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Collaborating with Time

Collaborating with Time

Erland Cooper with ocean scenery background


Described in The Guardian as ‘Nature’s songwriter’, Erland Cooper is an award-winning Scottish composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Stromness in Orkney. 

Through music, words and cinematography, Erland explores landscape, memory and identity, often developing these themes in partnership with artists, writers and poets. As a solo artist, he has released eight acclaimed albums, including a trilogy of work inspired by his childhood home. He creates music inspired by themes of nature and people, place and time. His composition for 54 Year Old is his first collaboration with Highland Park.

How did you approach creating the music for the 54 Year Old film?

I didn’t want to start by scoring to pictures here, instead I wanted to compose a piece of music first that touched on the themes of time and landscape, layers and contours, in a place that’s so special to me. A shorter version of that composition could then be used to match the beautiful film, but the full composition could also stand alone by itself.

The most important thing for me was that the music would match the full narrative of the project. John Galvin, Michael Rudak and I shared our thoughts about Yesnaby, the unique rock formation, the sediment and the way that this particular coastline is so powerful, so evocative. We talked about timelines, about the duration of time and about timelessness. It’s all about perspective, how much has changed yet how little has changed. I like the idea that this whisky wasn’t rushed – it was ready when it was ready – and that’s how I often approach my own work. In a sense, it’s a collaboration with time, 54 years is little to this whisky, but it’s a lifetime for us.

How important was it to collaborate with the other creative people working on Highland Park 54 Year Old?

Working with all those different art forms was interesting. I wanted to find a lasting melody that would celebrate what they were celebrating. I’m realising more and more in my work, in my collaborations or commissions, the importance of the perspective of someone looking from a different viewpoint. But it's also about finding the common threads, and the essence that’s informed each piece of creativity here is that sense of timelessness in Orkney’s land and seascapes.

Finding balance in unexpected contrasts is a central theme for Highland Park, how did you bring that into your music?

My academic and family background is more to do with science. I often look at music as frequencies of sound – as patterns within a spectrum that the ear can hear. And I look at that physically in terms of energy and what energies work together. Fo example, what energy would be represented by the timpani in an orchestra – waves crashing, that’s around 50-100 hertz! By breaking it down like that, you can create a tapestry or a patchwork, putting elements together that work well in each sonic area. That’s the scientific side. The other key side is all about finding the melody – the bit you can put in your pocket, or whistle or share with a friend. The arrangement and orchestration follow, but I want to be able to take that melody away and hold on to it.

To create balance, I try to push things to the furthest point before breaking and then pull back. Where I start and where I finish are often so different, but people will only see or hear where you end up. If the sonic energy or frequency fights too hard in one area, it becomes hard to listen to and that’s where self editing comes in. I can put everything in, and then take away as much as I can before it falls over. When it falls over, you realise you’ve gone too far and removed something vital from the music, so you put it back until you create that balance, something that feels neat to you. Nothing is ever perfect.

How do you translate Orkney into music?

I think there is often a misconception that you have be in a place fully to write about it, and it’s the same with composition. I start with my tape machines and my digital recorder, my camera and my notebooks, but I find the further away I am from the source when I write, the better my edit is – I call this ‘critical distance’. So, 90% of my field recordings, notes, thoughts and melodies will get left on the cutting room floor; the 10% that remains, that’s the essence of it, the thing that pulls you back to that place with a jolt when you listen.

This sense of place is not always about a physical place that’s Orkney, it can be real or imagined, it can be the idea of remoteness or isolation, or a celebration of the natural world or community. There are moments that I can’t plan when an audience hears my music, and those moments often have some magic. When your work flies across the world, lands through someone’s window and into their lives or hearts and minds; when someone tells you that they’ve never been to Orkney but feel as if they have after listening to your music, that’s unplanned and wonderful to receive back.



February 23, 2023