HBAF'19 / Spiegeltent / 24 October / By Rosheen Fitzgerald
There’s this thing I do when I taste a really great dish, at a pot luck, from a food truck, in a café or restaurant. I’ll get into the kitchen and try to recreate what I’ve tasted using memory and senses and the ingredients and tools at my disposal. The results tend to be deliciously imperfect, frequently disastrous, but have gleaned some of the most serendipitously innovative dishes of my repertoire.
This is the process by which Blackbird Ensemble’s creative director and probable genius, Claire Cowan (supported in arrangement by onetime vocalist Sarah Belkner) have produced the sumptuous aural repast that is All is Full of Love, retrofitting Icelandic virtuoso Björk’s preternatural electronica to be performed by live musicians.
Claiming the title of New Zealand’s most exciting chamber orchestra (take that, Red Priest!), Blackbird Ensemble is a female-led, female-heavy conflagration of multitalented musicians laying down their homage to one of the most idiosyncratic female talents of our times. There’s so much lush womanly juiciness going on here tonight that my ovaries are almost pulsing in time to the ripple of the wind across the red-tented roof.
Crystalline forms rendered in wire and what look like iridescent lighting gels (designed and constructed by Cowan herself) adorn the edges of a stage bedecked with a dizzying array of instruments. The musicians take their places in factory worker white jumpsuits, to be illuminated from within by colour changing fairy lights not unlike those worn by our illustrious host and hostess, Jamie and Ally. No symphony orchestra tuxedoes here, they’re dressed for work that may get messy.
Cowan faces her crew at the functional baby grand, stacked high with computers and keys of all description, from a tiny red piano to a child’s plastic melodica; a celtic harp at her feet. She’s set apart as the leader of this ensemble by the tissue paper wings at her back and the phosphorescent cummerbund at her waist. Neon LED’s stream from her eyebrows to her hairline.
It’s a device shared by the two female guest vocalists, but other than that and the ubiquitous white costuming, here is where the similarity ends. Sultry-voiced Priya Sami, whose sound flits from wondrous child to wonderful wailing woman, is clad in clam shells and sparkling white boots. Striking in white feathered crown, Anna Coddington is resplendent in a stiffly constructed three-piece gown that pleasingly resists her frenetic motion, all the while her voice slips over the lyrics and up and down the scales like silk. Male vocalist, Mara TK, sports a shoulder mounted piupiu and a rich crooning bass.
Not one of these singers is trying to be Björk. And thank goodness for that. Cowan is smart enough to know that there is no one who can be Björk but Björk. There are no faux Icelandic accents here, instead each vocalist inhabits the songs in their own authentic style, digging deep to a wellspring of passion articulated in every muted phrase, every shattering roar.
The ten-strong instrumental ensemble is ostensibly comprised of four strings, two woodwind, a brass, two percussion with Cowan conducting from the keys, but in practice musicians flow between sections when and where they are needed — harmonising here; picking up a kalimba or a kazoo there; clapping softly into a cello mic; providing an otherworldly, densely whispered chorus in stereo. Cowan runs a tight ship, but with none of the flourish of an orchestra conductor. There’s a sense that this is a well-oiled machine whose buttons can be pushed with the merest flick of the wrist, or inflection of a neon eyebrow.
It’s an incredibly challenging programme, demanding rare skill of the performers, not just in jumping around between roles, but in the arrhythmic, often discordant, counterpoints created. It’s work done efficiently in the studio with the flick of a switch, rendered by human hands using innovative devices such as the flap of an umbrella; the click and ding of a vintage typewriter.
And yet, for all its musical complexity, Cowan steers clear of the rocky shores of Björk’s more experimental works. Though every studio album, with the exception of Vulnicura, is represented, it’s weighted towards her more accessible earlier career. Again, this feels like wisdom, both in terms of audience engagement — serving up favourites such as Venus as a Boy, Hyperballad, Bachelorette and Jòga — and in terms of practicality. These players are working up enough of a sweat without adding the mental contortions of the darker reaches of Volta or Biophilia. I can’t help but wonder if there is a discarded arrangement of Earth Intruders languishing in a compost somewhere, the musical version of my own expensive and inedible bouillabaisse.
It’s an atypical Arts Festival audience, disproportionately made up of musicians and musical aficionados. There is whooping and hollering and standing ovations and the feeling of a deep appreciation for the ambition of what has been strived for here, what has been achieved. Despite the unseasonal chill both performers and congregation are released into the night enthused, effervescent, all full of love.
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