Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Miranda Rutter – Bird Tunes, a review

In what may already be a contender for album of the year, Miranda Rutter and friends meld music and nature in ways that feel entirely original and utterly spellbinding. Gavin McNamara explores.

Album cover for 'Bird Tunes' by Miranda Rutter. The image shows Miranda playing the violin in a sunlit forest, surrounded by lush green trees. The album title and artist's name are displayed at the top.
Release Date
1 May 2024
Miranda Rutter - Bird Tunes
Miranda Rutter's album, Bird Tunes, masterfully blends field recordings, birdsong, and exceptional musicianship into a harmonious celebration of nature and music. Rutter, alongside Rob Harbron and occasionally Sam Sweeney, integrates natural sounds into each composition, showcasing a seamless fusion between bird calls and musical responses. This album exemplifies how folk music can vividly capture and reflect the beauty of the natural world, resonating deeply with listeners and highlighting the intricate relationships between sound, nature, and artistry.

Brian Eno is at the forefront of EarthPercent, an initiative to get “nature” recognised as a contributing artist and getting it a royalty payment. There can’t be a genre of music that will help his drive more than folk. Think of Sam Lee’s work with nightingales, The Unthanks’ ‘Magpie’, huge swathes of Martin Simpson‘s back catalogue, or Owen Spafford & Lewis Campell’s ‘Curlew’.

To this list you can add, and probably put right at the top, this fantastic album by Miranda Rutter. Bird Tunes is, very simply, utterly beautiful. A glorious bringing together of field recordings, birdsong and three incredible musicians. Nature and music in perfect harmony.

Rutter’s fiddle is accompanied by Rob Harbron on concertina and, occasionally, Sam Sweeney on a second fiddle in this collection of new tunes. Central to their performance are Rutter’s field recordings, which serve as both inspiration and tribute as the players incorporate these snippets into their music.

‘Blackbird Schottishe’ starts, as do so many of the tunes here, with bird call, the immediately recognisable blackbird making way for Rutter as the bird serves as muse for a glorious, heaven-bound violin. Harbron adds an infectious, upbeat jollity and, finally, Sweeney, determinedly not stealing scenes, works as another layer, echoing other birds, indistinct but vital to the all-encompassing cloud of avian voices. The rhythms of the bird call are effortlessly incorporated into a slow polka, the 2/4 and little hop uncannily finding a parallel.

It is on ‘WudWud Birthday Jig’ that the template is well and truly drawn. Rutter’s fiddle sets up a call and response with the bird as she intricately copies the song. A conversation ensues until it becomes almost impossible to know who started talking, the bird or the fiddle. The strict melody of the call falls away as Rutter slows the pace and then melts the bird’s tune into one of her own. A slow jig, augmented by Harbron, is finally joined, once again, by the bird, the musicians (winged or otherwise) now in harmony. This is the sort of music that even those who are folk-averse should love. It takes nature as the purest of all palettes and fashions a glorious moment. Can you improve upon nature? Can you create ordered magic from natural chaos?

From here Rutter carefully chronicles each of her woodland walks, conversing with each of the birds that she hears. Her communions are documented lovingly. On ‘Skylark Bourree’ her fiddle hovers, tremulous, the strings marking a time and space as the Skylark sings. Soon the tune is as manic and intricate as the call, before Harbron slows everything as the fiddles swoop gracefully around one another. They ascend and descend, waiting for the Skylark to return at the end. It is only matched in beauty by ‘Three Barn Owls’; a strange, ghostly call rattles the first few moments until the fiddles join. It is lovely and slow, delicate, contemplative, a sleepy-eyed blink, the puffing of feathers, a settling down. Gently, the instruments build again.

Rutter’s menagerie continues to unfurl. ‘The Warbler’s Rant’ is cheeky and joyous while ‘The Mistle Thrush’ unwinds slowly until it feels as though there are two birds fighting for dominance. The plucked violins on ‘Sandpiper’s March’ peck away before Rutter’s fiddle bursts through in a flurry of English Country Dancing loveliness. It’s a tune that is as pastoral, as green-tinged, as full of nature as it’s possible to be.

If there’s one thing that Bird Tunes seems to point out it is the struggle with habitat loss and the general way in which the natural world is so often relegated to a background hum. Rutter puts it front and centre. On ‘Our Fading Icons of Spring’, cuckoo and warbler set the melody. The bass of the cuckoo and the high notes of the warbler allow Rutter and Harbron to construct something with real depth. It’s a contemplation. As undeniably beautiful as it is, there’s a sense of sorrow that can’t be dislodged, a sense that we are losing something precious.

The final tune on the album is ‘Golden Blackbird Jig’, and the satisfying coherence is staggering. Once again, it’s a tune that starts with birdsong; once again Rutter responds with love and playful respect. The jig begins slowly, the intensity ramping up until the instruments are swooping and circling. It’s almost overwhelming – tears need to be fought back. Then you notice something: the instruments are no longer responding to the birdcall, there’s no mimicry, the instruments and the birds are in perfect harmony. The violin and the bird are singing together.

Eno might be trying to get nature recognised as an artist in its own right, but Rutter wants us to notice the birds themselves. If any music has ever mirrored the beauty of an English landscape, then Bird Tunes is it.

Bird Tunes by Miranda Rutter was released on May 1st. It can be ordered and downloaded from mirandarutter.com.