Interview with Erland Cooper, Composer of a New Score to the 1928 Silent Classic “The Wind”.

The latest commission in Opera North’s FILMusic series is Erland Cooper’s new live score for the classic 1928 silent film The Wind. Cooper has composed his predominantly vocal score for the women of the Chorus of Opera North. Folk Horror Revival were lucky enough to catch up with Erland just a few weeks before the tour kicked off in Gateshead to learn a little bit more about the project.

FHR: First off, thanks for agreeing to the interview. I suppose the first thing I really want to ask you is a bit about yourself and your musical history? Your bio states that you’ve worked in a variety of different fields of music, so if you could tell us a bit about that?

EC: Yes, it’s quite a diverse background probably, but I suppose on reflection… joining the dots back it all makes perfect sense. I grew up in the North of Scotland and folk music was quite accessible. That’s pretty much the mainstay of an island, passing troubadours would come in and out, great fiddle players, Aly Bain, accordionists…you know, all sorts of brilliant finger pickers and things like that. I kind of had this guilty pleasure of enjoying that while my mates were playing football. I was sneaking in to the town hall to listen to Phil Cunningham and Ali Bain.

So, when I got to London, I still had a real kind of interest in two things – one, recording studios, how I’d read about residential studios, and I  just turned up and found one and knocked on the door. It was Ridge Farm studio, they recorded everything from Queen to…you know, Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded there. Big, big records, big, big songs, and I thought I want to see one of these residential studios. I knocked on the door and it creaked open like in a vampire film and this guy came out with jet black hair and a white strip across his fringe and I said Oh hello my name is Erland, I’m from Orkney, would it be possible to see the studio? He swore and said “fucking hell, you’re from Orkney, you better come in”. I think he thought I’d travelled that day from Orkney. This guy introduces me to the producer Youth, who’s starting a folk label, Youth’s a big producer who’s produced loads of hits. Anyway, Youth introduces me to Simon Tong, Simon was the guitarist in a band called The Verve, and then Simon and I started writing together, we both had a love for psychedelic folk, acid folk, traditional folk. Not just someone with an acoustic guitar that they call folk music, we’re talking Bert Jansch all the way through to obviously Sandy Denny, and Jackson C Frank, but even further back Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams collecting these folk songs and transcribing them. So we both had this big love of that, and we just hit it off, Simon and I, and every week I’d go to his house and we’d write songs. To cut a long story short, Youth was doing a folk night and Damon Albarn was there. My first gig in London, my first gig, I get thrust up on stage in some bohemian club in Notting hill completely out of my depth, out of my comfort zone, looking out and seeing some of my idols as a boy. I get up and play these really earnest folk songs and I last… two minutes. It’s a loud din and then silence and they start again.

Anyway, a month later and we’re in Damon’s studio and we’re cutting a debut album, which took folk songs, much like Fairport Convention were doing, and other bands, Pentangle. Just twisting them up and before we knew it, it was out in the world. We did three records with that band. Then I did another project called The Magnetic North, which was really centred on place, Skelmsdale, Orkney, and that had more traditional orchestration.

So, I was starting to get a real interest in classical elements of working within shoegaze and psychedelia. So, if you look at it, over those 10-15 years, kind of psychedelic rock band to slightly more sophisticated indie band, and then because I’m not classically trained, I am constantly learning. I’m up early every day studying myself, but writing, I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, you know. I get to write these 8 or 20 notes and give it to a violinist like Daniel Pioro and he makes them sound incredible, it’s like a joy. I didn’t intend to be a solo artist, that has just happened.  And now I’m commissioned to compose music, so that’s what I do. So that’s the thread of where it come from and I suppose it adds a different way of seeing or looking at things, maybe if I had studied classical music I wouldn’t approach it in the same way as slashing its face with a guitar line.

FHR: It’s really wonderful that you’ve come to classical music via an alternative route to most other people.                                                                                                                          

EC: Yeah, I’m glad you’ve said that… I feel like you can bring in your influences and look at things slightly different. Being Scottish and not having classic training kind of adds a level of being the underdog, which is quite fun.

FHR: But also it means you’re using probably different influences to those who have come from a classical background. You may have classical influences but some of you influences are coming from the psychedelic and acid folk bands you’re listening to.

EC: I think the one common thread with all of these projects is storytelling. The ability to tell a story in different form.  I’m actually inspired more by what I call real artists, painters, architects, film directors and producers and art curated shows. I’m more inspired by that than musicians generally. Although I am inspired by classical musicians, when I see someone walk in with a cello, I get really excited, the same kind of excitement I used to get when I was learning how to record on a Tascam tape machine, kind of, what can I do here?

FHR: I wanted to ask a question in relation to Opera North and particularly the film music project. I was really interested to see you’re following in the footsteps of some pretty amazing artists; Matthew Bourne, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Gudnadottir to mention but a few. How does it feel to be in such company?

EC: I love all their work. I mean, Johann’s work, which was vastly collaborative with Hildur, particularly over the five years prior to his death is an absolute constant. Johann would be a great collaborator, that’s what I take from his work. This idea that collaboration is being in the room constantly, that’s what it was in bands, jamming. For me, it’s different in this world and I enjoy it much more. You’re working on something on your own for ages and you get it to 80%, somewhere that’s really close, and it’s that last 20%, you just don’t know, you’re bringing in someone, Johann would work with Hildur and then that piece would just transform into something else. Was it Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe? He’d worked with this incredible vocalist on the Arrival soundtrack and that soundtrack is, I think the best soundtrack of the last decade. I don’t know if you know the film or if you know the soundtrack, just listen to the soundtrack alone, it’s brilliant.

FHR: I think it’s the same with all of his soundtracks, I regularly just stick one on while I am working or something…actually it’s often distracting, and I end up listening to the music and not doing any work.

EC: We’re going to be quite geeky now, have you watched his First and Last Men? Watch it, and listen to the soundtrack, it’s fantastic. Hildur’s on there and Robert and another Icelandic bass player. I think you’ll really enjoy that, but anyway…

FHR: Now we’ve got a basic idea about you and your work, how did this project come about?

EC: They commissioned me to help tell this story. It was one of the last silent films, as you know, but it came at a time where it fell between the cracks, because the talkies were coming and people felt it was old hat, but now on reflection its beautifully put together. The artistry was quite cutting edge, so I see it as a kind of requiem for a dying art form. Off it goes and another art form replaces it. So, I kind of wanted to touch on that as this sub narrative of what is going on, as well as this sense of the fear of the other, for them it’s the wind, but I think it’s deeper than that, I think it’s fear of native Americans, Indians… and fear of isolation, loneliness, fear of mental and physical abuse. It touches on some very insular and dark themes, and the Mojave Desert wind is this prominent fighting force. Growing up on an island, just to answer your question, surrounded by wind, I felt some kind of connection. In the winter months from the end of September through to Feb it’s isolating and the weather dictates the terms of what happens that day.

So, they came to me, and I watched it…I muted the sound, because several people have done stuff, and I just muted the sound on YouTube and watched it and thought OK yeah, I’d be honoured  to do it, but I’d like to set an ambitious manifesto. To just make the whole score out of the human voice, predominantly. So, all the electronic elements you hear, this kind of sound design, this distortion, these sub layers are actually made out of the… I think it was 12 singers voices. I did a pre-recording with them, it’s going to be 18 when we work on stage live but I’ve also got some recordings already and I manipulated them and I put them through a tape and I processed them in an interesting way and also my own voice. To my left here I have tape machines and microphones and so all these layers come out of the human, and everyone is so harmonically rich and different. I just thought that would be interesting, I’ve since added a few subtle additional layers, there’s a bit of woodwind, but for them most just the voice, but they don’t sing all the way through. This is what I noticed, other people who have approached the score, it was just kind of wall-to-wall music. Just back-to-back, what makes modern scores quite interesting, Johann in particular whilst we’re on the subject, is the use of silence and space, but in a silent film that’s harder to utilize because you’ve got no sound design, you’ve got no foley, you’ve got no sound effects. So, when you’re silent, you’re just silent again so I think people have just filled it with music, and so I’ve tried to turn that on its head…and go. There are three or four themes that happen throughout, and the rest is my own made sound design and using the wind of the Mojave Desert, processing it in a particular way and combining it with the women of the Opera North, of the chorus and doing some things that make it sound interesting to my ear. I’ve gone slightly mad.

I had these large fans and I put a valve on them so I could control the speed and I was blasting them at the piano with a speaker and I created a wind tunnel in the studio, and all of a sudden I started to distort it and I thought, interesting, now it sounds like the wind, now it sounds like the other, now it sounds really scary, now there’s something I can’t control. And the reason I got it, I was reading that when they did the film, they got loads of huge aeronautic propellers that would whip up this storm and I thought that must have been terrifyingly loud, that must have been full on. So that’s what I’ve done in the studio, made a wind tunnel. I’ve tried to imbue that into the score. So, actually  thinking about it, talking to you about it for the first time, it might be closer to how it felt making the film. We’ll never know, but that’s how it feels. I can imagine that noise, the fake wind, because wind doesn’t have a sound, wind only makes noise when it rubs up against an object. So, that’s when I was looking at the science and that’s how I’ve approached it. So, what I mean by all this rambling is that I’ve tried to make sound design. Not foley, but sound design, so it’s got something so then I can cut it and have silence that feels like…ah I can have a break. So, it’s not just wall to wall music and the Opera North aren’t just singing from start to end because that would be too much, I think.

FHR: The decision to use the female voices in place of music, where did that idea come from?

EC: I just think the human voice is so harmonically rich, as I touched on, also the kind of Theatre of Voice as, what’s his name the composer, I forget his name. I started at 4 this morning on five different things.

[He is referring to Paul Hillier, the English composer, conductor and baritone who worked with Jóhan Jóhannsson on several of his later works.]

In fact, that heavily inspired the Arrival score, and I thought it would be interesting to not use a string quartet, to not use a big timpani drum, like everybody would. I thought I’m going to strip all of that out and just use the voice, and I guess it will either work or it won’t, but I guess the idea is just, it feels like it humanizes it a bit more to me. It kind of makes it feel more experimental as well and it makes it more challenging. I like to set parameters, or barriers, they’re not set in stone. I made them I can break them, it’s nice to do that. You know when you’re faced with a blank canvas, it’s no wonder people have writers block when they have every digital instrument on the planet at their disposal. I just use one synth, I love really learning one instrument, it’s a joy for me and using it in a way that maybe it shouldn’t be used or hasn’t been used or isn’t how it’s supposed to be used, then you get something interesting. And so, I knew I could take the voice and put it through other things, other processing. So, putting the voice through the filter of a synthesizer, suddenly sounds like a synthesizer but it’s not it’s still the voice. The sound source is organic, and I think that comes from me using predominantly, or I have used in my solo work a lot of field recordings, a lot of found sound and using found sound in a way that sounds familiar, but also kind of interesting and different. I guess that’s why, it probably came from there.

FHR: It says in your profile that you have an interest in the relationship between landscape and psychology. I guess we can say these things are intrinsically linked in this film and it’s pretty powerful stuff. Looking back and thinking this was made in 1928 and the themes and ideas are quite powerful and strong?

EC: I think the ending was changed, what actually happens in the end was supposed to be that she walks off into the wind, never to be seen again. Instead, she falls in love, and it’s like you’ll do let’s run off together. So American, so kind of… we can’t leave them with an unknown. To a modern audience now, we’d expect that question mark of this powerful woman…she leaves all the men in her life behind her and goes, I don’t need that, but they read it as she walks off and ultimately passes. All because she couldn’t deal with it. So, they said no because she was a producer, remind me her name…

FHR: Oh it’s Lillian Gish.

EC: She worked really hard to produce, put it together, fight to get the finance, to then have it pushed back at the end. The ending isn’t Hollywood enough. For then, the film to really not make a splash as it should have done. I think one review had said this film is ridiculous, the hats would have blown off their heads. They just wanted to hear talking and were fed up of that medium. Actually, we look at it now and think wow! With what they had at the time in 1929 or 1928…brilliant.

FHR: Yeah, it looks astonishing when you consider the year it was made. If you look at the silent films of that era and consider they didn’t have the budgets they have today. We can marvel at the creativity of the set designers and film makers responsible for the likes of Metropolis or Haxan and ask ourselves how they did it.

EC: Maybe, that’s another reason. They were limited in their technical ability and resources. I wanted to kind of do the same and kind of like limit, not just shove an orchestra on let’s not do a Zimmer-esque score, let’s think about it more. That would be more pleasing on the ear I think, I think an audience would probably have liked, and may have expected me to do a string quartet piece with piano and voice. When they asked me I just kind of said I will do it, but not in the way you probably think I’m going to do it. They were really open to just “you do whatever you want” but maybe as a tip of the hat to the limiting of resources, I’ve tried to limit my set of screwdrivers and tools.

Thanks very much to Erland Cooper for his time and for chatting to us. Just to round things up, the performance is going on a mini tour starting at the Sage, Gateshead on February 24th, RNCM Manchester on 25th February and closes at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 26 February.

You can check out the trailer for The Wind on YouTube from the link below.

Tickets for the Manchester show are available here:

Tickets for the final performance in Leeds are available from: