Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) and Leeds Art Gallery have commissioned Bradford-born musician Leafcutter John to compose Lockdown Patchwork, an extraordinary, original sound story for 2020.

Following a call-out to the public for their most meaningful outdoor sounds from lockdown, John received over 13 hours of field recordings including birdsong, wind turbines, seascapes – and rain.

From these he has composed Lockdown Patchwork; a crowd-sourced musical artwork that explores the important role nature and access to green spaces have played for many of us during this uniquely challenging year.

John has woven interviews into this evocative piece, including the words of poet Ian McMillan and beat boxer/sound artist Jason Singh, alongside nature writer Zakiya McKenzie’s talking about the joy of her new garden.

Together these offer a sometimes haunting, sometimes mournful, yet always eloquent, electronic soundtrack – one that reflects people’s personal experiences of nature as a means of escape from a Covid-19 reality.

Drawing on Leeds Art Gallery’s current Natural Encounters exhibition, which explores how artists have responded to nature, the piece uses social media submissions, videos, field recordings and interviews to capture and share the experiences of people who have been connected by their enjoyment of nature, parks and green spaces during the pandemic.

The piece also plays an important role in raising awareness around issues of uneven access to nature and green spaces.

Speaking about the commission, Leafcutter John said: “Getting out into nature has been very important to me during the pandemic, so I’m really chuffed that this commission has enabled me to create a piece of music exploring the sounds and use of green spaces during such unsettling times.

“People were very forthcoming in providing personal backstories for the sounds they sent me. This meant I could find beauty in all of the sounds, whether they were made on a high-end recorder or just a phone.

“It’s the context and personal reflection that makes each piece magical. From the turn of wind turbines to a New Forest walk or birdsong, it is hard to pick a favourite.”

Poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, has spent lockdown on a walking voyage of discovery close to his home in South Yorkshire.

In Lockdown Patchwork he shares his thoughts on fungus ‘with massive elephant ears and fairy toadstools’ and describes his daily strolls as opportunities to “recapture his lost youth and pick up the mythical mandrake and hear it scream.”

His overwhelming sonic memory of lockdown is the mysterious sound of a drone in the distance. “Sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn’t, and then occasionally it would be mingled with the unusual sound of a passing car,” he said.

Patchwork artwork

Nature writer and journalist Zakiya McKenzie describes the joy of experiencing spring in a new home with her own garden. What follows is a cacophony of rainfall, storms and birdsong with the sound of traffic playing in the distance. “Lockdown meant life slowed down, watching things happen, learning the cycles of all the plants and the birds, discovering quince, cherry trees and grapes.”

Musician Ally Craig, who has been shielding since March 2020 for health reasons, hasn’t been able to experience physical green spaces. He says: “The tops of the trees from my back door – that’s about as about much green as I can see.

“A lot of what I’m reading and listening to is set in imaginary, rural spaces. I suppose I am living vicariously through books at the moment.”

For beatboxer and sound artist Jason Singh, a walk in the woods is an opportunity to “be among the trees, just listening to song thrush, blackbird and wren.” He describes the restorative power of the forest “allowing external sounds to shift focus away from himself.”

Leafcutter John’s piece isn’t a solution to anyone’s lockdown problems, but what it does provide is a fascinating time capsule, documenting the sounds and feelings of lockdown. In a moment of quiet happiness, a warm metallic guitar chord provides the accompaniment. In a moment of uncertainty and doubt, he forges a motoric rhythm, so that others can find themselves in the story. “In a way, my part of the music is just listening to what people are saying. I hope it helps.”

Nature in all its forms has provided a refuge and welcome escape from the stress and worry of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, millions of people across the UK have issues accessing outdoor space and nature and many people living in towns and cities are often too far away from places where they can explore freely off-path and enjoy the ‘right to roam’.

Graham McKenzie, hcmf// chief executive, said: “Our relationship to nature and environment has become so important to so many over the past 12 months, and my thanks to all those who shared their moments and sounds to make this work possible, and to Leafcutter John for bringing everything together, to create this wonderful piece.”

The hour-long performance includes a hand-drawn map showing where each recording was made, who recorded it and where it appears in the artwork.

Lockdown Patchwork is available to view on Leafcutter John’s YouTube channel from Thursday March 25 at 7pm. The project (including the video and Soundcloud) will be hosted on the Leeds Art Gallery website at the same time. The audio file will also be available to download to save and play offline.