One Saturday in mid-September, Victoria and Dan Rhodes packed a folding shovel into their car and drove the 14 miles from their home in Kirkwall, on the island of Orkney, to the town of Stromness. They parked and started climbing Brinkie’s Brae, a hill overlooking the town. But this was no typical afternoon walk for the married couple, both in their forties. They were on a mission to solve a mystery that had been vexing music fans for the last 16 months.
In the spring of 2021, Scottish composer Erland Cooper recorded a new album, permanently deleted the digital files, and buried a spool of magnetic tape containing the sole recording of his composition somewhere on Orkney. Cooper, himself an Orcadian, left a series of clues as to the tape’s whereabouts on his website. The idea was that – while people were searching for his work – earth, worms, peat and the elements would nibble away at the tape, altering and recomposing the 33-minute concerto on it. Cooper pledged to release the album in 2024 exactly as it sounds from the earth (if no-one found it, he was going to dig it up himself). He would also play it, as found, at a concert at the Barbican that year.
Cooper’s four online clues comprised maps, photos and ambiguous musical squiggles with an ‘R’ next to them. Amateur sleuths from Paris to Melbourne got involved in the quest. But none of them could match the determination and guile of the Victoria and Dan. That Saturday afternoon, nestling in the heather in the shadow of Brinkie’s Brae, Dan found what they were looking for: a smooth runestone carved with a symbol familiar to them from Cooper’s website.
“I started shouting but not so loud that anybody could hear us,” says Dan, keen to keep their discovery secret. They lifted the stone and started digging, carefully at first, then with their bare hands. They found a violin (falling apart), a Highland shortbread tin containing instructions and, beneath that, the tape itself. “It was just very exciting. It was almost like being six years old and having that sense of adventure back just for that minute,” Dan says.
Their search had thrown up numerous red herrings, taking them to an RSPB reserve on the north of the island and to Rousay, another island entirely. But knowledge of local geology allowed them to use Google’s satellite maps to identify rock formations glimpsed in Cooper’s videos.
Also, Cooper had recorded the album to mark the centenary of the birth of local poet George Mackay Brown, who wrote a 1979 essay called Under Brinkie’s Brae. It suddenly all made sense, although Victoria says cracking the clues drove them “a little bit” mad. “Everybody loves a mystery, don’t they?” says Dan. The tape is now drying out on top of a kitchen cabinet at home while they wait for Cooper to collect it.
Cooper himself seems both amazed that they found it and relieved it didn’t happen sooner. “It has been in the ground about a year and a half. And I always said if it stays in the soil a year I’d be happy because I was anxious that someone would find it sooner,” he says. “I joked with them that nature has spoken. It has kind of said, ‘I’ve had enough’ and popped it out of the oven. And they found it through quite a remarkable series of processes that were linked to geographical rock foundations.”
Part composer, part composter, Cooper says the whole exercise is a meditation on value and patience. “In a world of instant gratification, where the arts have often been pushed, prodded, squeezed, thrown around and become a commodity, I asked myself where is the value? At what point is it valuable to the person who makes it and at what point is it valuable to the person who listens to it? The act of waiting is part of the joy in creating and in listening,” he explains.
Cooper has been labelled “nature’s writer” in the past (“a bit embarrassing”) having written music influenced by native Orcadian birds and, earlier this year, providing a soundtrack called Music For Growing Flowers to a wildflower meadow installation in the moat of the Tower of London. But with this new album, which is called Carve the Runes Then Be Content With Silence, he is using the soil as his co-writer. It decomposes to recompose. What does he think the album, which comprises three movements for solo violin and a string ensemble, will sound like?
“It’s a great question. I have manipulated and damaged tapes before but for short periods, with salt, sunlight and seawater. They create these wobbles, this wow and flutter, drop-outs and crackles,” he says. When it comes to playing the album live, the orchestra will reinterpret the score. The noises caused by nature will become orchestral articulations.
Has he considered that the tape could be wiped completely? “This is what’s so joyous,” he says. “Imagine sitting in silence for 33 minutes. But it wouldn’t be silence. It would be white noise and thumps and plods. It would really feel like one part remembrance and one part celebration. And so be it if that’s the case. I suppose it’s conceptual art but the end result still matters, it’s not just about the process.” Given that the spool has been found reasonably soon after it was buried, though, he anticipates that it will contain both melody and music.
Some famous names have been involved in the journey, including arguably Britain’s most famous treasure hunter. When BBC Radio 4’s John Wilson tweeted about the venture last year, Anneka Rice excitedly replied, “Did somebody mention a treasure hunt?” Cooper also sent paper copies of his original score to three “guardians” to confirm that he didn’t “just put Abba’s greatest hits on tape and bury that”. The guardians are crime novelist Ian Rankin, Radio 3 presenter Elizabeth Alker, and the Modfather himself Paul Weller, with whom he has worked. “Weller keeps asking me, ‘Anyone found it yet?’” says Cooper.
Well, Paul, they have. Victoria and Dan Rhodes claim not to have done any amateur detective work before although Dan, who is quality controller at a salmon farm and a keen musician, is a fan of real-life TV sleuth Josh Gates. And, says Victoria, they both like crime dramas. “I’m a big fan of Columbo because it always has a conclusion where he always swindles the bad guy,” says Dan. One wonders whether Rankin’s Inspector Rebus would have beaten them to it. Somehow I doubt it.
Clue-solving aside, there is something refreshingly old school and elemental about the Carve the Runes project. In the wake of Emile Berliner’s invention of the gramophone in 1887, intrepid music hunters would travel the world to seek out new sounds and ‘capture’ them on cumbersome travelling recording rigs. Fred Gaisberg of The Gramophone Company undertook daring recording expeditions to Russia, India, China and Singapore, getting his hands dirty and having to physically douse his zinc master discs in acid in order to burn the grooves into them.
Song collectors such as John Clare, Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax scoured the world to metaphorically unearth supposedly lost or endangered folk music. The Cooper story harks back to this. It involves a literal unearthing of music, with all the grime, yomping, risk and adventure that this implies.
There’s comfort here too. For Victoria, who is a supervisor at Orkney’s Phoenix Cinema, the use of tape harks back to the days before the “everything now” digital revolution to which Cooper alludes. “When I first started at the cinema it was in 35mm film whereas now everything’s digital and you’ve got to compete with streaming. It’s not the same experience as going to see things in the cinema and having to wait for them,” she says.
The whole affair is also, a cynic might suggest, a fantastically clever publicity stunt for a new album. Cooper admits that there’s some theatre and a sense of “grand gesture” involved. But he says the driving force behind the project is a deep sense of curiosity. This aside, the music stands alone. “If I’m honest, if I hadn’t planted it I’d have been really happy to release it,” he says.
I tell him it reminds me of the stunt when pop provocateurs The KLF burnt a million quid on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994. Less expensive, obviously, but a similar comment on the transience – or otherwise – of stuff. “I had a drink with Bill Drummond [of The KLF]. I don’t know if he knows about this idea and I don’t think the conversation in any way informed my thinking. But he did say to me that a good idea should stand alone without its creator. That stuck with me a little bit,” he says. He doesn’t think the ideas are that similar. “A million pounds represents so many different variations of value. This [project is about] a value that is coming from within, and about how we care about the work we make.”
What happens next? Cooper will pick up the tape and do a “slow dry-out walk” with it to London, stopping to exhibit it at various galleries along the way (he is truly considering walking, or running, with it). He has also hung an oil painting outside writer Amy Liptrot’s dad’s barn on Orkney to be hammered by the elements. The battered art will feature on the album’s inner sleeve.
Even after having found the tape, Victoria and Dan are still seeing the full picture emerge. As our conversation winds up, Victoria shows me Cooper’s clue with the musical squiggles on it. The squiggles are actually sharps in B Major. Then there’s the ‘R’ next to them. Victoria holds up another of his riddles next to this one: a photo of a person with a piercing ray of light behind them. Taken together, they spell B-R-ray. Or Brae. I get goosebumps. “We didn’t get that until after we’d found it,” she says. With two years to go until the album is released, you wouldn’t bet against this musical treasure hunt throwing up yet more surprises still. Whatever the record sounds like, Cooper hopes that – rather like Victoria and Dan themselves – people will dig it.
Carve the Runes Then Be Content With Silence will be released by Mercury KX in June 2024