Live Music + Gig Reviews

Erland Cooper & Scottish Ensemble @ Barbican Theatre, London

12 May 2023

Scottish composer’s new climate change themed album Folded Landscapes is performed live to profoundly moving effect

Erland Cooper & Scottish Ensemble at the Barbican (Photo: Owen Tozer)

Erland Cooper & Scottish Ensemble at the Barbican (Photo: Owen Tozer)

As the extent of the climate emergency becomes apparent all industries and businesses have been forced to consider the impact their operations have on the environment. The music industry has been no different, with recent years seeing a greater consideration of the environmental impact of touring and vinyl production being evident in particular. Folding Landscapes is Scottish composer Erland Cooper’s contribution to the subject, seven movements that combine his pure and pristine chamber music with stirring spoken word elements.

In this respect it follows neatly in the footsteps of his previous ‘Orkney triptych’ of Solan Goose, Sule Skerry and Hether Blether, three albums that explored his deep connection to and interest in Scottish geography and its accompanying wildlife. Tonight’s show is one of four intimate performances of Folded Landscapes in the Barbican’s Pit theatre, and it proves a suitably atmospheric and meditative experience, its musical beauty and stark messages hitting home powerfully. The album’s addressing of climate concerns is not limited to messages contained within however, with the vinyl copies being made from recycled material in an attempt to further manage its environmental impact.

It’s performed by the Scottish Ensemble, with Cooper on piano and soprano Ellie Neate providing soaring vocals on two movements. The piece also features the unmistakable Yorkshire tones of Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, although tonight his words are related via tape. One fascinating addition to the set-up is the presence of a leafy, green plant encased in a large ice sculpture which is positioned in the centre of the stage. As the audience filter into the venue amid the dispersal of birdsong and dry ice, we’re encouraged to view the sculpture up close and touch it (Cooper later jokes that it is tonight’s support act).

Erland Cooper at the Barbican (Photo: Owen Tozer)

Erland Cooper at the Barbican (Photo: Owen Tozer)

The opening movement is very much a scene setter, the plaintive and graceful recurring string motifs ushering us into a different world. Although ravishingly beautiful, it is undoubtedly the spoken word element which elevates the piece to higher levels. Armitage speaks of “snow like a thrown sheet over a lost friend” and how “the night has set down its strict condition”. Moments like these immediately show how few can match him in coaxing emotion from words, his purposeful enunciation quietly revelling in their sounds and meaning. It feels especially the case tonight given the subject matter.

On the fourth movement Cooper reads out a list of names of Scottish islands, once again turning attention to locations that have defined his work to date in so many ways. The unspoken implication seems to be that such places of unspoiled beauty are at risk from climate change. The strings ebb and flow, exerting a tidal like quality. The fifth movement is arguably the most moving part of the piece. It begins with the relaying of news reports covering recent extreme weather events and later an excerpt from Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech at the United Nations summit of 2019 is played to powerful effect.

Later, a modicum of hope finds its way through the sombre outlook as various voices appear, declaring how they “feel a responsibility towards it”, and then it’s left to the voices of children to read out pro-Earth messages opposing waste of all kinds. Cooper scrapes at the ice sculpture as he moves around the stage, a visual dimension that also adds extra weight to the piece. The sixth movement then begins with glorious, bounding strings before Armitage reappears to offer more vocal commentary, proving how there is passion within the ice. Speaking of the album, Armitage has said “if geology could speak its dreams and geography could sing in its sleep, this is what it would sound like”, and it’s an apt broader description for Cooper’s music.

As the profoundly moving performance comes to a close, we’re left considering how Cooper has quickly become one of the most effective composers at being able to translate bigger concepts into his music. If art is meant to impact, inform and inspire, then shows like tonight demonstrates he is succeeding on all fronts.

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