Icelandic a capella gets a dose of Aussie sunshine as the Sydney Chamber Choir takes on Björk.

The wild and wacky experimental music of Björk is about to be brought to Australia in a way that pays tribute to the eccentric influence of the Icelandic pop princess. Going Björk is a new collaborative work between Musical Directors Paul Stanhope of the Sydney Chamber Choir and Naomi Crellin of the Aria Award winning group The Idea of North. The two outfits join forces to bring Sydneysiders an extraordinary a capella experience, with specially commissioned works appropriating the work of Björk as well as other iconic Icelandic artists.

The project kicked off after a chat between Paul and Naomi about their mutual admiration for Scandinavian folk music, conducted in the most Australian way possible: over a barbecue. At the centre of the genre-bending fusion is Björk’s Medulla album, which in itself is an experiment in subversion, comprised entirely of singing and human vocal sounds. “Björk is a true artist in that she loves to subvert expectations. Her stylistic versatility comes across really strongly in her songs which draw from various sources as far and wide as big band through to Icelandic folks sources,” says Stanhope.

Naomi adds, “Her raw expression and willingness to step outside the musical box have lent a flavour to this collaboration I doubt many Australian audiences have been exposed to, and has stretched and lifted the singers to a different sphere.”

For a classical music outfit, the music of Björk has proven to be a new and unfamiliar beast that has pushed the choir to the limits of their abilities, but Stanhope is confident that they have got what it takes. “We are an adventurous group, so all the singers are up for the challenges! There are a few skills we are getting our heads around. If only we could download a ‘groove’ plugin! Naomi has been tutoring the group as to some stylistic elements and we are sure to be in the groove by the time of the gig.” 

Paul Stanhope with the Sydney Chamber Choir.

Although challenging, the project has been full of fun and rewarding moments for the pair. “For me, Naomi’s arrangement of It’s Oh So Quiet is wonderfully outrageous. It brings a smile to my face each time we sing it. All our arrangements have been carefully chosen to suit the choral medium. Björk’s music from the Medulla album begins with the sound of the choir as the source, so it makes perfect sense to perform a song like Voküro which works perfectly for us!

“It’s been a fun project, for sure. There are some great stylistic markings in Naomi’s arrangements. In one section we are supposed to sing ‘stripper-esque’. That made for quite a few smiles. The challenge of learning Icelandic pronunciation has also provided some lighter moments. But it’s all in a day’s work for Sydney Chamber Choir. We’ve done some pretty bizarre things in the past (including doing vocal warmups on a football field at 6.30am for a video installation piece!). We’re up for just about anything – except perhaps physical violence!”

Naomi Crellin is chief arranger of the project, with new arrangements from Sally Whitwell and Dan Walker to complete the programme. Walker “leapt at” the opportunity to explore the music of Sigur Ross, an Icelandic band he has long been a fan of. “The song I have chosen, Starálfur, in its original guise not only features the regular members of the band, but also the string quartet Amiina. I have attempted to represent both of these in the choral writing; The Idea of North and the Sydney Chamber Choir sharing the roles and responsibilities of singing the Icelandic text and providing instrumental accompaniment, only truly coming together in the final moments of the work,” says Walker.

Stanhope is sure that there will be even more intrigue than audiences may already expect to find in such an unusual fusion. “There are plenty of surprises in store. I love the Björk songs, of course, and also Staralfur by Sigur Ros. But I think the Yoik (a genre of song from Lapland) adapted by Swedish composer Jan Sandström might be a surprise. There is also a bit of Bach and Handel in there, with a unique Scandinavian twist. So it’s neither a straight classical concert nor a pop gig. That’s the really interesting thing for me!” 

So, what would Björk herself make of it all? “I’m sure her reaction would involve lots of umlauts, glottal stops and quirkish shrieks!” grins Stanhope. “I think she would totally be into it.”

Going Bjork is on this Saturday at Sydney Recital Hall. Tickets are available through the City Recital Hall website.