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INTERVIEW: Erland Cooper On His Upcoming Barbican Show
Patrick Clarke , October 6th, 2020 12:38

With The Barbican hosting a much-needed new programme of live shows throughout the next few months, Erland Cooper, one of those playing, speaks to Patrick Clarke about his plans for the live-streamed gig

On October 10, Orkney-born, now London-based musician Erland Cooper will play at The Barbican as part of the venue's new series of shows, 'Live From The Barbican'. All the performances, which kicked off last weekend with celebrated bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel and Britten Sinfonia, will host a limited, socially distanced live audience, and will also be available as pay-per-view live streams.

The series runs until December 13, with shows from the likes of Richard Dawson, The Divine Comedy, Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings to come. Cooper is the first contemporary artist out of the gate, however, whose gig will take in material from across his much-acclaimed triptych of records themed around his birthplace of Orkney, which concluded earlier this year with Hether Blether.

Embracing the possibilities of live-streaming, which he intends to combine with the deeply atmospheric power of his music, instrumental help comes from the London Contemporary Orchestra along with his own NEST ensemble. Mary Anne Hobbs will introduce the show, while Scottish artist Kathryn Joseph will add film and spoken word contributions.

To find out more about the full 'Live From The Barbican' series and to purchase tickets, head here. Read on for our conversation with Cooper about returning to live performance after lockdown, and his plans for what promises to be an extraordinary show.

Hello Erland! How has lockdown been?

Erland Cooper: You know that NHS app, where you could sign up and volunteer? I seem to have got the jackpot in that I had a car. Whilst it's lovely to help people, I managed to get out and about in a lockdown in my car, in a pandemic, driving around St Paul's like it was that film 28 Days Later. It was so surreal, in the back of the car I’ve got a bag of groceries. It was a bit like being an Uber driver, you can log yourself in or out, so if I got a bit bored I'd log myself in, and when you got an alert it was like a World War 2 siren had gone off. You stop what you're doing and go [adopts Superman voice] 'How can I help you!' And then it's just [adopts old lady voice] 'Can you get me some Lemsip and a bag of potatoes?' and you hear in the background [adopts second, shriller old lady voice] 'and some chocolate! Get some chocolate!' But on a serious note it was good to get out.

How did it effect your work?

EC: I was due to go to Sule Skerry with Amy Liptrot, which even in a sentence feels like poetry. It didn't happen. I was due to go to Moomin Island, Tove Janssen's island, to sample it for a gallery score, again that didn't happen. But I've been OK with it. Solitude has been pretty pleasing to my work anyway. I would shuffle here to the studio early doors, at 6 or 7am to get loads of work done. I was able to give projects a bit more love. It meant I could let dust settle on things, tinker a bit.

Did your trilogy of albums about Orkney take on a different meaning over the last seven months, given you were stuck in London?

EC: They seem to have taken on a meaning for other people who reach out in the most wonderful way about this feeling of being transported somewhere else for a moment. I found during this period that a lot of folk have reached out to me that perhaps wouldn't have necessarily felt the need to reach out, and I've found that to be a lovely reminder of why we make stuff in the first place. I wrote this music initially as a way to transport me home for a little bit and transport me back and help calm a busy brain, and that seems to have had an affect with other folk who felt inclined to get in touch. It's certainly made me want to return home more frequently. I've been on Google Street View a lot, when you drop the wee man on Alfred Street in Stromness.

When's the last time you went back there?

I was due to go back several times this year, spring, midsummer and fall, but it was last winter. I'd been back this time every year, I quite like to go back at the end of every summer, because the tourist season's over and you really get a sense of how an island or a small community operates in a darker autumn. You'll bump into folk and they'll say, 'What the hell are you doing here now?' They want you to experience Orkney when the skies are red and it's just gorgeous, but I really love the extremes where the weather changes several times a day, you can get sunburnt in the middle of the day, then hail storms at night.

How are the islanders holding up in the pandemic?

EC: I think they handled it well, shut the tourists out, did everything right. My folks caught the last ferry home just before they shut it down. At one point Orkney was the only place in Britain that didn't have a case in its population. Then that changed when some kids came back from a Lewis Capaldi concert and spread it around the island, and then the percentage per population became the highest in the country.

Rumour mills fly and before you know it, despite these two people being isolated at home and taking it very seriously, there were rumours of them gallivanting around the island being in every pub, then that was getting into the local paper, people were going on Facebook and really being negative. In that example you have the real positivity of how an island deals with such a thing, and the rumour mill which is the painful end of small community. But that's human nature!

At what point did discussions start on the Barbican show?

EC: We talked quite early on. We were talking about the idea of showing off these spaces that people miss, the brutalist architecture, the main hall with that wood, the stages we all miss. The nature of live streams is that they tend to be quite static, and I think early on I'd kind of said, 'You can't compete against a live gig, but why not try and do something really high production value that feels a bit more like theatre?' I joked for example about strapping a camera to a peregrine falcon's leg. I'm going to do that actually, not with a falcon, but I will have a bird's eye view camera, which I'm quite chuffed about.

I've read that you're trying to make the hall feel like a ferry across the North Sea.

EC: I ended up doing a tour last year, and the middle of every set I would turn all the house lights off and all the sound off. I realised that my music is all about tension and release. It felt like we were crossing the Pentland Firth, and the lights would slowly fade up and the hall itself would feel like a wee ferry. The surrealism of looking out at the audience where the seats started to feel like those chairs you'd get on a P&O Ferry, it started to feel like we were in the cockpit of the ship. I thought,'Why not try and do It in the Barbican Hall? I'm not cutting portholes in the walls, or anything dramatic, I wanted to just play with the theatre of it within the realm of sound and light and moving picture.

Tell me more about the musical side. You're working with the London Contemporary Orchestra among others…

EC: I do feel like I'm able to choose from a body of work that permits me the luxury to reinterpret live. The LCO side is a great example of that for me. There's certain sounds and layers between you and I that I don't know how I even made, and they're going to reinterpret them using classical instruments. The biggest joy for me is I get to play with proper musicians. I've got no classical training whatsoever, these folk take the 10 or 12 notes that anyone could write and make them sound beautiful. That gives me a comfort and a strength to do the best show I can from my side.

How much rehearsal have you been able to do?

EC: None! We've not rehearsed yet!

Are you planning on it?

EC: It makes sense to do it in a run. So, on the one hand we've not rehearsed yet together, but on the other hand we get to rehearse in the Barbican Main Hall. So we've got three days prior to get everything together. What I've found is that if you have disparate rehearsals, all these different folk step into your world, musicians from all different backgrounds of music and life. Then they step off and you go your separate ways, do all sorts of different genres and styles and compositions with other folk, then you come back together again and it's a different headspace.

We'll all be immersing ourselves in the world of a ferry trip to Orkney and back, and it should therefore feel a bit more like that tension and release I'm talking about, when you get to the end and you're like, 'Yes! We did it!' And also, in a world where we're all struggling to play live and it's desperate for musicians who are used to playing in bands or large ensembles all the time, to be together again for three days, what a joy!

Erland Cooper performs as part of 'Live From The Barbican' on October 10. The series continues until December 13 with tickets available for both live attendance and live stream. For tickets, dates and full information on all the concerts, click here