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Alison Cotton
Engelchen Oliver Cookson , March 8th, 2024 10:25

Anchored by organ drones and field recordings, the former Saloon violist / Left Outsides violist and singer tells a story of supreme bravery and compassion, finds Oliver Cookson

Translated literally as ‘little angels’, violist and singer Alison Cotton’s Engelchen tells the true story of two Sunderland-born sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who, using international networks established through their passion for opera, secured safe passage out of Germany and Poland for a number of Jewish people in the years prior to WWII. The term ‘engelchen’ was bestowed upon them by the people they saved, and certainly their story is one of supreme bravery and compassion. Using mournful drones, haunting vocal arrangements and the judicious inclusion of foley-type sound effects, Cotton communicates not simply the details of the story but the emotional journey of its characters.

‘We Were Smuggling People’s Lives’ opens with the sound of wind and closes with gulls cawing as waves gently break. We stand on the shoreline, perhaps looking east towards Europe, transported to a world on the brink of war. The piece is grounded by an unwavering organ drone as a variety of sounds drift in and out of the mix; a squall of feedback, the clatter of a train, a martial drumbeat. There’s a sense of restlessness as we repeatedly return to a powerful melodic motif, like a worried mind ruminating on the source of its anxiety.

‘The Gramophone Circle Parties’ is a short vocal piece that shares some of the mystical DNA of Sidney Sager’s eerie arrangements for the 1970s kids’ TV show Children of the Stones (in the latter’s more muted moments at least). Certainly there is something ethereal and eternal in the song’s cyclical swells. Atmospherically it’s slightly at odds with the implied sophistication of the title, but perhaps what we are hearing here is that revelatory moment when a listener first encounters the music that truly speaks to them. For the Cook sisters, discovering opera must have been one such moment, engendering as it did a lifetime's obsession.

The first inclusion of lyrics on the record, ‘Engelchen’ speaks of “lives we’d saved” but also of “those we’d failed”. Here we are confronted with the moral complexities and personal limits the sisters must have grappled with, as well as the emotional toll taken by their work. ‘The Letter Burning’ continues this theme, named after the fact that Louise burned much of the sisters’ correspondence in what many interpret as an act of remorse at not having rescued more people. Here we are reminded that no matter how vital the sisters’ work was, the scale of the Nazi killing machine was unimaginably vast.

A commemoration of defiance in the face of injustice, the album considers not just the dehumanisation and ultimate genocide of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories, but also their treatment as refugees if they actually managed to escape. In 1930s Britain, only a limited number of Jewish immigrants were allowed to settle and those that did had to prove their financial independence.

The album closes with ‘Engelchen Now’, a song in which Cotton’s commentary on contemporary attitudes towards immigration is made explicit. The lyrics focus on the experience of Elias, an Egyptian migrant to the UK. “History repeating itself,” sings Cotton, and we are left asking the question, just how much has our country’s response to immigration changed? As our present government continues to criminalise those seeking asylum and cover up its recent history of granting ‘golden visas’ to the super rich, the answer, it seems, is not very much.

Primarily Engelchen tells a story of bravery and integrity, but it’s also a testament to the power of community. In this case, a community of music fans. As opera fanatics, the Cook sisters travelled the world to attend concerts and (at a time when international travel was prohibitively expensive for most) scrimped and saved to see performances of their favourite works. In doing so they established the trans-European networks required to undertake their daring smuggling missions.

It will come as no great surprise to readers of this site that the preservation of arts and culture benefits us all. A society that supports the arts is one in which communities flourish. In an increasingly atomised and conflict-ridden world the preservation of such communities is essential. However, with dire predictions about the future of this country’s independent music scene and brutal cuts to Arts Council funding, it seems that those in power are as yet unwilling to accept this fact. Regardless, Alison Cotton’s moving rendition of the Cook sisters’ story serves as a timely reminder of the radical, even life-saving potential of the profound social bonds forged through a shared love of music.