Iconic singer/composer Björk celebrated by Claire Cowan’s Blackbird Ensemble

Tour-Makers presents:
The Blackbird Ensemble
Claire Cowan (director, arranger, small strings, keyboard)
Charmian Keay (violin) / Peau Halapua (violin) / Rachel Grimwood (viola)
Rachel Wells (‘cello) / Sean Martin-Buss (sax) / Callum Passells (sax/clarinet)
Henry Swanson (horn) / Chris Townsend (drums) / Rebecca Celebuski (percussion)

Vocals: Priya Sami, Anna Coddington, Mara TK

Shed 6, TSB Arena, Waterfront
Thursday, 17th October, 2019

Reviewed jointly with Bec Coogan

Fans of the Icelandic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir (known internationally by her first name, Björk)  will probably have little more than a certain “academic” interest in the following review, written by someone, myself, who’s a dyed-in-the-wool follower of what’s popularly known as “classical” music, and, up until attending this concert didn’t know even whether the singer in whose honour the event took place was male or female! I’d vaguely heard the name Bjork every now-and-then, but, as with most entertainers in these “popular” kinds of genres, knew next-to-nothing about her or her music.

When I was asked to write a review, I found myself more than usually interested in the idea upon discovering that the “Blackbird Ensemble” presenting the music was directed by Claire Cowan, whose music I had previously encountered as a young “up-and-coming” “classical” composer. But even having noted that “crossover” aspect, I’m not going to even attempt to try and synthesise two creative worlds, in as much as it appears to me that the means through which the music of someone like Bjork and any “classical” composer one cares to name are so different that one has to adopt correspondingly alternative kinds of “receptors” in response. In reviewing this concert for “Middle C” I wanted merely to explore, albeit gingerly, and with the help of my niece, Bec Coogan, who attended the concert with me, those kinds of receptors so as to be able to communicate what I felt about the concert to the “Middle C” readership.

This event was styled as a “show” rather than as a concert, implying that there were significant visual components in the presentation, giving it a “music theatre” kind of character. From what I’ve seen of concert presentations of popular music of late, it’s a kind of “genre” in itself, bringing into play theatrical techniques such as lighting, movement around the platform and occasional highlighting of specific musical skills. There is, of course a display element in all forms of music performance, though non-theatrical “classical” music presentations tend to downplay this. Here, there was for each separate item, spectacularly varied lighting involving the backdrops as well as the onstage activity, with the garb of both the instrumentalists and the singers strikingly Illuminated by lights fixed onto the costumes, resembling animated Christmas trees!

The singers and instrumentalists (including Claire Cowan, the music director) all wore identical garb, contributing to the idea of a unified “ensemble”, which I really liked – the “sameness” gave the message of the music added force by allowing our attention to move from those visuals to “what” the ensemble was doing. The three singers who performed the songs variously as solos, duos or trios all had microphones, as has been the custom in popular music genres for some time now, a reflection of accompaniments whose degree of amplification requires any singer to be similarly “helped” – I wasn’t sure that the quartet of string players each had instruments that were “electric” or otherwise, but every instrumentalist seemed to me to be “microphoned”, allowing all contributions to be “heard”. Despite the potential for “overload” I thought the decibel levels nicely-judged throughout, actually, the sound full and rich at climaxes without ever being overbearing.

All of this was in aid of a desire by the group’s members to pay homage to one of contemporary music‘s iconic figures, Icelandic “pop-star” Björk, regarded as one of the contemporary “fin de siècle” music greats as a composer, vocalist. arranger and producer. I went to the show with my niece, who’s a rock musician herself, and who, naturally enough, “knew” Björk and her music. Afterwards, she said (among other comments) something that I thought truly interesting, that the performance came across to her as a “homage” to Bjork by being something “further inspired” by her, and not merely a slavish copy of a collection of “hits” – though I didn’t know the original versions of these songs, Cowan had “arranged” most of them for her ensemble, so that they seemed to come up with what seemed to me appropriately fresh and immediate  force and colour, by way of presenting a “response” to Björk’s artistry and creativity (the songs Hidden Place, Human Behaviour, and Venus as a Boy were arranged by Sarah Belkner).

I thought the performances were terrific – all the instrumentalists shone and “impacted” with various solos and harmonic or contrapuntal combinations (as much a tribute to Cowan’s artistry as an arranger as to both her “model” and the musicians who were the conduit for the music) – and the three singers in their various ways both as soloists and in duet or trio form all “climbed into” Björk’s singularly-expressed words with interesting results. I thought the two women, Priya Sami (after a somewhat subdued, and slightly “overlaid” beginning), and Anna Coddington, from the moment she launched into her first number, put across “total immersion” in what they were doing – in the vocalisings of both you could “feel” the connection with the material. Interesting though it was to have a male singer (Mara TK) celebrating a female vocalist/composer, I found myself wondering why I wasn’t so enthusiastic about what he was doing – he seemed less involved, more like the “guest” artist (as the vocalists were referred to in the programme), rather than, as each of the women singers demonstrated in spadefuls, an integral part of the show.

My niece, Bec Coogan, with whom I went to the show remembered Björk from “way back” in her musical life, being struck at the time by the extent to which the singer brought something raw, a more unrefined emotion, into her music, which, back then, was unusual to the genre – of course there were plenty of non-mainstream people pushing those boundaries, but Björk seemed somehow uniquely able to bring those qualities with her as something new and distinctive in popular music culture – something along with what my niece called (somewhat tongue-in-cheek-like) Björk’s “cute pixie Icelandness”! It was, of course, an era in which women began asserting themselves and their sex in the western world – though Bec thought in Björk’s case it was as much to do with her individuality and strength as a creator as her sex, with her music speaking for itself in new and exciting ways.

As a result of the concert, the name Björk has for me “fleshed out” via her music and some spectacularly-presented performances of it, the “show” bearing the overall title “All is full of love”. I’m sure most people present would have readily identified each song as it came up, and wouldn’t have been at all worried that the programme didn’t have a performing list (which I would have appreciated!) – however the production and the musicians, together with Björk’s music, “held” me for the duration and readily conveyed the feeling of being caught up with something of value.