When did you last attend a gig at a bird colony?
A serious question – and one on which members of this particular audience will be able to pin a date. Even on arrival at St Pancras Old Church it is clear something is up, for the distinctive call of a curlew can be heard in the porch. Not in physical form, you understand, but Erland Cooper has placed a field recording from Orkney on a cassette recorder, setting the tone for an evening of natural interaction and wonderment. All this a quarter of a mile from the headquarters of some particularly large search engines.
His support act, poet Amy Cutler and violinist / sound creator and manipulator Sylvia Hallett, are also closely connected to ornithology. Cutler reads mostly from her own work, fresh to paper, responding to the effect Cooper’s Solan Goose album has had on her. The album has eleven portraits of Orcadian birds, and Cutler’s response casts the net far and wide, looking beyond her own words to pepper the text with references from as far afield as Sweden and Iceland. We hear about the guillemot and the relatively unloved Brent Goose, whose migratory feats are placed under the microscope.
Cutler’s sonorous voice is an ideal vehicle for her words, while Hallett’s musical response is extremely complementary, keeping the text in the foreground at all times. Her violin becomes a channel of sound, from scratchy evocations of the birds themselves to broader strokes that imitate the beating of wings.
Erland Cooper has a slightly more expansive ensemble at his disposal, augmented through multitasking that gives him the equivalent of a small orchestra. The lead instrument is his own, a doctored upright piano on which sits a reel to reel tape recorder, from where we hear the sounds of the birds.
This proves the clinching element for our transportation to Orkney, for as the light faded outside the central orb behind the band glows a soft yellow, like the sun low in the sky, and thoughts turn to the shoreline rather than the international rail terminal close by. Now the bird colony takes shape, for after a typically timeless opening gambit Cooper requests for us all to find his website and play the audio recording of a solan goose (the Orcadian for ‘gannet’). This we achieve, and lo and behold the cliffs of Orkney come sharply into view and we find ourselves amid hundreds of birds. It is a simple but wonderfully effective tactic.
Throughout the gig there are moments of tenderness and beauty, Cooper profiling not just the birds but the coastline and characteristics of Orkney too. Here he is helped by the Hardanger fiddle and sumptuous soprano of Lottie Greenhow. Violinist Anna Phoebe soars beautifully – and also masters the Moog – while viola player and multi-instrumentalist Jake Downs provides the lower string notes, allowing Cooper’s piano plenty of room to explore the bass textures.
There is a tribute to a friend and one of the island’s recently deceased older residents, a lady in her hundreds, while Will Burns reads his own beautiful poem to complement Maalie (the fulmar). There is a new piece to enjoy, the swimming textures indicating we are now moving on to profile the fish of Cooper’s home island.
A gig at the London Aquarium surely awaits, although maybe that would be too obvious, for this is a live performer whose careful thought and originality transform this concert into a thought provoking and tenderly amusing profile of an area of outstanding natural beauty. Much of that beauty visited London on this night, taking us far away.