By Cristina Schreil
In their 20th anniversary season, the Los Angeles-based string collective VSQ—the Vitamin String Quartet—is doing something big. Known for their classical arrangements of popular-music songs, VSQ delved deep into one artist who’s also known for pushing the envelope: Björk.
The 13-track album, which debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s Classical Album Chart, isn’t VSQ’s first interpretation of the Icelandic songstress’ work. But, it’s the first deep dive—and a fresh take, they say. “Her albums each have a bit of an era feeling into them and we wanted to delve into more since we last explored Björk,” says Leo Flynn, VSQ creative director. Flynn also adds that the process of crafting the album was emblematic of VSQ’s collaborative process and modern sensibilities. “It did present a lot of rigorous creative conversation and moments about how do we as VSQ arrive at our answer to this musical organism that she puts forward? How do we do this, not just as string players, but also VSQ?”
For the first time, the album also comes with a series of concept videos, something VSQ has wanted to do for a while, says CMH Label Group Creative Director James Curtiss. “Ultimately this is just one big love letter to her and her work.”
We caught up with members of the collective—Curtiss, Flynn, violist Lauren Baba and violinist Amanda Lo—who delved into the album’s process, why covering Björk presents deeper artistic challenges, and why trust is vital to this kind of project.
What was the genesis of this project idea? Was there a specific lightbulb moment?
JAMES CURTISS: I’ve been a fan of Björk’s for the better part of 27 years, so I’ve always wanted to do more with her music than what had been done previously by earlier teams at Vitamin. The initial release had been done well over a decade ago and hadn’t hit much beyond her first three to four albums. There’s so much more music beyond those albums, so many opportunities to do something really adventurous or cutting. At the same time, I wanted a chance to do some new arrangements and recordings of material that had been covered previously.
How are the musicians chosen for this?
FLYNN: We work with a pool of really wonderful musicians and they all have their own characteristics, way about them, and sound. Ideally when we’re concepting a project maybe we have an idea of who we like in particular try for a certain combination, a certain chemistry that feels like it aligns with a certain artist’s music. We start there. Since we do work with different musicians and they all have their own lives, careers, and activities in their own right, not everyone is always available. Some of that can be down to, “Who would we love to see come together and can we make it happen?”
What was your first reaction upon hearing about this project?
AMANDA LO: It drudged up both beautiful and dark memories. Björk’s work has had a very marked influence on my life.
JIM MCMILLEN: My first reaction was that this was going to be a very exciting project, but a heck of a lot of work. First of all, her music is very complicated and draws from a lot of different styles: classical, avant garde, pop, folk. It is both harmonically and rhythmically complex, and would require a lot of thought in the arranging process. There is a lot of feedback and back and forth to come up with compelling string versions. You simply cannot phone in Björk. The music was quite difficult to perform. It had to be written hard to stay true to the depth of the original source material, and thus required excellent musicians to pull it off—there had to be rehearsals to get it together. Unlike most Hollywood projects, we had to play it at the level of a well-rehearsed band going into the studio.
Do you connect to Bjork’s artistry in any particular way, or draw inspiration from her work, or are a fan in general?
BABA: I have been a fan of Bjork for years and appreciate her deep sense of musicality and originality.
FLYNN: I personally find a lot of solace in her music and a healing and a tenderness, even in some of the manic moments. She’s trying to engage what’s going on in the larger world, as big and scary and crazy as that can be, and meet it at that level and bring it all down to a place where you know it’s OK.
LO: Absolutely, 1,000 percent. Massive admirer. I think most of the VSQ members share this sentiment.I was first introduced to Björk in college, while I was going through a particularly difficult time. “Wanderlust” was the first tune I listened to and I was mesmerized. I started improvising because of her music, a skill that I feel like I’m still honing every day but one that has gifted me so many career opportunities. I took a production class because I wanted to try and understand how she was creating all of these sounds. I used to stomp through the NYC subway with “Army of Me” blasting in my ears; it was the reason I got to anything on time back then.
Did you ever perform with Bjork?
LO: I had the chance to perform with her a few years back. A lot of musicians who work with VSQ have as well! The shows were some of the most powerful experiences of my life. My stand partner for one of the shows was one of my oldest friends; I shared a stand with her for four years back in youth orchestra. That brought back great memories from very formative years of my musical upbringing. The rehearsals were equally special; hearing Björk’s tiny, clear voice on my talk back, giving her feedback about the charts during rehearsal, boggled my mind. She was as kind and as brilliant as you’d imagine.
How was the album’s program chosen?
CURTISS: You have to look at an expansive catalog for most artists. With Björk, that’s a pretty varied selection of material. You pull it all in and start to look at what it is you wanna cover with the repertoire. Hits, personal favorites, things that seem like they’ll work on strings, things you want to challenge yourselves to make work on strings; there’s so many reasons you wind up with the dozen or so tracks that comprise a full-length. A good chunk of the record represents a lot of her early work, as so many fan favorites come from the first four albums. But, like I said, as a fan I wanted to focus on quite a few of her later tracks, some of which represent some of the most complex and unusual pieces on the record. We wanted to make something for every Björkfan, but also make a compelling string album as well.
What about Björk’s language or artistry aligns well with VSQ’s artistry?
CURTISS: This may sound a little, I don’t know, arrogant, but I think VSQ and Björk tend to sit at the same liminal intersection between classical and contemporary, straddling both worlds, but coming from only slightly different approaches. We both tend to play with wildly contrasting idioms, covering a lot of different terrain in pop, electronic, classical, alternative, etc. I also like that Björk’s music can be both beautiful and confrontational and I like to think that VSQ can do that in equal measure as well. Instrumentally, strings tend to run that emotional gamut better than almost anything else, save for maybe the human voice.
What about paying tribute to this artist is exciting to people?
FLYNN: I feel like there’s so much in common in a potentially explosive way. Bjork is as much of a pop music or contemporary music it’s also very often, in its own way, chamber music, orchestral music. There’s a lot of commonalities musically. Different from us that playing in a string quartet classical instrumentation but dedicated to contemporary music, contemporary genres. What a treat to have an artist where you can start there with Björk and then follow her into the gnarliest places and the most beautiful and transcendent places.
VSQ has covered Björk before; how was this deep dive more satisfying or interesting than previous interpretations?
CURTISS: It was just so much more exciting to get in there and spend so much time with Jim and the players, workshopping these charts, rehearsing the performances. It all gave these pieces a real personal touch from all involved and it was great to get to see what it was about Bjork and the music that excited every single individual person involved in making the record. There is a real immediacy to how we prepped and captured this work and I think you can hear it in recordings.
FLYNN: I’m proud to see folks willingly and joyfully going into that process and excited to see the things that we’re making. I’m just looking forward to doing it even better the next time.
What are some examples of musical choices you all made in the workshopping and recording process that shows how deeply you delved into the music?
MCMILLEN: Much of the delving of which you speak is done in the arranging process. That is where we decide which of the four instruments gets the melody at any given time. That is also where the background rhythmic and harmonic figures are decided. I tend to get into the nuts and bolts of the music: What is the chord progression; what is the drumbeat; what atmospheric elements are in her original mix; how does the melody lay on top of the chord structure; how can I make our four musicians sound as full and compelling as her original mix, yet be true to the playing techniques of these 18th century instruments?
I make a best guess and then get input from James and Leo. Many times they will come back with something along the lines of, “that is good, but could you emphasize the mysterious, driving, (supply your own adjective here) aspect of the song, and place a little less emphasis on the (supply your own adjective here) aspect?” Or maybe, “Could we feature the cello instead of the viola on the slow part?”
When it gets in front of the players, adjustments have to be made as well.
Perhaps one chord voicing is difficult to play on the viola, but there is a simple voicing that will work just as well in the arrangement; OK, let’s fix it. Perhaps where the rhythm is complex—and these pieces are complex—the players part can be simplified, or to make it groove harder move one of the notes forward or backward by a 16th note. Such little things can make a world of difference in groove and playability, and you don’t really know that until you get it in front of the musicians.
There was much talk of how Björk’s rhythmically complex melodies lay on the stringed instruments, and in the end we used the players interpretation of the lyrics as much as the written melodies. This is always an issue, because there are things that you can sing, that you just cannot play on an instrument.
FLYNN: Björk as a vocalist is an artform. How do you interpret that on an instrument, let alone as someone else singing? The phrasing. The utterances. What does it mean for her to emphasize this but not that? What works best? What is the interpretation that we want to take here on the stringed instrument? Fidelity to the artist’s original delivery versus the interpretation that we feel we need to make here, right? Or, is it more powerful or more than we need to say than simply follow her lead in terms of phrasing and dynamics. That sort of thing. That’s something that everyone had to come together on a good bit of material.
Players: What musical choices did you make that felt like a deep dive?
LO: Extended techniques for days. Lots of bow crunching and harmonics that would upset your pets. Things they told us not to do when we were younger.
BABA: We spent time figuring out how to capture Björk’s sonic universe and unique vocal phrasing by trying out different bowings, figuring out where to place accents, what notes to emphasize, deciding where and when to leave space between notes, and coordinating the balance between the vocal melody and background textures. I personally found it beneficial to write out the lyrics over melodies to further my internalization of Bjork’s unique musical language.
What was the recording process like from your perspective?
LO: Honestly, it was challenging. There were a lot of experienced minds in that room and a lot of differing, albeit great, opinions at times. There were often contradicting ideas about the best way to go about this huge endeavor. I mean, we were covering Björk! How do you go about translating the rhythm of her melodies in your own voice, while attempting to recreate her most unique timbres and melismas? Not to mention all of the production. I could go on and on. Ultimately, everyone cared so much about the project and that mutual dedication led us through to the finish line. I know everyone has little things here and there that they would maybe want to change, but it’s always like that. A crew of perfectionists struggling to conceive a united vision.
MCMILLEN: As the producer and primary arranger on the album, it was challenging. In the end I felt my job was to try and take everyone’s input into account, and come up with a cohesive sounding album, and to make sure that the quality was up to the lofty VSQ recording standards that we have been working toward for years now.
Looking back at VSQ history, what thrills you most about what the players have all accomplished?
LEO I think that this record represents something we’ve been trying to do in the last few years where we are trying to empower the players and really make their voices heard in the creative. I think that’s evident in some of the performance and appearances we’ve done in the recent years and taking that model and learning from that are more collaborative process, which is not easy. You actually have to have even more of a structure to contain that and to make it viable for everyone involved so it doesn’t become anarchy or randomness.