The contemporary music seasons at the Barbican over recent years have contained many highlights of the London live music calendar, so the recent resumption of shows, even in a covid-limited fashion, is very much something to be embraced and celebrated. Live from the Barbican is a series of live events taking place in the hall with a small, socially distanced audience present, with the concerts also being available to stream online. The latest of these saw Scottish composer Erland Cooper present something of a condensed ‘greatest hits’ selection of tracks from Solan Goose, Sule Skerry and Hether Blether, his sumptuous recent triptych of albums inspired by his home of the Orkney Islands.
Composing music about location and environment may not be new, but across these albums Cooper has demonstrated an enhanced understanding and ability in translating the sights and sounds of physical phenomena into beautiful musical forms. During tonight’s show he finds new ways to add to this, being joined on stage by various soloists and members of the London Contemporary Orchestra, with Kathryn Joseph and poet Will Burns also making appearances.
Early on, Cooper asks the audience to imagine the Barbican hall as a ferry bound for the Orkney Islands, and the sense of journey is palpable. They waste no time in creating suitably atmospheric musical surroundings, Flattie (Part 1) rolling in like tall North Sea waves, while Haar brings a countering grace and stillness. Later, Solan Goose showcases the expressive playing of violinist Anna Phoebe in particular, and Sillocks provides a gentle, sensitive portrayal of the natural world.
One of the most alluring and distinctive features of the albums is the excerpts of recorded conversation between members of the local population, the evocative cadences and rhythms of their voices helping further deepen the sense of location. Tonight, it’s recreated in the hall via the relaying of Cattie-Face.
There are small details along the way which help reinforce the immaculate, meticulous nature of the show. Cooper occasionally conducts the ensemble using a bird’s feather (with the ensemble also using them to play their instruments on one track). Before Jacob Downs sits down to take over from Cooper on piano, he dutifully douses his hands with sanitiser and then proceeds to wipe down the keys in sync to the opening beats of Bonxie (which then grows into something dark and brooding, like heavy, overcast skies).
Maalie rightfully takes its place at the centre of the set. It may be without its rising percussion tonight but it’s still majestic, and sees Will Burns arrive half way through to read accompanying poetry, talking of “the air, the mist, the ocean all blended to a single wisdom of water” as the sound of rainfall emerges. Later, Kathryn Joseph moves through the hall during Flattie (Part 2) to deliver her part-whispered lines, dressed in white, like a fleeting mystical apparition within the darkness.
Shalder is as clear and pure as the cold Highland air, fading away to leave only the sound of the curlew (which Cooper declares to be his “favourite voice”). New song Linga Holm delivers another scenic navigation of the coastline, and Spoot Ebb sees the instruments dance in unison, in a style not dissimilar to Penguin Cafe. It’s also one of several tracks to feature the soaring voice of soprano Lottie Greenhow. On First Of The Tide it contrasts with Cooper’s surreptitiously delivered vocals before the gliding serenity of Skreevar follows. During final track Where I Am Is Here, Cooper picks up a portable tape player and places it at the front of the stage, as the sound of birdsong rings out. It feels an apt way to end a special show, one last acknowledgment of the flying inhabitants of the islands before we suddenly find ourselves returned to the capital.
Live from the Barbican continues until 13 December and is available for both live attendance and livestream.