In March this year Orcadian multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper released Solan Goose, a sea-soaked record of incredible beauty seeped in the history, lore and natural environment of his home islands.
Now based in London, Cooper is this week celebrating the launch of Murmuration, which acts as a companion piece to his earlier release and features cover art by Norman Ackroyd. Like Solan Goose, the new record is themed around birds, in particular those of the sea and the shore.
Having first come upon Cooper's work on BBC 6 Music, Island Review editor Jordan Ogg was keen to learn more about the artist's influences and the place that Orkney occupies in his creative process. Erland also offered to share some of his own photographs taken on Orkney, which we are pleased to show here as an added treat.
Orkney has some fascinating folklore - can you tell us about a tale, a place or creature that has inspired you and/your work?
Orcadians are famous for their story telling and my favourite tale is not that of the Selkies (seal men) or Trowies (dwarves that will take you into the hills for a ceilidh, only for you to wake up the next day 100 years later) but that of Betty Corrigal, the girl buried in the moor. She directly inspired a full album of material called Orkney; Symphony of the Magnetic North.
Betty was a young girl who fell pregnant out of wedlock to a passing sailor (or local laird’s son) and sadly took her own life in despair. As a suicide, she couldn't be buried on consecrated ground, so was laid to rest in Hoy’s peaty moorland.
Years later, during the First World War, soldiers digging for fuel discovered her body and, like an Egyptian mummy, she had been beautifully preserved. Content with their find, the soldiers reburied her and, as if to continue their amusement, each passing regiment re-exhumed her. She was later given a proper headstone and her body left in peace.
I dreamt of her, she told me to write a record about Orkney and handed me the track names on paper, in order. I woke up, wrote them down and this acted like a map for my bandmates and I. We tried to do her justice by completing it to the best of our ability.
Artists and writers associated with Orkney - Gunni Moberg, George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies - have been continually drawn to the sea and the shoreline. Why do you think this is such an enduring interest?
I think George Mackay Brown answered this better than anyone else when he wrote: “The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.”
What the sea does for me, as it flows and ebbs and changes with every second, is reflect like an opaque mirror the lightness and the horizon from the Orkney skies. Not in a clean, glass-like way, although at times this occurs. Instead it is something more inhospitable; something that demands respect.
As the sea is always moving, reminding us about the passing of time, it remains a true constant. In all weathers it has a redemptive and musical quality - the baritone, brass, celli, double bass, timpani or the beautiful and dangerous sub sonic frequencies.
How does the sea in its many physical and figurative manifestations, influence you and your work?
Solan Goose isn’t intended as a standalone record. It's a trilogy or perhaps a triptych, and is directly inspired by George Mackay Brown's words. The first record is about the light and air; the second about the sea; and the third, the land.
The next record wont just be about Orkney fish (although the ‘Sillock’ features) but rather about our relationship and respect for the sea: how it surrounds the community and the landscape; how it supports the greatest ecosystem of all. What lays beneath, what flies above and what walks around it are all awe-inspiring to me.
How do you feel about myth and lore in the digital age? Do you think it is an antiquated thing? Or perhaps the present day gives the old tales more resonance?
Definitely the latter. In a world of fake news, I actually think the digital age creates a bigger desire to get the narrative right, to find the story, the essence, the truth.
You cultivate an idea that becomes a story. And a story, if good enough, can become a myth when folk add into it, and it can survive without the creator or the storyteller.
Now, more than ever, is a great time to share those stories from around a smaller world. A great person taught me that an idea is only good when it can stand alone without it’s creator. I think stories, myth and folklore are the same.
What’s the next big thing you’ve got coming up?
I’m planning a working trip home to Stromness in late August. I’m bringing my good friend, artist Alex Kozobolis and there will be no air travel involved to fit the narrative of the work – that and he hates flying!
Arriving into Stromness by Ferry evokes strong child hood memories for me. I’m looking forward to it. We’re aiming to re-record voices, strings, and synthesizers inside a 5000 year old Neolithic cairn and on a fishing boat.
Erland Cooper's latest record Murmuration was released on 11 July 2018.
Lead image by Alex Kozobolis.
Others by Erland Cooper.