MusicMade possible by

The New Zealand chamber orchestra brave enough to tackle the music of Björk

Blackbird Ensemble musical director Claire Cowan talks to James Manning about adapting Björk’s eclectic back catalogue for the orchestra ahead of this week’s run of concerts in Auckland.

New Zealand chamber orchestra Blackbird Ensemble are celebrating experimental Icelandic artist Björk this Wednesday 8th to Saturday 11th November at Auckland’s Q Theatre.

Titled Björk: All is Full of Love, the Ensemble will reimagine a range of fan favourites and deep cuts spanning 1993’s landmark Debut to 2015’s Vulnicura.

The four nights are well-timed, with the release of the genre-defying musician’s ninth studio album Utopia scheduled for November 24th. First single ‘The Gate’ signals yet another step in the 51-year-old’s artistic (r)evolution.

The Spinoff recently sat down with Blackbird Ensemble musical director Claire Cowan. She’s a composer herself – her music has been performed by soloists and ensembles across the globe – and she works as an orchestral arranger, supporting local talent including Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn, Anika Moa and Jon Toogood. Cowan also writes soundtracks for television and film.

Björk has an extensive, eclectic discography. From 1993’s ‘Human Behaviour’ through to 2017’s ‘The Gate’, she’s created music from an incredibly diverse palette of sounds. How did you approach creating the setlist?

I took every album and listened to every song. Heaps I hadn’t listened to and heaps are different and not so to my taste, while others are really to my taste. A lot is just so avant-garde too. I was aware of giving the audience all the ones they were attached to, but also giving them something new that we could really enhance as an orchestra, and be impressive because we can play them live. I basically picked one or two songs from every album. None of the Sugarcubes stuff because we started from when she went solo. There are so many songs from Homogenic I really wanted to put on but I tried to be a little equal from what I took from each album, because I’m sure she loves all her albums equally and created them with the same fierce intensity.

Do you have a favourite Björk album?

It would have to be between Vespertine and Homogenic. Vespertine was the first album I became really attached to but then Homogenic has a lot of my favourite songs on it. As an album Vespertine works altogether and the sound sources are really inspired. She did it with Matmos, that group that do really unusual sound sources for beats.

How many musicians will be performing in this configuration of Blackbird Ensemble?

It does go up to 25, even 30 sometimes, but for this show it’s only ten plus four singers. We’re using multi-instrumentalists so it’s more than ten instruments. I found that around nine or ten players is much easier to work with, more collaborative, it can work more like a band. With 25 it’s very much like an orchestra and I have to be conductor and director and it’s harder to get a really tight-knit sound. Also it’s more affordable, just! It’s not really a money-making thing for everyone.

Björk is at times industrial, electronic, symphonic, yet always her idiosyncratic self. How tricky has it been adapting her material for the orchestra?

[As far as singers are concerned] we’ve got Jessie [Cassin], Anna [Coddington] and Sarah [Belkner] who are all Björk fans, and then Teeks who’s not really heard of Björk before but is willing to give it a go. For any singer it’s a challenge to try and interpret her works because she’s so original. Her phrasing is so tricky and unique; she sings always around the beat, never on the beat. Trying to interpret it in a new way and have some individuality about it while also trying to perform it true to the actual song is a challenge for everybody.

Arranging them, I’ve done a mixture of keeping true to the originals – like, doing fairly straight covers of the ones that are more impressive to do that with – and then ones that perhaps are more familiar to other people, that I could really change up and people would recognise that I’ve turned it inside out and made it our own song. I didn’t want to do that for every song, because people might come away and feel a bit disappointed that they haven’t heard that beautiful lush version they’re so attached to. I want to keep the audience happy but also show off the band’s capabilities in reproducing the complicated stuff that Björk’s produced for an album, which is quite different to her live performances. I’ve studied both and the way she does things live is not always the same on the album.

Blackbird Ensemble

Her work is always very visual too. I imagine working on the lighting, costumes and set has been just as crucial as the music.

Yeah, I just geeked out and researched the hell out of her and did lots of Pinteresting and looked at all her costumes, different albums and videos. There’s that very kitsch-y early Björk with so many colours and that almost anime, Japanese-y feel and then there’s a more serious, slick, shiny, revolutionary, digital Björk. We just picked some themes around her, what’s most important to her. There’s nature, human sexuality and the electricity element. Her father’s an electrician so she often has some electric zap-y sounds in her music. But within that there’s heaps of room to move because we’re taking stuff from all her albums.

It’s been a big year for you, taking home the APRA for Best Original Music in a Series Award at this year’s Silver Scrolls, for your soundtrack to the television series Hillary. You were also one of three recipients of the 2017 APRA Professional Development Award, worth $10,000 a pop. Congratulations!

Thanks! Hillary seems like a long time ago now. I finished it at the beginning of last year but it didn’t air until the middle of last year. That means this year I was eligible for a Scroll. It was really good to have that award. I never usually get an invite to the Silver Scrolls because I don’t make enough money through APRA, it’s all like a tiered system. It’s usually for songwriters rather than soundtrack-makers like me. But it was nice to be acknowledged and celebrated.

There must be certain creative differences between writing for TV and writing for an orchestra. Can you comment on these?

With Blackbird, the whole thing is my artistic creation. Although I’m borrowing this from whoever artist we’re covering, I take absolute delight in all the detailing of everything. I get to select who I want to work with as a lighting designer, a costume designer, what sort of look and feel we’re going to have for the stage, what players I’m going to use. It feels to me like I’m directing more than composing, even though I’m arranging which is basically composing and adding melodies and harmonies over the top of something that’s already there.

Whereas writing for a TV series, you’ve got strict deadlines, they’re usually pretty quick, it’s round-the-clock work. I’m always checking in with two different people, the director and producer and sometimes a third person. It’s a lot more intense but I love it because I’m creating original stuff and I’m recording heaps. With Blackbird, there’s a lot of organising involved. I have a producer and publicist but there’s heaps of stuff that needs to be thought about from one person, and it’s me. I feel like I bring this on myself, but maybe I’m very attached to it. I don’t want to hand it over to anyone else who I don’t trust enough.

At what stage of writing do you find yourself most challenged, regardless of which format you’re writing for?

Writing music is really hard at a certain point. At the beginning and end it’s fine but in the middle, it gets really tricky. If you’re having trouble with the middle it makes you question the beginning and you just want to chuck it all out. It’s problem-solving after problem-solving after problem-solving, I find. With composition, anyway. Especially classical music, which I find the hardest to write. Artistically, it has to be on such a high level and it’s always scrutinised by critics which is not a world I’m really comfortable in. It’s why I moved into soundtracks and more theatre and crossover type things. Classical music is very high-brow, it’s not of the people so much anymore. It used to be, it used to be like pop music and now it’s not. Now it’s this elitist thing, so that’s why Blackbird is trying to bring it back.

Famous last words for those attending the shows?

I hope they fall in love with Björk as much as we have, if they hadn’t already. And that they take away lasting memories of our take on her music. A smile and a sense of magic about the whole thing.


The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.