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Briefly Noted: Björkestral Adaptation

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Björk's Vespertine: A Pop Album as an Opera, J. Yoon, A. Hashimoto, S. Oesch, Nationaltheater Mannheim, Hotel Pro Forma, M. Toogood

(released on April 12, 2019)
Oehms Classics OC978 | 77'51"
When Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year, there were some breathless comparisons of that hip-hop album to an opera or even Bach's St. Matthew Passion. I tried to put the album in line with the song cycle or song collection tradition of Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler, but that did not sit well with some listeners either. For what it's worth, the Pulitzer committee itself described DAMN. as "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life," which sounds an awful lot like a song cycle to me.

Is there just no way to analyze contemporary popular music in relation to older forms of music? How can one reconcile a mostly recorded music that is generally not written down with notated music that is intended to be performed live by other people? This odd new work, premiered last year in Mannheim, offers one possible bridge across that divide.

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Björk, Vespertine
Björk originally released her album Vespertine in 2001, just a few years before Alex Ross profiled the eclectic Icelandic singer for The New Yorker. Back then Alex wrote that the album "was a homecoming of a different kind —- a swerve toward a more intimate, chamber-music style of performance, without any of the heavy beats that had made her earlier music amenable to clubgoers." In other words, it makes sense that this album could be made into a classical work, in this case, an opera.

Björk's surreal lyrics do not suggest a continuous narrative, but the Danish artist group Hotel Pro Forma wove a story involving a scientist, her Doppelgänger, a Cloud Boy, and an Illuminated Man. The Children's Chorus and Women's Chorus of the Nationaltheater Mannheim serve as the Stones and Landscape, respectively, filling out the lines layered onto each other by Björk through multi-tracking. The album's twelve songs are presented in the same order, augmented with ten atmospheric interludes by the collective's three composers, Roman Vinuesa, Peter Häublein, and Jan Dvořák. The adapters describe many hours transcribing the album so that it could be read by the performers, and the electronics of the original album are all reworked for the orchestra of entirely acoustic instruments, with some unusual additions, conducted by Matthew Toogood.

The result, a curiosity more dreamlike and less rhythmically driven than its pop original, is not really recommended as much as offered for consideration. Twin sopranos Ji Yoon and Aki Hashimoto, sometimes shadowed by treble Simon Oesch, do their best to approximate the breathy, quasi-yodeling style of Björk, vocal quirks noted in the transcription of the album. One of the songs, "Frosti," is adapted as an instruments-only piece, and baritone Raymond Ayers gets a turn at imitating Björk in the more dissonant, almost Brittenesque "An Echo, a Stain." Mostly the operatic version loses the freshness and originality of Björk, while the greater variety of instrumental and vocal sounds add many additional colors, underscoring the sameness of the pop songs.

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