessing, a joint collaboration.

An album of this new music is planned for release in the summer and, given the captivating folk aesthetic of this project, it’s sure to reach an even wider audience.

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