Over the past few years, Erland Cooper has released a triptych of records, each an ethereal and poetic musical reflection on the landscape of the Orkney Islands. Featuring field recordings of birds catching the breeze, the music grants the listener a sense of space rarely heard within the music that also graces the airwaves of stations like BBC 6 Music. This breadth is only enhanced by accompanied multilayered ambient counterpart albums, each a variation on a continued theme. There’s a level of industriousness to his output, however, his next project 'Carve The Runes and Then Be Content With Silence' won’t be released for three years, a break in not only his own cycle, but that of industry conventions. We spoke with him about the concept of the new record and how you might have the opportunity to be the first to hear it, that’s if you can find where it’s buried.
Taking Time: So much of our lives happens on demand, and you're making us wait for this new record. How will it eventually reach our ears?
Erland Cooper: I’m actually making myself wait, rather than trying to make anyone else wait, it's really an act of patience. George Mackay Brown, one of Britain’s greatest writers, has inspired this piece and many of my works are just a tip of the hat to him. I grew up a stone's throw away from where he lived and worked. He would often write about time, the passage of time from the Viking era and Neolithic all the way through to present day, and how everything changes yet nothing changes at all. It was about a kind of the magic of the everyday.
I take that as just being happy that I was able to create this work, which relates to it’s recording with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow with a string ensemble that we created and recorded the whole thing in a day. I told these musicians a kind of manifesto, we're going to take this first classical work, put it onto tape, make one copy and delete all the digital files. So there's only one that exists. Remember that feeling with things that are precious and wonderful? something dear to you, a bird's feather that you put on your mantelpiece. Then I'm going to drive that copy all the way to Orkney, dig a hole and plant it in the earth.
I write about our relationship with the outside world, yes landscape but I wanted to go a little bit deeper into the land itself. How can I collaborate with Earth in a way that feels like this is part of a process? It’s like baking, it's a process all the way through. I came up with a simple concept to compose, decompose, let the soil decompose the tape texture, similar to analogue film, and then recompose to bring what it sounds like, exactly as it does from the earth, into the public domain or concert hall.
It does a few things for me one, it breaks a cycle of releasing, or becoming a solo artist first and foremost, and releasing a record for years every spring, and every autumn with an ambient companion, (which are actually my favourite pieces in that whole set of six, it's like taking all the layers and just dropping it in the sea and putting them together.) I'm breaking out of many cycles. Usually you want to share work early, you make something you can't wait to show others, but I'm challenging myself. What is it about the process of making an album or a project that I enjoy? Is it in sharing it with the world? I've always said that a project isn't finished until it's no longer mine, and it's yours, out in the world. With this project, I realised my favourite points were in recording with the RCS, with Daniel Pioro, the classical violinist, an exceptional player and performer, he’s like a bird of prey. Workshopping with 15 players, the sound of seagulls and waders, all these different noises we made together. I look back and I think that was a moment, mixing it, finishing it, putting it onto tape felt the same as releasing it. So I got that kick, it felt very satisfying, and I managed to break a cycle in that first stage of the process.
TT: There's a lot to be said for enjoying the anticipation. We don’t enjoy that duration of time and excitement.
EC: Yes, in a world of instant gratification and immediacy, people order things and get it not the next day, perhaps that same evening. I feel we need to ask what’s important, what’s valuable? This record will not be available next Friday on your Spotify algorithm. That you won't get it, in fact, until 2024 is a great feeling for me because it's basically asking others to be patient with me. Asking to slow down a little bit, waste less and value more. That's all.
I find that often when I talk to colleagues or people who are privately suffering with their mental health, one great positive triggers of lifting the brain out of a period of depression is having things to look forward to, rather than just keeping busy. I take great pleasure in having things to look forward to. There's great joy to be had in processes and being patient. The head and heart can prepare. I think a lot of the digital world, or our modern world, erodes certain values. Perhaps it’s about the gratification of the weight of time. Time adds to the value of something. We have tools to communicate at such a pace, we can cut through time, in a way that makes us value things a little bit less perhaps.
TT: I wonder how you felt about the duration of time that this record will lay undiscovered. How will that influence both the music and how it's received by the audience?
EC: I'm quite interested in the idea of projects letting the light in. Conceptually it's not about burying in darkness, it's not about damp, it's actually about light. It's a slow development, and there's a risk because you haven't a clear picture of what's going to come out.
There's two things and that is trusting in a process that I have extrapolated prior. My last record called Landform was a combination of exhumed tape loops, but only for a short period of two, three months yet also exposed to moisture, air, sunlight and salt water. That was a lot of analogue tape and textures and when tape gets old, it creates artefacts and those artefacts I rather enjoy, they sound good to me, there's a particular character to them.
A lot of my work will touch the surface of tape at some point in the recording process and this does something either to my decision making process or the texture and sounds of what I'm making. So I like these artifacts. I know that there's going to be wobbles, perhaps dropouts, in fact, the technical term is ‘wow and flutter’. I even wrote that into the score as articulations for performance, which asked the players to perform like the wow and flutter of unearthed magnetic tape. Of course, the musicians asked ‘What the hell is that?’ So then we had a conversation, we workshopped asserting a little bit more pressure here and there and going up and down, to ebb and flow, and then everyone starts to lock into a deeper performance narrative.
Then as we finished we’re going back to that point of the last conversation with the players, they asked, ‘Are you really going to delete it? And I said yes! They said, ‘but it sounds so good’. And I said, ‘Oh, it really does. It's fantastic, I want everybody to hear us, but I have to wait.’ I then asked them, ‘But didn't you have a really good time? I feel like we really worked hard. There were some big challenges, some peaks and troughs.’ They looked at me and said, ‘I don't think I'll ever forget it.’ And I thought, well that's it! that’s the point.
TT: There’s this element of chance, of serendipity as to what the record will sound like after time in the ground. Is it hard to let go of that sense of control?
EC: Quite the contrary, the freedom is liberating. It also challenges every single member of a team of people who are now working on this to think differently about what they’re doing. I’m a leftfield, alternative, perhaps abstract composer that most people don't know. It's not like I'm retiring. I've written this piece, I have more. To be frank I feel like I'm just warming up, it's not a final grand gesture. Yes, this project has elements of eccentricity in it, but there's meaning behind everything.
TT: I would say your music has a slower tempo than modern life, in a similar way that Orkney might have a slower tempo than life in London?
I call it rhythm. I think the Islands, the Highlands have a rhythm. It's linked to the seasons, it's linked to daylight hours, longer summers, where it is light till midnight. I think there's always a rhythm and this I imagine appears in the music. I thought I'd written my last note on that within my Orkney trilogy, that I'd said all I want to say, but then of course, lockdown hit and we all have a new appreciation of where we spend our time and the people that we spend our time with. I was already writing this classical piece, I thought, what's the first thing you're going to do post lockdown, and for me it was getting the first ferry home. I didn't expect to plant a deep time seed, but that's what I've done. It might have been Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith who said it best, ‘If you've got nothing to say, just go home until you do.’
TT: I wanted to ask about the notion of creating things that will last longer than the individual. On Taking Time we’ve explored the idea of Cathedral Thinking, building for the long term and making physical things that may degrade over time. You can't necessarily make music out of stone, but you’re creating things that will last beyond yourself.
EC: As part of what we’ve buried with the record there's a stone with a hand carved feather on it that will last forever. There's a violin, not as rumour has it Daniel Pioro’s violin which is probably a Stradivarius, it’s a mass produced, machine polished thing, but it being underground will add value and then hang on my studio wall. It has value to me as meaning and perhaps these things will last beyond myself yes. Cathedral thinking is a brilliant concept, thank you.
I often think about a wonderful comment, where the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who lived on Hoy in Orkney, or certainly spent much of 20 years composing in a bothy on his own, would talk about the notion of coming off clock time. I was speaking to someone else and she was calling it wild time. I like that, wild time, where you're just on daylight hours. Actually, a lot of lockdown had that effect, where a blackbird might wake me up at 4:15, then I'm wide awake, and I just kind of go on from there and work.
TT: Finally, I wanted to ask about what you regard as time well spent?
I have a silly term, which I call beautiful procrastination. I don't believe in procrastination and that I can't do something. I've always got many things to do. What I do is I line up three or four important things and I will flow with the rhythm of how I'm feeling or how I am in that moment, let's say from 6am till 10am. If I decide to do the writing of this, say composition or editing, I do that or if it is a fix or maintenance issue, I do that, nothing is wasted and I don’t feel bad about it. For me, writing music is more akin to writing an essay or a book perhaps. It's 80% editing. What can I get rid of until it just stays up? Where's the space where the silence between the notes is mixed and balanced right. Less notes are powerful, but it takes editing to figure out what’s important.
If I have a tape machine that's needing service that's going to fall apart and I gravitate towards mending that, some people will call that procrastination. No. Beautiful procrastination is when all worthy things need to be done. There's a river and I've gone into it. I've decided that's what my brain wants to do. So when I think of time well spent, for me, it's always, certainly productivity, and that can be in progressing ideas, more than anything else, either as a physical manifestation in writing, or even just a good conversation like this, which hasn't felt like an interview to me. It's just like planting an idea. I think for me it’s this constant, moving with the rhythm and the flow of that limited time we have, but to always move forward to leave something. So when we're dust, it might mean something to someone else.
Erland Cooper's new single 'Glimro' is released today, taken from the EP Egilsay, out 26 November. His album 'Carve The Runes And Then Be Content With Silence' will be released in 2024.