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[Music/Sustainability] An interview with: Cosmo Sheldrake

We are proud to premiere a new audio visual project 'Playing Places' by London-based multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, & producer Cosmo Sheldrake, with the release of his new album 'Wake Up Calls'.

'Wake Up Calls' was recorded over a nine year period and samples the songs of birds on the extinction warning list. As part of this project, Cosmo has filmed a series of live performances in the woods of England, playing to the environment of forest canopies and blue bells.

We were excited to have a chat with Cosmo Sheldrake and the filmmaker behind these short videos, his good friend Orban Wallace, about the process of working with birdsong and why this project was important to release now:

Here at Psychic Garden we believe in the animistic view of a spirit existing in nature. In Playing Places we see you performing in the woods of England, do you sense an awareness from the birds as they hear their own calls ?

Cosmo: I think so yes. They definitely do seem to respond. I have had a number of emails saying that people have been listening to the Wake up calls and noticed the birds around them interacting with it. There's some amazing research being done by some fish ecologists. They have found that by playing the sounds of healthy coral reefs in degraded reefs they can encourage the fish to come back to the reef, the fish then start grazing the algae that has proliferated and thereby the reef comes back into a healthier state. They call this sonic enrichment. Maybe this could apply to birds as well?

I have noticed this myself when performing bits of the music outdoors, if i play a little snippet of a melody made with a recording of a robin, there is a slight pause in the bird song, and then when I finish there is a definite sense of a response. Birds are clearly highly imaginative and communicative beings. If you listen to blackbirds calling and responding to each other it starts to become like listening to jazz, they will take themes and develop them and send them back. The more you listen the more fascinating it becomes. Also I have tried to learn to listen to everything at once rather than trying to focus on one sound at a time. If you try either in the dawn chorus or evening chorus, blurring your ears and trying to listen to everything at once as if it was a big orchestral piece or something it almost becomes overwhelming.

How has your perspective of the project transformed as you've been working on it ?

Cosmo: There is a rich tradition of music inspired by birdsong, or incorporating birdsong, so in some ways I see it as a small branch or even twig on a big ancient tree. The whole thing started as a way of making people musical gifts. Most of the tunes on the album were made for people. Often very last minute Christmas presents, made late on Christmas eve. Also some of them were composed to be used as alarm clocks others to be listened to at night.

I was thinking of them as being functional, having different purposes, and to be listened to at different times of day. I guess for me its transformed from being very much something I have just been making for their own sake, into something that I wanted to release. I think lock down helped that along. I suddenly found myself outside of the city surrounded by birds and with all of my field recording equipment and little else to do. So I decided to wrap it all together into a release and finish off some of the loose ends.

Environmentalism is a major theme of your work with birdsong, what are your thoughts on the current state of conservation ?

Well that's a big question. We clearly face an enormous uphill struggle, and given that the destruction of the natural world is happening much much faster than ever before we need to do a lot more both on a local level and also on a global one. Many of the issues facing bird populations are ones that span national boundaries. This particularly applies to migratory creatures. I think every product we buy should come with information about where it has come from and the environmental cost of it's production, and also where it will end up. I think the cost of objects and food should reflect the full impact that it has on the environment.

I think we need a full on revolution in agriculture. We could start by properly understanding soil health. But saying all of that in some ways I am slightly optimistic as it seems that there is a paradigm shift happening in the world of ecology. People are beginning to realise that biology is ecology. Even a human being has more non human cells than human cells. We are walking ecosystems, or even walking planets. There is no such thing as an individual. Hopefully this will begin to affect our behavior.

There is a strong sense of sound healing intrinsic to these projects. In an age where many people are disconnected with nature living in cities, what can you tell us about the positive effects that the sounds of nature have on the human mind and body ?

There seem to be more and more studies demonstrating how beneficial the sounds of natural environments are on mental health. It seems totally obvious though if you think about it that we have not evolved to live in highly industrialized societies surrounded by unconscious human noise pollution. Also its almost unheard of for people to factor in sound into the way that they design machines or public spaces. I think we need to think as much about how we design the world from a sonic perspective as from any other one. Sound is a neglected sense, for years it has been dominated by sight, and I think we are starting to realize quite how important it is. I know that listening more deeply to the natural world has had a hugely beneficial effect on my sense of well being.

How long have yourself and Cosmo been working together ? 

Orban: Cosmo and I met at Sussex University in 2009 where we quickly began scheming creative visions. Our first adventure together took us to the Copenhagen climate summit where I was making a documentary about the journey of a group of climate activists attending the COP. Cosmo’s improv musical performances became a central theme in the film, which we later named Copenhagen the Musical to reflect the farce it was for the progression of climate policy.

Here our audio visual collaboration began and alongside fellow filmmaker and cinematographer Ruben Woodin we began planning alternative ways to produce live performance music videos in intriguing environments. Our first foray Into this, saw us set Cosmo up amid the spinning drums of a Brighton launderette for his dance banger Prefusify. As his music filtered out on to the streets amid the hum of the machines, life went on at the launderette. Puzzled mothers and curious babies watched on as our new concept was born. Performance meets everyday life.

With our premise defined, we set about exploring how far we could push it. Our next live session was at sea on a cranky old fishing boat off Hastings, with a band of jovial fisherman hauling in lobster pots full of cuttlefish as Cosmo performed his sea shanty The Fly as ink black spray from the cuttlefish covered the boat, and seagulls cawed.

Since, we have made live sessions, in a pigsty;

In the Budapest Baths...

On a horse and cart down a mountain in Bulgaria...

In a model village in Buckinghamshire...

Amid an apple scrump and press in Dorset....

And up above the clouds in a hot air balloon above Catalonia.

Our most recent collaborations featuring Cosmo performing interpretations of bird music to the dawn and evening Chorus were shot in the woods near my family home. The idea being a call and response to the Birds singing their daily rituals. The Playing Places video now featured was the product of lockdown, and the extended time we were gifted to explore Cosmo’s process. This extended time in nature has also lead to us both to decide to exit the city for now, and are living together once again. So I am sure there will be many more creations to come. 

Here are some more song's from Cosmo's new album 'Wake Up Calls' ~



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