Erland Cooper @ Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 24 May

Erland Cooper's contemplative, emotive analogue sound brings a slice of Orkney's rugged beauty to Edinburgh

Live Review by Will Moss | 29 May 2019

It is not music but words that set the Orcadian theme for this evening of atmospheric contemplation. Author Stephen Rutt opens proceedings, reading an extract from his new book The Seafarers, about escaping an anxiety-ridden life in London to work on a bird observatory on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands. Rutt’s evocative prose is in many ways the verbalisation of Erland Cooper’s ongoing solo project – a homage to the wild and windy shores of his Orkney home.

Last year’s Solan Goose was Cooper’s first solo record and used the island’s birdlife as a vehicle to relieve the stresses of living in a city far from where he was raised. His new album, Sule Skerry, sees its writer set his sights to the sea and the rugged coastline of his favourite archipelago. This theme of escapism, of removing oneself from metropolitan madness and returning to something more natural, courses through tonight’s performance like a rip-tide. Erland comes on stage accompanied by a string quartet and backed by a chugging, engine-like synth, a fishing boat heading slowly towards land.

While Cooper is of course the focal point of the set, it is the multi-talented quartet who really make tonight’s performance special. Lead violin Anna Phoebe’s solo flourishes are emotionally charged, filled with Cooper’s longing and love for Orkney. Lottie Greenhow, also a violinist, frequently puts down her bow and uses her incredible soprano as an instrument, an ethereal vocal that floats over the audience like a fulmar over the Ronaldsay shores.

Their music swells with not just a sense of place, but a deep yearning for that place and the peace of mind it seems to promise. Samples of yawning gannets transport the listener to those blustery seas, alongside rising and falling waves of keys and strings with the kind of emotive pull that only home can induce. It all hints at the desire for something simpler, purer. Between songs, Cooper gives small snippets of this thought process. He explains how he only uses analogue instruments, jokes that computers ‘remind him of admin’, and makes several references to wanting to make the evening as quiet as possible. This results in perhaps the set’s most beautiful moment as all the lights are turned out and mics switched off, allowing the music to be heard in its purest, most organic form.

Another poignant moment sees Cooper dedicate a song to “Maybelle from Stromness”, an old manager from an earlier job at a bakery who inspired him with her work ethic and has since passed away. In an evening centred on the scenery of Orkney, a moment that focuses on the people of the Islands particularly resonates.

This is music written as a way for its writer to find peace in an anarchic world. Tonight, the Queen's Hall becomes that safe haven, a sanctuary from the storm raging outside.