It’s a bright early autumn day in Gloucestershire, a county that musician Cosmo Sheldrake has recently relocated to from London. Emanating from the converted chapel, now home to Cosmo and his wife Flora, is a spritely rendition of Bach’s Prelude in C minor. “I’ve been trying to take up the piano again, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin and Bach lately,” says Cosmo. “My dad played a lot of Bach when I was a kid so it’s just the most soothing sound ever,” he adds, stepping away from the piano to make tea in the kitchen.
Cosmo has been playing music for as long as he can remember. His father is an organist and pianist, his mother teaches Mongolian overtone chanting, and his grandmother was a concert pianist who spent many years working with the “father of electronic music”, the German composer Stockhausen. “Music was always around the house and a big part of life,” Cosmo reflects. He wanted to learn the piano aged three because his older brother was playing, but needed to wait a year “until my hands were big enough for the keys.” He would also tinker on the church organ before his feet could even touch the pedals, and over the years he developed a passion for learning to play and collecting a variety of instruments.
In his studio today, a grand piano takes centre stage while keyboards, a Mongolian horse-headed double bass, assorted guitars and brass instruments including a sousaphone, sit around the perimeter of the nave in the chapel-turned-studio. Eager to incorporate a variety of sounds into his music, Cosmo began recording environmental sounds whenever he travelled. “I had a handheld recorder I used to take everywhere with me and found that it was much easier to make things that felt lively and vigorous with field recordings,” he explains. “I'd just record sounds and then weave those into a piece. And then that piece would become almost like a sound journal of that time. Each sound would remind me of a certain encounter or interaction or place.”
His field recordings have slowly made their way into his songs. In 2014 he released his first single, The Moss, followed by the Pelicans We EP in 2015 and his debut album The Much Much How How and I in April 2018. In 2019 he released the album Wake up Calls, featuring tracks composed entirely from recordings of endangered British birds—from the skylark, cuckoo and nightingale to the mistle thrush and marsh warbler. “I was making my family alarm clock music from bird song according to how they each liked to be woken up each morning. My brother's was composed from recordings of an evening chorus and was upbeat and energetic, whereas my father's was more subtle with a slow crescendo. I made myself one from a recording of a dawn chorus, and now I find I just wake up whenever I hear a dawn chorus! It’s completely transformed the way I hear and interact with birdsong.”
In his most recent field recordings for the new series of TOAST Slow Sound, Cosmo used birdsong in Air, one of three tracks he composed alongside Soil and Ocean. “I tried not to interfere with the sonic integrity of the birds themselves but just tried to reorganize them into something that felt like music to me,” he explains. Working to the theme of Rewilding, Cosmo looked to endangered birds, plant roots and fungi and a bleached coral reef as it starts to regenerate. "It's quite clear that every part of our world needs rewilding—the air, the soil, the waterways and oceans," says Cosmo. "I've been making music from fish, whales and ocean sounds and also from airborne birds, bats and insects, so it naturally fell into these three subdivisions of air, soil and ocean," he adds.
Stepping outside into his rambling garden, Cosmo demonstrates using a hydrophone to record sounds from his own pond. “Occasionally a water beetle will come up and start scratching at the microphone so you’ll get these chomping sounds,” he says, imitating the noise they make. For the Ocean track of Slow Sound, Cosmo worked with the marine biologist Professor Steve Simpson, using some of his recordings. “He plays the sounds of a healthy coral reef to degraded reefs—something he calls ‘acoustic enrichment’,” explains Cosmo. “The fish hear the sounds of a healthy reef and they'll come back and populate that reef, graze on the algae that would otherwise be smothering the reef and this brings it back to a much healthier state. Steve found that by using sound you can encourage fish back to then regenerate these ecosystems.” These sounds are mixed with various sea creatures including longhorn sculpins, humpback and blue whales, the sound of Norwegian cod breeding and a weddell seal singing to make “that crazy glissandi sound”.
With the third track, Soil, Cosmo used a mixture of sounds from bioelectrical activity in fungi to recordings of plant roots, termites and other insects stridulating. “There’s a recording of a honey fungus seeking out a block of wood and a few other burrowing and schnuffling insects.” His wife Flora is an artist working with ceramics. The morning of our visit, her recent vessels are cooling next door after being fired in the kiln. The melodic crackling chimes of each clay piece become a last minute addition to the Soil track, adding “sparkles” through the piece, which gives a vibrancy.
Cosmo’s fascination with the natural world makes its way into all of his work. He and Flora recently started a band called Don't and their latest single Echolocation features the sounds of bats that they recorded using a bat detector. “All the different species of bats communicate in a completely different frequency band, because if they didn't, they would crash into each other or confuse each other," he explains. "The common pipistrelle is around 40kHz, the horseshoe bat is around 120kHz.” Rhythmically, Cosmo’s music also reflects this healthy ecosystem of sounds. His Slow Sound tracks allow us to listen, to meditate with the polyphony, to reset whilst enlivening our minds. “I love the idea of playing places. To subtly work with sounds from a particular ecosystem, and add my own element to it, just enough for it to become music.”
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Tami Aftab.
Listen to our latest Slow Sound series with Cosmo Sheldrake.
Cosmo wears our TOAST Menswear Garment Dyed Herringbone Trousers in indigo.