188: Imogen Heap/Vocal Line, ‘Let Go’

Posted by jeff on Jan 31, 2014 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Frou Frou — ‘Let Go’
Vocal Line — ‘Let Go’ 

I remember the time I knew all the music.

Well, at least all the music that I cared about, which was Rock and Roll, from Paul Anka to Jackie Wilson (there were not yet musicians whose names began with X, Y or Z in those days). It was 1963 to 1964. I began listening to the Top 40 in 1962, when I was 14. It took me a year to learn all the Oldies (1956-1961), and there you go. Me and Leonardo DiVinci, possessors of all knowledge. He had less of a challenge, since there was so much less to know in 1500. I do realize that I hadn’t mastered painting, sculpture, architecture, musical composition, mathematics, engineering, inventing, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, or the fastball. But Leo didn’t know bubkes about Chuck Berry, so it kind of evens out.

It’s all been downhill since then. I chose to live my 20s, 30s and 40s in Foreign Land with Bad Radio, so I was patently out of the game by ideological choice. But now in my twilight years, with MTV and the interweb and iTunes, there’s no excuse. All them kids out there making music, a lot of it well worth listening to. The quantity grows exponentially every Saturday night, while my mastery shrinks to infinitesimal levels.

Jeff, circa 1963

I can’t keep up with everything, so I fall back on being a historically significant relic (“Hey, you whippersnapper, I was at Woodstock!”, my hands tremoring on the knob of my cane) and dealing in obscure but curiously edifying niche genres. Like the Beach Boys “Unsurpassed!”, a 300-CD archive of all 400 takes of ‘409 (She’s real fine my)’ and its ilk. Or the pretty cool Finnish surf jazz combo Dalindèo that my buddy KK turned me onto yesterday. Or modern a cappella.

There’s this scene that I belong to. Some of you may be familiar with its Amirkin version via the film Pitch Perfect and the TV series The Sing-Off. But I’m a cult member of the European version. (I just returned from the Swingle Singers’ London A Cappella Festival, where I shot up a double dose of my babies’ love.) Specifically, northern Europe. More specifically, Scandinavia. More specifically, Denmark and Sweden, although Finland, Norway, and Iceland have a lot to offer as well.

Girls of Vocal Line

One of the luminaries of our growing cult is the Danish “rhythm choir” Vocal Line, under the baton of Jens Johansen. I’ve written about them a few times, and will continue to do so in the future, because my admiration for them is rajaton (that’s ‘boundless’ in Finnish, and I’m just showing off the one word I know in that bizarre language, because it’s also the name of one of the finest a cappella groups performing today).

Vocal Line is composed of 32 trained young singers centered in Aarhus, Denmark. The fact that all of the females of the group are stunningly beautiful has nothing to do with my interest in them whatsoever. My interest is purely musical, and very deep. I’ve been riveted by them since I first heard them (in Västerås, Sweden) in 2008. Actually, I’ve been so inspired by them that I founded a rhythm choir, Vocalocity, half a year ago. Our musical director is Kevin Fox, but while he’s busy Swingling around the world, we’ve been bringing in some of the finest AC folks in the world to impart to us some of their wisdom, experience, talent and inspiration. In two weeks, Vocal Line’s assistant conductor Line Groth is coming to our little corner of the world to workshop and rehearse with us, and I’m pretty darned excited about it. She’s a great singer, arranger, conductor and teacher, and we’re planning on learning a lot from her.

Jens Johansen, Jeff, Line Groth

What, you may ask, is Vocal Line’s repertoire composed of? Well, Jens and I are from the same doddering demographic (notwithstanding that he’s in a whole different league of cool), and in addition to a lot of fine Nordic singer-songwriters, he’s covered old-timer old-favorites such as Joni Mitchell (‘Blue’, ‘Both Sides Now’), Paul Simon (‘Still Crazy After All These Years’), Sting (‘I Was Brought to My Senses’), and Leonard Cohen (‘Hallelujah’). I’m very proud to say that I’d heard of every one of those fine artists. But Vocal Line has also forced me to pay more attention to some significant artists that I was insufficiently familiar with, such as Kate Bush (‘Wuthering Heights’), Prince (‘Kiss’), Bjork (‘Isobel’, ‘Hyperballad’) and Peter Gabriel (‘Don’t Give Up’, about which I wrote an entire SoTW) .

Imogen and her Magic Gloves

But my point here (believe it or not, in my befuddled mind there is one), is that it is through them that I’ve been introduced to some younger artists whom I just hadn’t gotten around to or might have missed. Like Coldplay (‘Viva La Vida’). And like our featured Song of The Week, ‘Let Go’ by Imogen Heap.

Imogen Jennifer Heap (b. 1977) is one of those young ‘uns that I don’t begin to understand but sure do enjoy listening to. She’s made three solo albums – “iMegaphone” 1998, “Speak for Yourself” 2005, and “Ellipse” 2009; and one (“Details”, 2002) as part of the duo Frou Frou. ‘Let Go’ is the opening cut of this riveting album, made famous through the teen flick Garden State, starring the heart-breakingly charming Natalie Portman.

I’ve listened to all four CDs maybe a hundred times altogether over the last year, and there’s almost nothing about them that I understand. I don’t get the sound, a mix of “alternative pop/rock, Euro-pop, and electronica”, none of which mean anything to me; and I don’t get the attitude, which is Pinteresquely threatening and utterly creepy.

The attitude. Imogen frightens me. She’s a new breed of female, a breed I’m not wired to deal with. She speaks in imperatives, and they ain’t “Take out the garbage, honey.”

Pay close attention. Snap out of it. Do just what I tell you/And no one will get hurt/Don’t come any closer. Don’t try that again. Don’t make a sound/shh/listen/Keep your head down. Listen up/Hear me out. Come here, boy. From ‘Let Go’: “Jump in/Oh well, what you waiting for?/ You’ve twenty seconds to comply/It’s all right/’Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown”. (“Beauty in the Breakdown” is the title of the Vocal Line CD which houses the song.) Whatever happened to Venus in Blue Jeans?

The sound. Imogen does a lot of the recording in her basement. She’s a wiz on all that electronic equipment that, if I understand correctly, is plugged into the wall and runs on electricity. She’s also invented a pair of magical musical gloves. If you have the courage, or if you’re under under 30, watch this 20-minute demo. There’s a pretty good chance that, like me, you’ll never forget it. If you’re a baby boomer, you may also (like me) be made to feel very, very old.

But she creates a pastiche that’s utterly riveting. I’m guessing that’s what inspired Line Groth to write her stunning arrangement of Imogen’s ‘Let Go’. The sound palate of a large rhythm choir is perhaps an arcane subject to some, but it’s been the most engaging subject I’ve had rattling around the hardening arteries of my ageing brain in recent months. Listen to ‘It’s Good to Be in Love’. To ‘Psychobabble’ (I especially love the instrumental break from 3’20”). To ‘The Dumbing Down of Love’.  (Don’t miss this a cappella gem from “Speak for Yourself”, ‘Hide and Seek’.) Actually, every single cut on the album has a rich, evocative, intriguing orchestration that keeps me going back over and over, understanding nothing, enthralled with it all.

I’m entranced by Imogen Heap/Frou Frou’s ‘Let Go’, and I’m hypnotized by Line Groth/Vocal Line’s reading of it. Over the last year I’ve listened to both cuts hundreds of times, and I still don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout nuthin’ at all. Perhaps when Line gets here she’ll explain it to me. Or not. ‘Whatever’, as the kids say. In any case, I’m guessing the young singers of Vocalocity don’t need any explanations. Young people know everything.

Drink up baby doll/Are you in or are you out?
Leave your things behind/’Cause it’s all going off without you.
Excuse me, too busy you’re writing your tragedy.
These mishaps/You bubble-wrap/When you’ve no idea what you’re like

So, let go, let go/Jump in/Oh well, what you waiting for?
It’s all right/’Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
So, let go, let go/Just get in/Oh, it’s so amazing here
It’s all right/’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.

It gains the more it gives/And then it rises with the fall.
So hand me that remote/Can’t you see that all that stuff’s a sideshow?
Such boundless pleasure/We’ve no time for later.
Now you can’t await/your own arrival/you’ve twenty seconds to comply.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
167: James Blake, ‘Lindisfarne’

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174: Vocal Line, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Posted by jeff on May 24, 2013 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Vocal Line – ‘Don’t Give Up’

Jens Johansen

Here I am back on earth, still floating, not yet fighting the decompression blues, after 5 days in Denmark at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, a celebration of contemporary a cappella pop, jazz, folk and beyond. Members of this community (some call it a cult) gather mostly from Northern Europe, but as far afield as Taiwan, Brazil and San Francisco, for a fete of concerts and workshops led by world luminaries. And an incredible amount of communal love.

There’s a strong connection between singing and communality. Ask anyone who’s sung in a choir. You may not love all the members of the choir, but there’s an electric charge in joining together in an aesthetic group effort, with 10 or 20 or 200 people joining to create one voice that can reach the skies.

These Scandinavian a cappella festivals exude love. It’s a young people’s genre, mostly in their 20s, but embracing even us antiquarians. The music is fun, surprising, joyful, all over the musical map. There’s little money or media fame involved, and the stars take pride in their non-celebrity. I was at Woodstock. Believe me, there’s a lot more communal warmth (and less mud) here.

I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?

Kate Bush urging Peter Gabriel, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Aarhus boasts the only university in the world, I believe, where one can study for an advanced degree in ‘rhythm choral direction’, i.e., this new and growing genre. You may know its American cousin from Glee and Sing-Off. I’m talking about something wholly other. The contemporary a cappella centered in Scandinavia is the paragon of purity, the quintessence of refinement. It’s an aesthetic I was first exposed to about seven years ago via The Real Group and haven’t ceased obsessing over since.

I’m often accused of being blindly biased towards Scandinavia, but there’s little fear of me converting to Nordicism. My hair is unfair, my skin isn’t pure as fallen snow, my nose doesn’t have that cute little pert upturn, my mind isn’t generous and accepting, my demeanor isn’t relaxed, my temperament isn’t tolerant. Among the Nords, I feel that much more analytical, neurotic, uptight, and judgmental. It’s my genes, my upbringing, my inborn nature, my cultural conditioning. But I do love them and their music.

Jens Johansen conducting Vocal Line

We in the west are accustomed to resonance as a fundamental vocal coloring. These Nords developed a different sound, expressed at its extreme in kulning, a sort of yodel they use to call in the cows from several valleys away. Here’s a clip from a workshop at my first festival in 2008, The Real Festival, in which Morten Kjaer pulls a group of singers in this direction. If you listen carefully, he first reflects the resonant sound the singers are making, then changes it to the more muscular version he’s seeking.

The Real Group

At first this sound may seem to us Westerners flat, metallic, loud, shouting, angry. But that’s all tempered by the Scandinavian cool, reserve, discretion, modesty. In my last SoTW, I presented an example of this anti-vibrato style as it sounds in a gentle context: The Real Group’s ‘Nature Boy’.

It was at their The Real Festival in 2008 that I first encountered Vocal Line, the 32-voice choir led by Jens Johansen. They sang a primarily pop repertoire in English, from ‘my’ songs (‘Blue’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘Brought to My Senses’) to songs a bit newer or more Danish than what I was familiar with (‘Crucify’, ‘Audition Day’, ‘Viola’, ‘Viva La Vida’). There were also songs I should have known but didn’t, like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Björk‘s ‘Jóga’, and especially Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’. I would later become infatuated with their treatments of ‘The Garden‘ and ‘Say Ladeo‘ from Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS”, written and arranged by Roger Treece.

Jens Johansen

Their music was jarring for me – familiar but profoundly ‘other’, demanding a new sort of listening. It’s taken me years of listening, and my love for and admiration of Jens’ music continues to grow and grow. Their music is pure, unadulterated beauty. It’s what all art should aspire to, not just contemporary a cappella choirs. Not necessarily their chosen style, but their commitment and seriousness and utter respect for their materials.

I still believe the world would be a better place if Jens would arrange Brian Wilson’s undiscovered gem ‘Kiss Me, Baby’ or one of the acknowledged masterpieces from “Pet Sounds.” I won’t tell you the lengths to which I’ve gone to try to make that happen—it’s embarrassing and bordering on the lunatic. Maybe Jens will vindicate me some day.

I have never been a fan of Genesis or Peter Gabriel. I don’t dislike them, I just somehow never got familiar enough with them to cuddle up to them. But Vocal Line’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ has entranced me for years. I listened to it over. And over. And over. Reveling in the symphonic tapestry, the haunting harmonies, the subtlest of rhythmic movements.

Roger Treece and Jens Johansen–a meeting of giants

One of the many highlights of the Aarhus festival was that I had the honor to learn the song from the score and sing it under the baton of Mr Johansen himself. It’s challenging choral music, stretching me to the extremes of my limited abilities. My feeling of inadequacy was made no better by the 17-year old kid standing next to me in the choir who was handling it all flawlessly, without blinking.

Singing a choral arrangement is different from listening to it. It’s the difference between seeing pictures of Manhattan from a helicopter and walking the streets. The difference between looking at a picture of your loved one and embracing her. The difference between smelling a fragrant soup and eating it. It’s the real thing. It’s loving it from within.

Even now, I listen to Peter Gabriel’s original version of ‘Don’t Give Up’, and find it–well, okay. Kind of appealing, kind of annoying. But then I listen to and follow the score of Jens’ Vocal Line version, and I know that the utter beauty that entrances me is in his arrangement.

The verses are in the voice of a man suddenly unemployed, grappling with disillusionment and fear and the loneliness of abandonment: No fight left or so it seems/I am a man whose dreams have all deserted/I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name/But no one wants you when you lose. The chorus is the comforting Woman (sung by Kate Bush): Don’t give up/’cos you have friends/Don’t give up/You’re not beaten yet/Don’t give up/I know you can make it good.

I’d like to focus on the first phrase of the chorus, the “Don’t give up”. Here’s the original. And here’s Vocal Line’s treatment of the same phrase. Here’s what it looks like on paper, described to the best of my unprofessional ability, probably with numerous mistakes:

The word “don’t” is sung by the males in a rhythmically uneven three-step/four-note arpeggio, a rising Fm7+9 chord (in the key of E flat, i.e., IIm7+9), F>C>G+Aflat (I>V>IX+IIIm, with a strong half-step dissonance at the top). The rhythm, I believe, if we count it on 16th notes is 1/3/4. This is all followed by all the female voices singing in harmony “Don’t give up”, starting on E flat+F+A flat. Oh, hell.

If I read that paragraph, it would be utter gibberish to me, too. But I can follow the notes, sing them (with some effort). I consider myself blessed to have the ability (and the opportunity, with Jens Johansen standing in front of the choir) to look at those notes, sing them, feel the profound beauty in them, and be moved.

I apologize for any technical blunders I’ve made in my attempts to describe this singing style and the music itself. I realize I’m talking above my own head. But I won’t be denied the profound respect, admiration and affection I feel for the music, however far north it is from my native aural landscape.

Thanks, Jens.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

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Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013

Posted by jeff on May 23, 2013 in A Cappella, Writings

Dear Florian,

Morning Warmup

AAVF 2013 is chronologically over, but still pumping in my veins and breathing in my soul.

It was a wonderful, educationally enriching and communally loving experience. It would be impossible to give you an overview, but I’ll try to relate to you some of my personal experiences, in hopes that the subjective view will give some sort of representative impression of what went on.

It was all pretty well organized, user-friendly. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the site, which was a big advantage. The biggest problem was not enough hours in the day—wanting to simultaneously attend all the workshops, watch the small group and large group competitions, hear the midday concerts in the foyer, grab some food, and schmooze!!


Level Eleven

Pre-FestivalSono and Naura were both new for me, young Danish groups of about 20 singers, both really high quality, interesting repertoire, flawless performance, charming appearance, setting the bar high for the rest of the festival.

Friday – The Mzansi Youth Choir and the Boxettes gave two very different examples of how far contemporary a cappella can go and still knock out the crowd. The Girls Choir of Mariagerfjord were ‘just’ another one of those perfect Danish choirs.

Saturday – Since first hearing them in Vasteros in 2008, I’ve become an impassioned devotee of Vocal Line, so it was of course a really great thrill to hear them again. The combination of Vocal Line, VoxNorth and Eivør wasn’t easy for me. It was a new aesthetic, speaking in a musical language I was less familiar with. It sounds fascinating to me, and I plan on exploring it in the future (in the present, actually—I’m listening to Eivør as I write!)

SundayWeBe3 was a totally new treat for me, improvisation at its purest, and you know I’m a purist ;-). The Real Group and Rajaton both gave short but absolutely first-rate sets, showed why they’re the acknowledged leaders of our cult. It’s the third time I’ve heard both, and maybe the best. Level Eleven had some high points, and promises more to come in the future. Read more…

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047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 19, 2010 in A Cappella, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Segments of songs from “VOCAbuLarieS”, Official clip of the song “Say Ladeo”

I’m probably going to step on some toes (again) this week. So I apologize in advance.

I really have no convincing defense against the charge that I’m a musical snob. Do you think it’s fun being a snob? Let me tell you, it’s not. We effete prigs get to sit in the corner and be judgmental while everyone else is having fun clapping hands and dancing. And what’s worse, is that this time I’m even stepping on my own toes.

Because Bobby McFerrin is a really nice guy. He’s neat and cool and creative and serious about his art. And about as talented in his craft as Michael Jordan and Leo DaVinci were in theirs. You know, the physical and technical and creative ability to do things that according to the laws of physics shouldn’t oughta be able to be done?

Just to get us on the same page – Bobby McFerrin (b. 1950) is hands-down the greatest vocal artist around today. Since 1982 he’s released about a dozen major CDs, focusing on a cappella vocals (both solo and multi-tracked) and collaborations, with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and with jazz pianist Chick Corea and others. He has the distinction of begetting not only a phrase, but also a cultural mindset with his most famous recording, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. He appears extensively as a solo artist and as a conductor/singer with many leading symphony orchestras. The guy doesn’t rest.

And everyone, including yours truly, is saying that his new CD, “VOCAbuLarieS“, released just a couple of weeks ago, is the CD we’ve been waiting for from him.

“VOCAbuLarieS” is seven tracks longs, a pastiche of some 1400 vocal tracks recorded by 50 singers–a tapestry of symphonic richness, much fuller than the 1997 improvised outing “Circle Songs”. It’s almost purely a cappella, with the exception of an occasional dash of soprano sax and a little support from some friendly bongos, congas, kalimbas and whatever.

The music is a dream–a snatch of lyric, a waft of melody, elusive, ephemeral, incredibly intricate and amazingly colorful and detailed, floating, free of the fetters of gravity. Like a dream, natural or chemically-induced, it is wondrous and ineffable. You wake up serene and smiling and peaceful and wowing–and then you try to tell the dream, and it dissipates, slipping through the gaps between your words.

So it is with “VOCAbuLarieS”. All seven songs are modal, and all morph from theme to theme, lilting and lovely and uplifting. The sound palette is that of the universe–McFerrin and his collaborator composer/arranger/producer Roger Treece have created a fusion of sounds drawing from South Africa (especially in “In the Garden”), Danish rhythm choirs (“Wailers”), world-mix (“He Ran to the Train”), Arvo Part neo-Gregorian (“Brief Eternity”) and Disney soundtrack (“Baby”). But all the tracks meld and slide from one world to another, and the overall effect is the space travel between them.

Outer space. No melody, no chord progression, no fetters. No gravity. Is being gravity-free an empirically desirable state? Isn’t ‘vapid’ a synonym for gravity-free? What about gravitas? Some grit? Some irony? Some intellectual toughness? “And there was day and there was night, And there was dark and there was light” and the melodic equivalents? Cmon! I’ll readily admit that Bobby McFerrin really is a spiritual person. But spiritual people usually make me uncomfortable.

I have some sense of the technical achievement of this CD. I’m probably the only person on my block who listens to the vocal jazz Scandinavian groups and choirs (Rajaton, The Real Group, and especially Vocal Line). That’s where I go to find rich group vocal experimentation. And “VOCAbuLarieS” has just upped the bar. In terms of the wealth and depth of vocal textures, it’s a masterpiece. I think any sympathetic lay listener will get that, and it’s no mean accomplishment. I myself am impressed, amazed, overwhelmed.

I’ve been having some issues lately about not going to concerts. A surprising number of artists I admire have or are about to visit our fair shores–Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, The Swingle Singers, Chick Corea. I’m not going to any of them. The shlep and the commonality turn me off. Like I said, an unsufferable snob. I’d certainly go see Bobby McFerrin in concert, even though his CDs get relegated to background music in my playlist universe.

He does some remarkable things live. Here’s a very popular clip in which he “Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale” to the World Science Festival. It’s fine and funny, how he non-verbally ‘explains’ to scientists how the language of music works. But here’s a clip I like much more–a spontaneous, musical audience participation improvisation. It includes a similar demonstration of the innate hardwiring of the language of the pentatonic scale, but kicks it up a level into real music. Want some more? Here’s a mock-baroque duet with the Azerbaijani singer/pianist Aziza Mustafa Zada; my guess is that this is based on a piece I don’t recognize–no humans can improvise on this level out of their heads. Here they’re scatting on Carmen.

And here’s one I like even better, one of his better-known songs, ‘I Got a Feelin”. But you have to watch it to the end. He may be spiritual, but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.

But, meanwhile, back at SoTW–the song we’ve picked is the fifth cut, ‘The Garden’ (of Eden). He wrote it for his 1990 CD, “Medicine Music.” Here’s the original version. It was kicked up a few levels by in 2008 by the incredible Danish jazz choir Vocal Line, under direction of the very talented Jens Johansen.  Here they are showing their stuff in a live performance the song. It could well be that they’re backing Mr McF here. I did read that they’re going to NY to help him present “VOCAbuLarieS” in concert. Apparently there has been some cross-pollination going on between Mr McFerrin and Vocal Line. Sure wish I knew when and where and how that happened.

And I sure do hope that more of the very talented American luminaries interact more and more with the wonderful vocal group music that’s being made in The Northern Countries. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the accomplishment of “VOCAbuLarieS”.

I’m sorry I didn’t have this CD to listen to back in my heady college days, when I was more in a state of head to float with it. Today, I’ll have to make due with being blown away by it, rather than moved. Well, ‘blown away’ isn’t such faint praise, is it?


Say Ladeo



The Garden

He Ran to the Train

Brief Eternity

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

174: Vocal Line, ‘Don’t Give Up’
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’

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