“The world is the flask”

Cosmo Sheldrake / Merlin Sheldrake

Cosmo and Merlin Sheldrake with a batch of fermented hot sauce. Image courtesy of the Sheldrakes.

April 7, 2022

In this instalment of the “Ecological turns” series, which considers how the production and reception of new art is being informed by developments in the ecological discourse, we talk to two brothers working across these fields: the composer Cosmo Sheldrake and the biologist Merlin Sheldrake. In his best-selling book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin presents the world from the point of view of those fungal networks that stitch it together. In doing so, he contributes to a Copernican shift in our understanding of the relationship between human “culture” and nonhuman “nature” that has consequences for how we think and make art in the age of climate crisis.

Cosmo’s music explores similarly radical shifts in perspective, producing an album composed of recordings from endangered British birds and collaborating with the American sound ecologist Bernie Krause as part of “The Great Animal Orchestra” at the Fondation Cartier in 2016. Taking for a starting point the ideas of “listening” and “decomposition” as artistic strategies, the interview was moderated by art-agenda’s editor-in-chief, Ben Eastham, and the series’ co-commissioner, Filipa Ramos.

Editors: Writing about how fungi make life on earth possible, in Entangled Life Merlin argues that “composers make, decomposers unmake. And unless decomposers unmake, there isn’t anything that composers can make with.” The creation of anything new depends on the breaking down of what has gone before. Since reading that, we’ve often been struck by the thought, in galleries and museums: is this art doing the work of decomposing, or of composing? And what is the difference between the two?

Merlin Sheldrake: I like to think about the way that any creative act emerges from the rich compost of story, memory, influence, and inspiration that grounds so much of present-tense experience. Decomposition and composition underwrite the regenerative capacity of the biosphere and it feels that these processes can contribute to the creation of new ideas and forms. Both are required. To create the space through which water can flow upwards in the stem of a plant, cells have to die.

Eds: Cosmo, we wonder how these ideas relate to your own practice as a composer. Your music puts diverse sounds together in the space of a song—often incorporating field recordings, for example—and works them together. That seems like quite a composting approach to the production of music.

Cosmo Sheldrake: I often feel as if I’m knitting these elements together, particularly when using field recordings. You’re taking the sound of a place, or of an interaction in a place, and you're removing it from its context. Steven Feld calls this separation of sound from source “schizophonia,” made possible by the invention of the microphone. As a musical process, taking these sounds out of their places and making new meaning is relatively new, and perhaps the two major forms in which this finds expression are musique concrète and hip-hop. These are ways of creating a rich compost from things that already exist, out of which something new can emerge.

Eds: And what comes first when you’re making music: the melody or the sounds?

CS: I find it helpful to start with sounds precisely because they present themselves, they have a certain “givenness.” That takes some of the onus off me, because these are sounds or rhythms that I could never have composed. But when I hear, for example, wind howling through the door and transforming it into a reed, that gives rise to another idea. It feels collaborative. Part of my practice has been to start with sounds that exist somewhere else in the world.

Eds: Merlin’s book challenges the idea that any organism can easily be abstracted from its environment and transplanted elsewhere: mycology teaches us that all things are bound up with the world in ways that resist any overly neat kind of individuation. I wonder if there’s a parallel between field recordings and field research, and a comparable ethical dimension to the practice of taking sounds from specific localities and decontextualizing them. Was it important to you, when you were making Wake Up Calls, that the birdsongs were recorded in your own garden rather than downloaded from some archive, for instance? That you were integrating these sounds in a way which wasn’t merely extractive, a natural resource to be traded and exploited?

CS: I think about this all the time. Intellectual property protects the rights of other humans when you publish music, but this doesn’t extend to more-than-human contexts. That’s a flaw that needs to be addressed, we should rebuild the way we think about these things. I studied Anthropology and so spent a long time considering the ethics of taking objects out of their original context and putting them in a museum, and of course that relates to ethnographic recording, and the fact that the publishing rights have often gone to the ethnographer recording the music rather than the performer, which is clearly wrong.

With Wake Up Calls, my plan has been to give a percentage of the publishing royalties to conservation organizations working with the featured birds, which is not a straightforward thing to do because the legal precedent has not been set. I followed the “monkey selfie” copyright dispute quite closely, because it explored what it means to extend the idea of intellectual property to more-than-humans. But that brings its own ethical quandaries, and we are only at the very beginning of this conversation. It feels now that it’s important just to be aware of it and to practice respect: I would never dare to claim that the music I made with the birdsong is entirely mine, and I think the structures around the work should reflect that.

Eds: When he won the Pulitzer, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote an essay protesting the idea that he was a genius, and insisting that the award should be extended to all the people who influenced him, all the other immigrants to the United States, to make the point that genius should not be attributed to an individual but to a community or a collective. You are extending that principle into the more-than-human world. These ways of thinking have implications for knowledge production and academic activity too. Merlin, how do you think about these issues of collaboration and authorship in relation to your own work?

MS: It’s tricky. Anyone studying the living world depends on the bodies and activities of non-human organisms and yet much of modern science is grounded in a worldview that denies agency to organisms that don’t behave like us. Over time I’ve come to see the non-human subjects of my enquiries as participants in my studies, although armed only with the language of modern science it’s not straightforward to ask for permission. Working in the field rather than solely in laboratories definitely helps. Laboratory biologists spend most of their time in charge of the pieces of life they study. Their own human lives are lived outside the flasks that contain their subject matter. Field biologists rarely have so much control. The world is the flask and they’re inside it. The balance of power is different. Storms wash away the flags that mark their experiments. Trees fall on their plots. Sloths die where they planned to measure the nutrients in the soil. Bullet ants sting them as they crash past. The forest and its inhabitants dispel any illusions that scientists are in charge. Humility quickly sets in.

CS: Don’t these questions start to reveal some of the very questionable hierarchies on which Western society is built?

MS: Yes, and beyond that they call into question the way we think about scientific discovery. Take quinine bark, for example, which has antimalarial properties. French explorers returned from South America to huge fanfare for having discovered this great cure for malarial fever. But in a famous rebuttal, it was pointed out that they had learned it from the Spanish, who had learned it from the Indigenous populations, who had learned it from watching fevered mountain lions rubbing themselves against certain trees. It’s a helpful reminder that scientific knowledge is filtered through human and more-than-human histories.

Eds: The very notion of individuated knowledge—or of knowledge that can be entirely abstracted from the material world—comes to sound absurd. Merlin, you acknowledged these loops or circuits by seeding a hard copy of your book with Pleurotus mycelium, then eating the oyster mushrooms it sprouted. That feels like a gesture towards ways of transmitting information that challenge the authority of the written word and foreground the embodiment of knowledge. As a writer working in scientific contexts, what kind of processes do you use to resist the kind of didacticism you’ve been speaking against?

MS: I could never claim to have written anything that fully steps outside these taxonomic systems or stereotypes that I try to push against: they are baked into the very structure of our language. But I find it helpful to think about all life as made up of relationships, and then to lean into the ambiguity of these relationships and try to enjoy the confusion. Have leafcutter ants domesticated the fungus they depend on, or has the fungus domesticated the ants? Do plants farm the mycorrhizal fungi they live with, or do the fungi farm the plants? Which way does the arrow point? This uncertainty is healthy.

CS: I know you were also planning to take a copy and ferment it into alcohol that could be drunk. Fermentation is a big part of both of our practices, and another helpful way of thinking these processes through.

MS: Fermentation is a fertile metaphor. In these jars and bottles successive waves of microbial populations rise and fall, enacting complex ecological dynamics. We live within vast biogeochemical cycles that maintain the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, soils, and oceans. However, fermented ecosystems play out over timescales that we can pay attention to with our own unaided senses and one can then taste the outcome of these transformations without any intermediate instrument. I find it very powerful. And these transformations are always collaborations: you can invite microbial cultures to take different courses of action by constraining their options, but you can never force them.

CS: And then, when you drink them, they act on you!

Eds: We are becoming more and more aware of the importance of moving people to act, which largely depends on making people aware of organisms and processes that are invisible or that operate on a very different scale. Do you think about your work as drawing attention to these less visible matters?

CS: Through my work with the birds, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of the “time axis.” This was illustrated very beautifully by Marcus Coates’ Dawn Chorus project, in which he slowed birdsong down to the point that humans could mimic it. So he filmed humans singing this birdsong and then sped it back up to the bird’s time. Not only do the humans sound like the birds, but they also start to resemble their behavior: their breathing, the way they look around, their head movements. Suddenly this collapses the gap between species, and we realize that one of the reasons we think of birds as so different from us is because they operate in this different timescale. The stop-motion photography in David Attenborough’s Life of Plants achieves a similar effect. And a lot of the music I make slows things down or speeds things up, changing the pitch to achieve a similar kind of shift in perspective, to break through the barriers that are constructed by time.

MS: When thinking about scale and the invisible I like to remember that although so much on the molecular level takes place out of sight, it can affect our bodies in ways that we can sense. Invisibly small quantities of a molecule can create all sorts of sensations, whether that’s through smell or taste or the pharmacological effects of a drug. This is one of the reasons I like fermentation, because it grants us access to invisible processes.

Eds: You describe fermentation as a process which is only partially under our control: we set the parameters, but we can’t precisely determine the result, which can be changed dramatically by the influence of trace amounts of things that we would never under normal circumstances be able to recognize or distinguish. It’s not an aleatory process, because the operations of chance are limited, but something more like a negotiation. Fermentation has long been a metaphor for the creative process: we talk about ideas brewing, for instance. How might a renewed attention to these processes signal a shift in how we think about creativity?

CS: It’s quite a destructive illusion to imagine that an individual is capable of creating things alone. That’s not how it works.

MS: Until the nineteenth century, the invisibly small organisms that catalyzed fermentation were not known to exist. And so for over ninety-nine percent of human history, fermentation was understood as a divine process overseen by a creative spirit entering in. Ancient Sumerians—who left us written beer recipes dating back 5,000 years—worshipped a goddess of fermentation, Ninkasi. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, prayers are addressed to “givers of bread and beer.” Among the Ch’orti’ people in South America, the onset of fermentation was understood as “the birth of the good spirit.” There are parallels with traditional understanding of inspiration as arising from an openness to a creative spirit. And of course, inspiration literally means “to breathe in.” We are inspiring airborne microbes all the time.

Eds: We might finish with a question about community, environment, and inheritance. How did your own interests in the fields of music and mycology develop, and do you think of them as related?

MS: Well, our mother works with sounds and the effect of sound on our minds and feelings, so we were brought up with sound and music as part of life. Our father is a biologist with a naturalist’s love of living things. So we were encouraged to take an interest in the other lives unfolding around us. Both became part of the compost of our day-to-day lives.

CS: We both grew up with a particular version of the world in which nature is much more than inanimate matter that can be pulled apart. It is endlessly alive and interacting. I think we are both interested in stories that reflect that.

To read other pieces in the "ecological turns" series, head here.

Music, Nature & Ecology, Posthumanism
Biology, Science, Sound Art, Environment, Climate change

Cosmo Sheldrake is a multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, and producer. He collaborated with Bernie Krause for “The Great Animal Orchestra” at Foundation Cartier, Paris and in 2019 released Wake Up Calls, an album of pieces composed from recordings of endangered British birds. He releases music through his own label, Tardigrade Records.

Merlin Sheldrake is a biologist and author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (Random House, 2020). Merlin is a research associate of the Vrije University Amsterdam, and works with the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks and the Fungi Foundation.

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April 7, 2022

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