Making music from the sounds of endangered British birds

FOR SOME city-dwellers there was at least one pleasing consequence of lockdown: the sharp drop in noise pollution meant that the chirps and trills of wood pigeons, sparrows, owls and finches could be heard more clearly. So quiet were cities, in fact, that Professor Michael John Gorman, the founding director of the Biotopia museum in Munich, began a project to create the first global soundmap of the dawn chorus. Scientists reported that feathered creatures were also warbling more loudly than usual, as if to fill the space created by the pause in economies.

Now Cosmo Sheldrake, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer from London, has released an album constructed almost entirely from British birdsong. The 13 tracks on “Wake Up Calls” make use of the noises of species on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ red and amber lists of endangerment. (Red denotes the “highest conservation priority, with species needing urgent action”.) The album covers a whole day of birdsong, from nighttime chirrups, through daylight calls to mates, ending with the evening ensemble.

Only one track, a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song” (1933), features a human voice—Mr Sheldrake’s. (The sound of the titular bird trilling over Britten’s grave in Aldeburgh Cemetery in Suffolk, recorded by Bernie Krause, an American soundscape ecologist, offers an accompaniment.) Each note is a fragment of a recording of a bird, arranged into layered pieces which are strangely beguiling. “Skylark” is spritely and flutelike; “Mistle Thrush” is playful and harmonic; “Bittern” juxtaposes contrapuntal melodies with faint rattling. Across the album ambient birdsong swells in the background, in shades of joy and sorrow, growing in intensity until it reaches a crescendo in the final track, “Owl Song”. The longest piece, at over three minutes, the owl’s distinctive calls take on a plaintive quality.

“Wake Up Calls” was begun well before the pandemic; it has taken nine years of work, much of that spent finding the required sounds. Mr Sheldrake spent hours stalking the Dorset countryside. Sometimes he would attach a microphone to a tree and wait; a feeder outside his study window provided ample opportunity to capture birds in action. Those songs he couldn’t locate—after all, the birds in question are becoming more and more elusive—he licensed from archives and research centres. “My aim was to try and highlight the beauty we’re losing,” says Mr Sheldrake, though some birds are more melodic, and therefore easier to work with, than others. “When you slow down a blackbird it’s quite a raspy, guttural sound,” he says, while other species have “a crystalline bell-tone quality to their voice”.


Nature has always been a leitmotif in Mr Sheldrake’s work, and his use of “found” sounds fits into a wider musical tradition. The son of a biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, and a music therapist, Jill Purce, Mr Sheldrake grew up intrigued by the music of both the natural and urban worlds, and how those sounds can be manipulated. His first album, “The Much Much How How and I”, released in 2018, played with the timbre of bones, trains and gurgling water, adding electronic beats and loops and entwining them with traditional instruments.

“Wake Up Calls” also draws on a rich history of music based on birdsong. One of the earliest known medieval folk songs concerns a nightingale. Olivier Messiaen, the 20th-century French composer and ornithologist, referred to birds as “God’s own musicians”; his lifelong mission was to “give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them”. Such tunes have inspired some of classical music’s most recognisable melodies, including Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” (1914) and Edward Elgar’s “Fly, Singing Bird” (1895). Often birdsong would be transliterated into music for piano and flute, but today, thanks to technology, artists and musicians such as Mr Sheldrake now have new ways of synthesising nature’s sounds with music.

By arranging and remixing birdsong in this way, Mr Sheldrake has produced a whimsical, surprisingly nuanced sound. Through exploring each bird’s vocal repertoire, the album reveals the different textures of what many register only as day-to-day background noise. The polyphonic songs are tributes to what stands to be lost, charting the swelling and subsiding of the feathered orchestra before it is too late.

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