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Cosmo explores the sounds of life at Nature Unwrapped

06 February, 2020 — By Michael White

Cosmo Sheldrake presents a one-man show at Kings Place on February 7. Photo: Vitor Scchieti; below: Cosmo performing in a scene from his video Cosmo Sheldrake – Rich (Ft. Anndreyah Vargas) (Live at the Pig Sty). YouTube

IF you’ve ever wondered what the sound of shrimps snapping their claws is like – and haven’t we all? – the answer comes this Friday (February 7) at Kings Place as part of a new season there devoted to the auditory experience of life.

Called Nature Unwrapped, it’s an entire year of programming focused on the common ground between ecology and music – much of which will, as you might expect, be featuring works like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, and (there’s no escaping it) Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

But less obviously there are also events like one this Friday at which Cosmo Sheldrake, a cult figure in the world of mixing decks and sound installations, presents a one-man show that’s actually one man and an awful lot of birds, bats, fish and other living things which generate the noise of nature. Not forgetting shrimps.

He takes a microphone – in air balloons, down sewers, under water – to make field recordings which are then processed into samples that can be played, in live performance, on a keyboard.

The result is an infinitely remixable collage that he turns into music – complete with rhythm, melody, harmony and above all polyphony: the overlayering of separate threads of sound which is fundamental to his method.

“I’m interested,” he tells me, “in acoustic ecology: how an understanding of sound informs our understanding of the health of the eco-system. For example, the sounds of a healthy coral reef, teeming with marine life, are very different to the sounds of a dying one. But you can’t register things like this by isolating a single fish, bird, whatever. You have to listen to the whole. Which means polyphony.”

The music that he ultimately makes owes much, as he acknowledges, to the electro-acoustic pioneers of 1950s musique concrete. But it’s equally, he says, about “documenting contemporary experiences, turning them into music that reflects a time-period of today”.

And an example is his latest project which documents a journey along the route of the now-buried River Fleet – from its source on Hampstead Heath, down Willow Road, NW3 (where he happens to have grown up), and through to the point by Blackfriars Bridge where it gushes into the Thames.

There may be some of this on Friday: much of what he does is improvised and unpredictable. The snapping shrimps will certainly be there (he promises). And as for how they sound, it’s apparently “one of the loudest noises in the world in terms of decibel pressure”. Like an underwater pistol shot. Clearly a case for health and safety.

Cosmo Sheldrake: Ecologies of Sound, £7.30, Friday February 7, at Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9AG, 020 7520 1490,
Full details of the whole Nature Unwrapped season on the website.

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