Erland Cooper: Folded Landscapes, Barbican, music review: ‘Lots of heart but not much head’

Erland Cooper on piano, with the melting ice sculpture taking centre stage. Photograph: Owen Tozer

The fight against climate change is all the rage right now, or at least raging, and art is reflecting this urgent battle.

Enter into the frantic scramble of conscious shows “nature songwriter” Erland Cooper and friends.

I reviewed Cooper back in 2020, mask strapped around my sweaty mug, and was spirited to his home on the Orkney Islands. It was a dazzling mix of poetry, bird song and delicate musicality. All of these things are present in this event, amplified and then some.

Stood around a melting and vaguely phallic ice sculpture is the Scottish Ensemble orchestra, looking a lot like Macbeth’s witches after a heavy recruitment drive.

Cooper bounces on and begins motioning with an expressive hand like a circus ringmaster.

Plugging his new album Folded Landscapes, the event is more a theatrical extravaganza than a simple gig. I mean, who goes to plain old gigs anymore? How embarrassing.

The album is a flowing conceptual statement on the warming planet.

‘Crystalline voice’: Cooper tinkling the keys. Photograph: Owen Tozer

Each “movement” (or song for the rest of us) was recorded at a different temperature, from zero to record highs.

This is attempted in the Barbican’s Pit space, and the aim is to eventually watch the ice sculpture melt away.

So far so good. Throw in poet laureate Simon Armitage (casual-like) for a couple of lines, Ellie Neate’s twittering soprano, and a tonne of spoken word, and you have an evening heavily pregnant with well-meaning themes and wafting smoke.

But meaning well isn’t always the same as doing well, is it?

Compared to recent eco-shows in the same venue, such as Katie Mitchell’s bicycle-powered debut A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, this is well… not that.

Firstly, the whacking great ice sculpture. Dripping? Yes. Cracking? Yes. Dramatically crashing to the floor like the crumbling glaciers of Greenland? Sadly no.

Also, the temperature in The Pit never changes and one dreads the energy burnt in attempting to melt the frozen standing stone, particularly with the surrounding body heat of 50 or so captive humans. Lots of show, but not a lot of do.

This leads me oh so sweetly onto the man, the myth himself.

Erland Cooper possesses a crystalline singing voice and a heart that bleeds for the planet. He dives around with a backwards flat cap orchestrating the whole spectacle, but not doing much himself.

When he sits still for a second, we get some nice piano work, but instead of the clear-as-a-Scottish-loch vocals, we get an odd list of Scottish place names.

Armitage is difficult to understand due to a muffled sound set-up. Neate’s skylark tones are pleasing but merely singing. The strings skid and scatter in atmospheric ways, birdsong recordings spin and chirp, and the pianos plonk away as domestic sounds blend with swirling projections overhead.

But everything feels skin deep.

The patronising voiceover begging us to save the planet is full platitudes that are unlikely to change minds.

How about showing us the damage that rising sea levels will do to Cooper’s own home of Orkney? What about the issues in store for the birds singing merrily away on his tape recording? Where is the link between a vague sense of guilt and ecological caring and what we are experiencing on stage? Would you understand any of this without a blurb? I heavily doubt it. It’s a slowly warming mess, with lots of heart but not much head.

Cooper dives to and fro with hands clasped and head nodding in self-congratulatory appreciation, but the evening could do with a simplification of its themes.

The album is a triumph for conceptual musical art but the night proceeds to muddle and mess along until a rather abrupt end turfs us out into the thawing night.

I wanted crashing shards of ice falling onto the front row’s guilty, dry feet. What can I say? I’m only human.

Erland Cooper: Folded Landscapes ran from 11-13 May at the Barbican.

To find out about what’s coming up at the venue, visit