Many composers have flirted with the natural world as a passing influence, just another daub on the palette with which to paint.
For Erland Cooper, however, the psychogeographic exploration of place, landscape and wildlife has been a career-long mission that’s coloured every facet of his work. Born in Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands, Cooper has carried the wildness of his home through every project he’s undertaken, and even - quite literally - returned his music to the wild.
The Scottish composer’s first three solo recordings formed an Orcadian trilogy, excavating the influence of his native archipelago through a deep engagement with its most elemental constituents: land, sea and birdlife.
A future project, Carve The Runes Then Be Content With Silence, has been composed, recorded, transferred to a single ¼ inch magnetic tape, and buried (or planted, in his words) underground in Orkney’s wilderness, with all surviving digital remnants definitively erased.
In 2024, the tape will be exhumed, released and performed exactly as it is, once the soil, the damp and the worms have played their crucial part in the work’s composition. Few composers have approached their enchantment with the natural world in such a fantastically direct way, allowing the elements to become not merely an inspiration, but a collaborator, decomposing and recomposing the music in their own image.
After decay, comes renewal. It’s fitting, then, that Cooper’s latest excursion into the wild soundtracks the Superbloom, an installation that’s seen the Tower of London’s previously unadorned moat transformed into a magnificent outburst of colour and life, with 20 million flowers planted, nurtured and shaped into a verdant meadow.
Asked to produce a sonic companion to the display, Cooper created a multi-dimensional soundtrack that’s planted within the flowers themselves, rising softly from 26 ground-level speakers that surround the winding path visitors take through the foliage.
“I wanted it to feel like I was scoring a film,” he tells us. “I was scoring the story of planting 20 million seeds, creating a little ecosystem and starting a rewilding journey for the next 30 years.” It’s truly an astonishing experience. Walking through Superbloom, surrounded by poppies, marigolds and Baby’s Breath, as the shimmering ambience and soaring strings of Cooper’s radiant score float through the air, the only appropriate reaction is one of silenced wonder.
Titled Music For Growing Flowers, the score will be released as an independent work, though it bears the seeds of its former home in its musical constitution. Like the flowers from which it came, the music is delicately beautiful and rewards close attention. Rich with detail, it soothes the ear and calms the mind, creating - as a garden does - a space to reflect, in which the world inside your head can cease to turn, as you reacquaint yourself with the one outside of it.
Like much of Cooper’s music, it lives in the wilderness between contemporary classical and ambient, bringing to mind all at once the soporific expanse of Max Richter’s Sleep, the lyrical romanticism of Nils Frahm and the stark drama of Richard Skelton, composers’ in whose work the studio figures as an important an instrument as any other in the orchestra.
Though acoustic instruments sit front and centre, as strings and piano carry the plaintive theme, they’re embedded in a patchwork of gauzy reverb, hushed field recordings and tape-warmed ambience that wraps around their melodies like a warm hug, creating a space, a sonic environment, for the music to grow.
We spoke with Erland Cooper about his ongoing collaboration with the natural world, as he tells us more about the creative process and studio techniques behind his score for Superbloom, Music For Growing Flowers.
Tell us about the background to the Superbloom installation. How did you get involved?
“I was approached after a performance by a producer. She came backstage and she said, ‘I've got this top secret job for you. We aim to do a bold act of urban rewilding, and we're going to plant 20 million flowers - or 20 million seeds, that would potentially grow into 20 million flowers. Would you consider scoring it?’ Scoring the experience, so people could go into the moat around the Tower of London, and walk through these flowers as they evolve, a bit like an Impressionist painting. Like a moving Monet, there's blues and reds and whites and yellows and crimsons, and the music can help tell that story.
“I was interested in the potent message of this act, taking this urban city space that's designed originally to keep people out, and encouraging them to come in. From a very early point, I was really interested in that story and the narrative of biodiversity, but also, this idea of building my own spatial mix from the ground up.
“It’s a truly spatial mix in the sense that it's designed for a space, and not an easy space to manage, because it wraps around the moat, and it's of course got these big high walls, because it's a castle. But I thought, well - that would be really interesting, they could act as sound walls. If we get this right, and I could point a speaker system and get the angles right, it could really bounce around the moat in a way that could be quite interesting. A bit like the narrative of a pollinator, it could really feel like you're on the wings of a bumblebee.”
Talk us through how you approached the writing process.
“Once I'd found this melody, and built the ambient score, bringing it into the moat was a process in itself. But before all of that - the first thing I did, I went down to the moat with a field recorder and just pressed record, to listen to the ambient noise. To hear the decibel levels. To understand the chaos of the city. You've got the traffic, you've got crows in the trees, you've got the ambulances, you've got lorries clanking their metal wheel bearings, all sorts of things kicking off.
“I recorded that and took that back to the studio, and then looked at the waveform to understand where the pockets of energy or the frequencies were sitting. I’ve done quite a lot of work with field recordings, and I weave them in. I looked at what was going on and then started to build a score around that, so it would never fight with this level of energy, with the idea that it would effectively create a jigsaw. A bit like a sonic tapestry. You can't get rid of that noise, so why not incorporate it?
“And it worked. It really worked. Everybody came here and I played back the field recording and then played back some early work on the score. And sure enough, there's the chaos of the city, which is met with this white noise, and then it starts to come together. Then when you hear the crows in the trees, they sound like they're in the score. And even when you hear a plane flying over, it’s okay, it feels okay, you know - everything sits together. So I thought okay, it works in the studio, let's see if it works in the moat.”
It’s an interesting idea. It’s almost like you’re integrating a ‘live’ field recording into the piece, whereas a field recording is something you usually think of as a static, pre-determined element.
“And it’s always evolving. When you go to certain spaces, you notice they have a tone, or a key. There’s famous examples of reamping, where you take something in a space and continue to reamp it, feeding it back through and it eventually creates a tone and it creates a key. So I found that tonal element that worked with the score.”
How did you approach the process of installing the speakers and figuring out the layout for the installation?
“The Tower of London has about three or four thousand people a day coming through. The score itself was 20 minutes long, and it's in the north moat. We planted all the speaker cables into the earth, and you have 26 speakers. I was trying to find the best way to make it feel like you're always moving. If you've got 3000 people, they've got to keep going. They've got to move, they can't go backwards.
“So I created five clusters, or pods, of speakers, and each of the pods would pull you in, it would have a feeder speaker pointing to where you are. And then you’d go into a pod, and then it would push you out. It’s stretched just far enough at a 45 to 90 degree angle, to push you to the next pod, and also to push the sound out to the surrounding castle walls, up and out of the moat.
“I've actually created this little spot where you can listen for free. There's a really sweet spot at 9pm, go there and you can hear it coming off the walls. I really liked that. I've seen a few people sit there. So it kind of pulls you along, a bit like a wave, it pushes you out the other end. To me it feels like a spatial, ambient murmuration, with these pockets of pollination. The sweet spot is when it’s not too windy, and you go between two pods - then you get the true sense of spatial listening.”
Were you thinking about the spatialisation all the way through? Or was it a matter of writing the music, then figuring out how to arrange it for the space?
“I tried to separate the processes, because then I could enjoy it more, and just write a piece that I like for the composition. I wanted it to feel like I was scoring a film, I was scoring the story of planting 20 million seeds, creating a little ecosystem and starting a rewilding journey for the next 30 years. So the speakers will obviously come out, but it’d be great if they left the flowers. I was just there an hour ago, and I'm watching butterflies, and I’m watching the plants move. Even if you close your eyes, I like that as well. For those that can't see those colours, you can actually go and feel and breathe, and listen, and use those other senses and explore the space. So on the composition side, it was really about telling that story.”
Stylistically the music itself seems to draw from neoclassical, ambient and electronic music. Do you identify with any of those traditions?
“As an artist, I don't think about where I sit, in truth. I'm not classically trained. I didn't have the opportunity, growing up on an island at the North Sea, to study classical music. But I get to now, and I am enjoying it so much, these past three or four years, writing for certain instruments of the orchestra.
“When the orchestra comes together, or the string groups that I’ve been recording, it's an incredible joy. I used to get really excited by the thought of just plugging the guitar in and doing something, but now, I see a cello and I think - ‘Yes! What can we do with that? How can we create something that's rooted in the classical world, but combined with the other elements of my background and where I've come from?’
“As for electronic music - I know other composers have said this, and I'll say it again - I'm looking at a Moog Model D, which is a ‘70s synthesiser, the one that started them all. I love the sub elements of it, and I use it like a double bass. The piano, when it was invented, was the synthesiser of the time. So we’re taking the traditional instruments and using electronic instruments, which are evolving, changing and growing every minute - there’s too many to keep up with. Just using one from the ‘70s, with three oscillators, is enough for me. That's all I need.”
Was the Moog used on this latest project?
“Yeah, it’s used on everything. But it’s beside a piano, and to me, they serve different tonal voices, different functions. I suspect composers, if you went back 100, or 150, or 250 years, would use what they had available at the time, and respect the repertoire of instrumentation. The harpsichord, for example, the clavichord, or the spinet, or the virginal - these are all evolving into the piano, and evolving to a different portable instrument that can be used.
“It must have been quite mind blowing, back then, to hear a string quartet and a spinet playing. ‘What is this?! What is this incredible sound I hear?!’ I can imagine people going: ‘I don’t like that, that sounds scary. This portable harpsichordist did my head in, I wish they would just play the cello…’ [laughs]”
These kids today and their portable harpsichords.
“You got it.”
Were there any other electronic elements involved? It sounds like there are, but they’re very deeply embedded in the mix. There’s no discernible boundary between the acoustic and the synthetic.
“There’s probably 70 to 100 layers. That's the magic of all the producers and engineers that you talk to - you listen to Claire Rousay, or Jon Hopkins, and there's a simplicity there, but there's an intricacy as well. But you don't care that there's 70 to 100 layers of audio in a piece. It's about how they join. Actually, for me, it's about what you take away. That’s more interesting - what can you keep getting rid of?
“I was talking to an architect, and he builds huge installations. He said something along the lines of, you keep taking the legs off until it falls over, then you put the last one back on. [laughs] The one that tips it over, you put that leg back. I try to do that with my music. I build something and then I take it off. I think much of heritage composition and contemporary composition is really editing. It's all about the edit.”
Did you produce the record by yourself, or collaborate with anybody?
“I do all of it. Though I’ve been working closely with Marta Salogni. I love to get something to 90%, where I’m happy with it, and then I like to take it away from my studio into someone else's. Marta’s studio is wonderful, and she puts it through her desk. For me, whilst I'm at 90% and there's 10% left, it seems to add a huge chunk in the same way that going to mastering, with Guy Davies at Electric, does. It just adds that extra bit, but it also gives me distance, and allows me to step away from the piece so I know that it's truly finished. Let's say there’s 70 audio tracks, I'll stem them down to eight to twelve. And then I'll take those eight to twelve to Martin. That's very much the last element of collaboration for me.”
Would you say you lean more towards analogue or digital equipment?
“Both. It’s a hybrid studio. There’s obviously a computer at the source, but to my right is my mix bus, which is a Manley Variable MU, and a Pulteq, which is from Manley as well. I have that chain over there, then I have some nice preamps, and a lot of tape machines.
“Everything I do in the digital world touches tape at some point. I create a lot of my own instruments in Kontakt. So I create a lot of sounds using field recordings, and I create tonal electronic instruments, but to me they're never truly finished until I've let them hit the surface of magnetic tape at some point, even if it's the little Tascam 4-tracks, or the Revox B77.
“What committing to tape does, for me, is it helps with the edit. It helps with letting go of certain things. It helps you make decisions that are important when you're writing to a deadline, and when you're writing to your own parameters. Also, I just like the flavour of it. I like the feeling of it, once it's gone through the Manleys and nice mics and preamps and all that stuff. It's a flow. It's always flowing and moving and changing, and tweaking.”
How often are you experimenting with new gear?
“I'm embarrassed to say that everything in the studio, I use. I don't have one of those studios that if I could pan the camera around, you'd see lots of bits and bobs. Nothing is wasted. So there's two synths, there's not 20, and they serve a purpose. I use the Moog with those three oscillators, and I often just use one oscillator - I use it as a double bass, I use it to add the sub. The Prophet-6 and the Moog, I use for different reasons. I have a modified Tascam Portastudio, which I did 10 years ago, and I can mod it and change the speed.
“It goes through something called the SG-1, which is something I designed - it stands for Solan Goose, and it’s a pedal. You’ll laugh, a little bit, because of what it really is. It’s really simple. We have these big, huge pedalboards, and I always thought they take up so much space, and it’s quite nice to have something on the desk, or when you’re playing live, to feed in other things, other than guitar. So I designed this. It has a little mixer that you can feed any signal in. You've got a pitch shifter, you've got tremolo, echo, delay, reverb, and distortion, of course, distortion being the key. Then I threw in a looper as well.”
So it’s a kind of multi-effects box?
“That's exactly what it is. But it's all the flavours I like. It's like salt, pepper, and olive oil. And I put the looper in as well to just build up those tones. I was talking to the guy who built it for me and when I described it to him, he said: ‘you can't do that, it's going to be this big thing.’ I said, ‘well, why not stack the motherboards?’ I took these other Electro-Harmonix pedals, we stacked the motherboards and created a big sandwich - and it worked. It's called the SG-1, and we're very fond of it.”
Are there any particular plugins that are central to your sound?
“I tend not to talk about that stuff. I use the UA stuff like I would use outboard, the LA-2A, but I have some of the outboard here. The Audio Ease convolution reverb [Altiverb], I know it’s old hat now, but it just sounds great. I make a lot of my own reverbs, so that's a big one. I’ll record an impulse response in a Neolithic cairn in Orkney, take it back and put it into the reverb, and then I can mix through it.
“The only person that cares about that is me, which is why I don't talk about it - it doesn't really matter. You could just use the Valhalla Shimmer, and all of that stuff. But I like to use convolution reverbs. Spaces are really important. I write about place, and I write about the natural world. So it makes sense to bring that into my process.”
Could you tell us a little bit about Carves The Runes Then Be Content With Silence?
“So I recorded my first classical work at the RCS in Glasgow. Marta Salogni and I travelled up to Scotland with loads of expensive microphones and we built a studio in their space and recorded this string orchestra. I then took it back, and we mixed it. Once we'd finished mixing it, we put it onto a quarter-inch tape, and then we deleted all the digital files, so there's only one copy that exists.
“I took that tape and I drove it from London all the way to Orkney, I got on a ferry - I even put the tape beside me, and put the seatbelt over it. It suddenly felt precious - you know, this is the only existing copy, and all that resource and time that's gone into making it, with these incredible musicians. I crossed over on the ferry and I found a spot that was important to me. I dug a hole, and I put the tape into the soil unprotected. On top of that I put a biscuit tin. In the biscuit tin is the score, and a little letter from me with my mobile number, in case someone finds it, on how to get back to me. On top of that as a cheap mass-produced violin.
“Then I planted it, or buried it, as you say. On top of the soil, I put a special stone with a rune, a Norse marking. I have left it there till 2024, and I'll go back and dig it up. Unless someone finds it. I'll go back, dig it up and release it exactly as it sounds from the earth, after the soil and the elements and the natural world have collaborated with the texture of the tape itself. It’ll be released exactly as it sounds, and we’ll do a big performance at the Barbican. And even if the tape is silent, we'll all just sit there. [laughs] It's really an act of patience. It's an act of value. It's a collaboration, truly, with the natural world.”
Erland Cooper’s Music For Growing Flowers is out now on Mercury KX.
Superbloom is open to visitors at the Tower of London until 18th September.