AVA / Erland Cooper

Sage, Gateshead

2 December 2019

I'm sitting in the best seat in the best concert hall in the country. There is an intriguing array of instruments on stage and a big screen is showing a beautiful film of what I assume is Orkney, which is where Erland Cooper is from and writes his music about, and I'm already suspecting tonight will be something special.

It's an odd audience. Normally I can look round and tell what kind of gig I'm at: this is a rock audience, or this is a folk audience, or this is a classical audience. I look round to night at an audience that defies categorisation.

And that really sums up tonight's bands. Whoever decided AVA and Erland Cooper fitted on the same bill was a genius, because they both play the kind of music that ... that you really can't put into a convenient pigeonhole. Let's not do them the disservice of putting them in a genre straightjacket, and just call it music. Beautiful music.

I have seen AVA before so I knew what to expect, and they don't disappoint. In fact, they exceed expectations tonight. With their dazzling lighting and powerful amplification, you could easily think you were watching a rock band. They use backing tracks for percussion and I think there may be some subtle looping on the violin, and the music is full of drama, but at the heart of it is just the lush harmonic interplay of the piano and violin, every texture of the sound crystal clear in this acoustically perfect hall even though it's amplified to the point where you can feel the bass piano chords deep in your chest. They sound absolutely beautiful.

They play for precisely 30 minutes, but I would have listened for however long they kept playing. But they had to make way for ice cream, I mean, the interval (with ice cream), leaving the second hour of the show to Erland Cooper.

I haven't seen Cooper before, so I was interested to see how he could bring to life one of the most beautiful albums of the year.

And the answer is ... with so much heart and emotion that I just cry all the way through it. This is magical. This is what music should be like.

There is a string quartet and a piano, and something that looks like a vintage mini Moog, and subtle electronics, and taped sound effects, and a wordless soprano vocal floating over everything. His compositions come to life with so much subtle, aching beauty that I ... no, I honestly don't have words for it. I wish I hadn't had to wake up from it.

Erland Cooper himself is an engaging personality and host, somehow humble and larger-than-life at the same time, handling the occasional technical error with grace and humour, and leading us through the story of the music. He seems to have too much energy for one body to contain: when he's not darting between piano, Moog, and alarmingly large bank of electronics, he's prowling round the stage and conducting, or just urging on, the band. At one point, he jumps down into the audience and sits down to just listen to the band play. He has the idea of killing all the amplification from the sound desk at one point and just letting us hear the pure sound of the instruments, and you can do that in this hall because it's the most perfect hall in the world, and it's just

Just magical.

I want to hear it all again.