Jane Cornwell speaks to eco-minded composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Cosmo Sheldrake, whose interest in endangered species and enigmatic writers inspires works such as his new sophomore set, Wake Up Calls
The poet William Wordsworth described the call of the nightjar as being like ‘the spirit of a toil-worn slave/Lashed out of life, not quiet in the grave.’ Last year Cosmo Sheldrake – a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – reworked the spooky chirrs of this rare nocturnal bird into a delicate musical soundscape, in collaboration with global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion.
‘Nightjar’ is now the opening track on Wake Up Calls, Sheldrake’s sophomore album. The album is a 13-track collection of recordings of endangered British birds: nightjars, nightingales, dunnocks, marsh warblers, bitterns and owls. It’s a glorious affair – a deft blend of organic and synthetic, sequenced to conjure the around-the-clock aural life of birds in the UK. Some recordings were created as alternative alarm-clock music for friends. Others were driven by a mounting sense of urgency – with the exception of a robin and a blackbird, all the creatures on the project are on the RSPB’s red and amber lists of endangered British birds.
(photo: Flora Wallace)
Wake Up Calls does what it says on the tin, using the remarkable sonic beauty of these threatened species to bombard the listener into awareness and hopefully, into taking action. Each track, aside from ‘Cuckoo Song’ (more of which later), is entirely comprised of bird song, either delivered as heard or skilfully manipulated through the digital audio workstation and software app, Logic Pro.
“My main technique,” says the gently-spoken Sheldrake, 30, speaking to me from the wilds of Devon where he’s been riding out the pandemic, “has been to take a stretch of birdsong that I might have recorded using a soundstage, then go through it finding certain tones, rhythms or expressions. I’ll then rearrange them, stretching, looping, speeding up or leaving space, using the keyboard as a sort of prepared piano. The outcome is always unexpected.”
And beautiful. Seduced in part by YouTube videos that see Sheldrake performing knee-deep in bluebells, or as the sun rises through ancient oak trees, his vast fan base has rallied around his ability to create a refreshing sound-world from a combination of smarts and whimsy. Having come to attention with his 2014 single, ‘The Moss’, he released an EP in 2015, Pelicans We, then his 2018 debut album The Much Much How How and I (which used sampling to examine our relationship with the environment), all on his own label Tardigrade.
‘If Cosmo started floating and said “I’m a god btw,” we wouldn’t even be surprised,’ came an online comment. ‘If I was in a forest and walked into Cosmo performing to nobody in particular I would not question it at all,’ came another.
Which happened to be the case for this writer when, in April 2019 at Fingringhoe Wick, the sprawling Essex nature reserve where Sheldrake’s friend, Mercury-nominated folk singer (and erstwhile Songlines cover star) Sam Lee was hosting his Singing with Nightingales events, the lauded springtime project that sees folk musicians duetting with this most dulcet of nocturnal songbirds. Round midnight we’d walked silently through dark woodlands into a clearing where, under a small gazebo, a wild-haired young man was standing behind an open laptop, his sounds wafting star-wards, his cheekbones illuminated.
“Sam’s parents used to know my parents,” says Sheldrake, the son of biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake and the shaman/sound healer Jill Purce; Cosmo’s elder brother is biologist/mycologist Merlin Sheldrake. “Sam remembers being about 12 and having a profound experience on walking into our house next to Hampstead Heath. Our house is filled with shells, fossils and spirals; my mum wrote a book [1980’s The Mystic Spiral] about sacred geometry.”
“We’d lost touch until ten years ago, when by chance we reconnected on a street in Dalston [East London],” he continues. “My brother and I were busking, playing an Irish tune on the bones. Sam was cycling past, recognised the tune as [well-known ballad] ‘The Little Beggar Man’, and was over in a blur. We were just getting into folk music, so I started working with Sam in various capacities.”
The magically monikered Cosmo and Merlin grew up playing piano, overtone singing (as taught by their mother), spotting birds and learning the names of plants on the heath, which doubled as their extended garden. Each year they holidayed in Canada at a youth camp (PYE Global) with a remit to unleash the creative potential of young people: “So many inspiring educators, artists and musicians worked there. At 14 I learned to use a loop and to beatbox, which I like to use in subtle ways, the way Bobby McFerrin uses body percussion.”
Later, Sheldrake would attend one of McFerrin’s vocal improvisation workshops in New York. But back in his teens he began collecting and playing instruments from elsewhere: a duduk, the morin huur (Mongolian horsehead fiddle), banjos and fiddles. “I got into folk music through listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings of Appalachian tunes, which was English, Irish and Scottish folk that had gone across the Atlantic. I loved the raw, rugged originality, before it came back to England and was turned into written down Victorian parlour music.”
Influenced by his father’s writings on the philosophy of science, specifically morphic resonance (defined by Sheldrake senior as ‘the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species’), Cosmo Sheldrake explored subjects including phenomenology, the psychological study of subjective experience (“I did some writing on phantom limbs,”) while studying anthropology at the University of Sussex. His long-standing interest in ethnomusicology focused the ways in which oral folk traditions interact with awareness of environment.
He learned of Native American elders taught to sing by reading the tree lines (“Imagine looking at a forest in the distance and using the outside edge as a musical stave, going up, down, straight, up…”), of indigenous Canadians whose lullabies mirrored their immediate topography, and a zillion other examples of place and ecology and melody and music interacting. Into all this he dropped his love for writers of smart-thinking nonsense, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and William Blake among them.
“I’ve always loved their type of irreverence, which is an exploration of meaning and more profound than people may think. Initially, I set poems I liked to music; [2015 single] ‘The Fly’ used the words of a poem by Blake. Then I began writing lyrics that juxtaposed certainty with the fantastic, like with ‘The Moss’” (‘Legend has it when the rain comes down/all the worms come up to breathe/But have you heard the story of the rabbit in the moon/Or the cow that hopped the planets while straddling a spoon…’). It’s little wonder, really, that the cover photo on Sheldrake’s website shows him balancing a model wooden ship on his head.
Increasingly, he’s been exploring technology. A Nature Unwrapped gig at Kings Place last year saw him improvising using the disappearing soundworlds of birds and the changing sonic landscapes of coral reef fish – oh, and exploring polyphony by creating music for a multichannel sound system composed of the audience’s mobile phones, using custom-built software.
“I mean, I love playing instruments,” says Sheldrake, who between performing solo composes for film and theatre and collaborates with Sam Lee and the Nest Collective, and bands including alt-indie darlings Gentle Mystics; he has also run a community choir. “But there’s something about sitting down at a computer and pulling in elements to create these rich tapestries that I find more fun, more of a complete expression. I can get what’s in my head out.” And Sheldrake – eco-warrior, wunderkind, sprite – has a lot going on in his head. Much of this is about trying to capture a sense of place in music: with his mentor, American soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause (with whom he collaborated on The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris, and appeared in a sort of TEDx talk on the Society of Sound stage at WOMAD), he has explored the aforementioned coral reef eco-acoustic systems, as well as human music’s origins in bird and animal sounds.
“You very much hear this in the polyphonic traditions of pygmy people, who allow music to exist in its true ecological context as part of the greater acoustic community,” he says. “In a healthy ecosystem, birds and animals will leave each other space to sing, both rhythmically and frequency-wise. It’s fascinating how all animals have evolved acoustic niches to achieve this. But pollution or systematic logging, say, can destabilise the whole relationship. Birds and animals will start singing over the top of each other.”
That is, if they’re not disappearing. Back, then, to Wake Up Calls, for which Sheldrake licenced Krause’s recording of the calling of a cuckoo, captured as the bird sat singing above the Aldeburgh, Suffolk, grave of 20th century music icon Benjamin Britten – composer of the lilting, lovely ‘Cuckoo Song’. The latter is the only tune to feature a sample of an actual instrument (a marimba), and the only time that Sheldrake actually sings. Which, given that the album is but another instalment in a rich tradition of music influenced by birdsong, is only fitting: here, the birds are the stars.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!