ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: The beauty of Tove Jansson’s 1961 essay ‘The Island’ is gently evoked through spoken word, field recordings and a Pärt-like distilled minimalist score.

Tove Jansson, beloved author of the Moomin books, lived with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä for thirty summers on an austere island in the gulf of Finland named Klovharun. This experience, which deeply influenced Jansson’s aesthetic and thought, is explored in a new joint exhibition between Walthamstow Wetlands and the William Morris Gallery entitled ‘The Woman Who Fell In Love With An Island.’ Erland Cooper, himself an island native from Orkney, was commissioned to work with field recordings from Kirsi Ihaliainen and a reading of an essay by Tove Jansson on Klovharun by her niece Sophia Jansson to create a new forty minute suite of music to accompany the exhibition.

The Island 1961 is divided into two parts. In the first half, centre stage is given to Sophia Jansson’s reading with Cooper accompanying and weaving in birdcalls, waves and fire-crackles. In the second part of the work, there is a minimalist instrumental response to the writing in three flowing parts.

Listening to the essay part of the recording, I was reminded of Tolkien’s introduction to Lord of the Rings where he speaks about the difference between allegory, which he disliked, and applicability. It is a struggle to create the distilled purity of Erland Cooper’s minimalism and the type of fables Jansson or Tolkien created. Authors and composers have to allow a reader to bring and take what they need from the experience without twisting them out of shape straining for allegorical authority.

The Island 1961 achieves this handsomely. There is plenty here for a Tove Jansson fan wanting to engage with an important part of her biography. There is also much on offer for lovers of the natural world, particularly those with an eye and ear for beauty beneath the ‘dreary protective camouflage’ of the everyday. Cooper has an extraordinary sense for musical geography. The violin work is particularly supple; suggesting rain on cabin windows and gulls crying as they ride the next thermal.

Intentionally or not, Covid is part of the context of all music in 2021, and perhaps the most poignant applicability of the text of The Island 1961 is the way it speaks to the experience of lockdown. Tove Jansson’s words are so recognisable in the present. She casually considers the interplay between Klovharun being a place of isolation and a shield. Jansson explores the ways that being alone changes sensual perception and draws out the imaginative life. Life’s fragility is countered by routine and the repetition of mundane tasks. And then this quote: ‘The clock stopped quite a while ago and it is a long time since you wore shoes.’ Amen, Tove Jansson. The Island 1961 speaks to the frozen tears locked in the heart that maybe will melt some day.

For those who have encountered Erland Cooper through his Orkney Triptych, his work on The Island 1961 represents an extension rather than re-invention of his style. The three sections of instrumental music are in a classical contemporary mode rather than electronica or chamber-pop. As with his piece ‘A Nightingale Sings Outside Our Window’, Cooper is reverent and empathetic with his use of Kirsi Ihalainen’s field recordings. Much of the music in the instrumental section is pure and circular, reminiscent of tintinnabuli style of Arvo Pärt. He is fluent in the perpetual stillness and motion of the sea. Knowing that he was kept away from Orkney for periods of lockdown, perhaps the drones rumbling in the background capture something of what it means for Cooper, like Jansson, to ‘yearn uncontrollably for my island.’

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