“The earth has its music for those who will listen;
Its bright variations forever abound.
With all of the wonders that God has bequeathed us,
There’s nothing that thrills like the magic of sound.”
First penned in 1955, these lines form the final verse of little-known poet Reginald Holmes‘ The Magic of Sound. Holmes couldn’t have known then that nearly 70 years later a young, fuzzy-headed multi-instrumentalist from London, taking the same spirit of this verse, would not simply listen with intent, but translate the sound of the earth into some of the most fantastic music that exists today. Armed with a field recorder, a sampler, and filled to the brim with curiosity, 32-year-old musician, composer, producer, and acoustic ecologist Cosmo Sheldrake makes music out of the (natural) world around us. In celebration of Earth Week we are paying closer attention to Sheldrake as an artist who highlights the harmony that could be between humans and nature in a way unlike any other.
His method isn’t all that unusual by today’s recording standards: “I’ll chop the sounds up and arrange them on a sampler, so I can trigger back different elements of what I’ve recorded, and then start to collage those sounds together and build it into a piece of music”. But the fact that he does so primarily, and in some cases even exclusively, with the sampled sound of wildlife is really rather remarkable. His father was a biologist and parapsychologist, and his mother a voice teacher and Mongolian throat singer; it’s clear the apple might not have fallen far from the tree. Having learned piano when he was 4, Sheldrake now plays nearly 30 instruments and even studied vocal improvisation with the legendary Bobby McFerrin.
The Much Much How How And I
Sheldrake cleverly uses this vast repertoire to create genteel, windswept, dramatic novelty pop somewhere between Glass Animals, Alt-J, Owen Pallett, and Jacob Collier. Signed with indie label Transgressive Records, Sheldrake saw the release of his genre-bending debut LP The Much Much How How And I in 2018, produced by microhouse pioneer Matthew Herbert and acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. Lyrically ambiguous and light-hearted, Sheldrake’s music feels like a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Syd Barrett, or A.A. Milne. Sheldrake also composes music for film and theater (including the score for a series of Samuel Beckett plays at the Young Vic in London), with the latest shows in his repertoire becoming more eccentric and theatrical.
As usual, the central theme of the album is our relationship with our natural environment. Apart from an eclectic range of human instruments – a Japanese koto drum, a contra bassoon, a clavichord, a duduk, a Turkish ney flute and a harp all feature in his music – it is the broad auditory spectrum of wildlife that provides his most prominent and bewitching instruments. The beat for Pliocene, for instance, was sampled from recordings of endangered species of fish made by the American military during the Cold War while the track’s main melody is drawn from the sound of a raven recorded by US soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause at Algonquin Provincial Park.
These biophonies, a term coined by Krause to describe the sounds collectively produced by wildlife, convey a special sense of place. It is that sense of place that Sheldrake is intrigued by when he is “playing places”, in other words when he plays songs back to the place it came or might have come from. Sheldrake likes the idea of not just rendering environment into music but also performing music to that very environment. He says he would like to believe that places can listen to music, and certainly believes that the creatures in those places do.
“Nature to me means a celebration of life,” Sheldrake says. “Being in a natural place, you get that sense of life bursting forth and becoming constantly”. By making audible that celebration of life in his tracks, Sheldrake proves that humans and nature can, in fact, harmonise, not just in life but in music as well.
Wake Up Calls
In his latest album Wake Up Calls, a collection of birdsong-turned-melodical-soundscape released in 2020 on his very own label Tardigrade Records, Sheldrake shows just how far one can take that form of harmonisation, but also how incredibly vulnerable it is. His only instrument being the chatter of birds across the UK, he seeks to highlight the dramatic loss of birdlife. With the exception of the robin and the blackbird, which aren’t endangered yet, all birds featured on the album are on the red and amber lists of endangered British birds. The song Bittern alone features a bittern, a short-eared owl, a cuckoo, a black throated diver, a skylark, a lapwing, a nightingale, a snow bunting, a linnet, a quail, a pied flycatcher and a recording of a dawn chorus in Dorset.
Wake Up Calls came together over a nineyear period. It started out with songs he would write as more soothing and natural tunes for friends to wake up to, which then grew into “elegies and meditations”. Others were composed for specific political causes, such as Nightjar, which he wrote for an Extinction Rebellion protest in London. Bringing all of them together for a full-length album, Sheldrake follows the natural acoustics of the day from the Nightjar to the Owl Song. For his songs, he drastically slowed down the avian chatter, revealing the tapestry and relatability of birds’ daily conversations. Different characters emerge from these sounds when translated to our time scale, from the guttural blackbird to the bell-like robin. Sheldrake says he hopes these tracks can help us to notice more deeply; that is, to notice the beauty around us and that we are losing it.
All of Sheldrake’s work is a collaboration with nature. All the instruments have already been played – Sheldrake just mixes and rearranges them into something new and marvellous. He is in that sense not just a musician but nature’s DJ. Wake Up Calls is then also a play on words, betraying the origin of some of the tracks as alarm clocks but also using the magic of sound for a desperate plea: for human beings and especially corporations to stop destroying the natural world.
Cover Credit: S Migaj / Unsplash
Writer | Jan-David Franke
Jan-David is a journalist from the motherland of fun: Germany. He loves merging with good music and being in the moment. Oh, and he is still trying to find out where the wild things really are. If you have seen them, please let him know.