189: Choir of Young Believers, ‘Hollow Talk’ (Nordic Noir TV)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2014 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Choir of Young Believers – Hollow Talk

Everything Scandinavian is better than anything non-Scandinavian.


Line Groth coaching in Israel.

Okay, maybe there’s a drop of hyperbole there, but I’m infatuated. I have been for a number of years now, starting with my involvement in Modern A Cappella, whose epicenter is in Den Norr/Nord. (Even the fine Australian quartet call themselves The Idea of North.)

The situation was profoundly exacerbated last week with the visit of the wonderful Line Groth Riis from Aarhus, Denmark, to workshop with the a cappella community here in Israel, especially with Vocalocity, the biggest little group in the land. Line told me there were 17 hours of sunlight in Denmark in January. There was an average high of 20°C in Tel Aviv during her visit. So how is it that we all felt that it was she who was bringing the sunlight here?

This irrational, exaggerated infatuation (aren’t those defining traits of infatuation?) began with The Real Group, spread through Rajaton and Vocal Line and a myriad of other a cappella groups; traveled through Nordic roots music; and recently taken me on out to some cutting edge pop that has me mystified and baffled and intrigued and enthralled.



Eivør is as far out musically as she is geographically. She hails from the Faroe Islands, a village named Gota actually. She’s a bona fide star in Iceland and Denmark, and is traveling the world as Marilyn Monroe in an avant-garde opera. The core of her original music is haunting, mystical, wind-swept barren Atlantic island folk/roots. She’s also beautiful, charming, and spiritual. I met her a year ago in Denmark, and felt like I was talking to a persona who’d just stepped out of a myth, or a fairy tale. Give a listen. I promise to write more about her sometime soon.


Sigur Rós

Moving from a country of 50,000 to one of 320,000, we all thought Bjork was as bizarre as Iceland could get. Well, we were wrong. For a year now I’ve been under the spell of Sigur Rós, a “post-rock” group led by Jónsi Birgisson. (That’s a new sub-genre of often instrumental music using guitars, drums and unusual instruments in non-rock timbres and textures. Huh?) Their music is haunting, ephemeral, hazy. My favorite of their dozen CDs is “()” I thought I was the only person east of the Faroe Islands to have heard of these guys. But it turns out their spellbinding sound pallet has been drafted for projects as disparate as BBC’s natural history series “Planet Earth” and their ads for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as well as in the films “Vanilla Sky” and even “We Bought a Zoo”! What is this world coming to?

Choir of Young Believers

Choir of Young Believers

And now I’ve been listening to Jannis Noya Makrigiannis’ band Choir of Young Believers, who are legitimate stars in a real country (Denmark – I’ve been there, I can testify). Especially their song ‘Hollow Talk‘ (which just happens to be the theme song of the Danish/Swedish TV  series “Bron/Broen/The Bridge”). Let me tell you what I hear in these artists. I fully realize that I’m talking through my hat (that’s the euphemized version of the expression) about the Scandinavians. All the artists I’ve encountered from there are intelligent, refined, sophisticated, and as a group most certainly don’t need me to tell them what they’re doing. But I’m enthralled, and I want to share that, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about. What can I say in my defense? I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

I hear the geography in their music. I hear barren islands in Eivør’s music, steaming hot springs in a frigid expanse in Sigur Rós’ music, expanses of cold Atlantic shores in Choir of Young Believers. In young American and British Indie bands, even the best of them, the context I hear is a recording studio. There’s no continuum with the world outside. Here, in these Nordic sounds, I’m hearing the wind-chill factor, ice and shivering and darkness.



At a music festival in Sweden I once asked someone why everyone was wearing black and grey. She scoffed and said that “That’s nonsense”. I said, “Look around. There are 600 people here. They’re all wearing black and grey.” She looked around. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I had no idea.”

Could it have something to do with national wealth, abnormal security, sunlight deprivation and the evolution of social mores akin to growing a third eye, a sort of ET of the north? A whole new species of modern society growing right before our eyes in the dark crannies of the fjords eerily illuminated by Aurora Borealis?

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

There’s a genre of crime fiction called Nordic Noir, characterized by a harsh, unadorned style with a dark, morally complex mood. Authors include Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, and Henning Mankell (the Kurt Wallander detective series). The first I tried and didn’t get caught by, the latter is waiting on my shelf. But in the meantime, I have been pursuing my concomitant obsession, Nordic Noir mini-series.

The template is an emotionally scarred Danish/Swedish female homicide detective chasing a psychopathic serial killer, one story over a season of eight 90-minute episodes. Most of the shows I describe here deviate from that format in one way or more, but they all draw from the same somber, murky, sharply observed world. The worst of them is better than anything else around. At their weakest they’re implausible. At their best, they’re dramatically precise, visually stunning, emotionally wrenching, and so scary it hurts. On occasion they transcend scary into seriously spooky.

The Fall

The Fall

A friend of mine whose taste I admire says he won’t watch any television in which all of the characters are beautiful. These Nords are humanly complex, blemishes and foibles and all, uniformly vulnerable and riveting. Alphabetically:

  • Borgen (Denmark, remade in US)
    A back-bench MK becomes PM by fluke. We watch her in the office and at home, trying to learn and cope. Many of the secondary characters are flat. Not the greatest drama, but a tasteful look at an intriguing world.
  • Bron/Broen (Sweden/Denmark, The Bridge, remade in US)
    Everyone’s favorite, including mine. Two very fine main characters – Saga (Danish, Asperger’s) and Martin (Swedish, human) – meet over a body composed of two half corpses placed on the very borderline of the bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö. A modern allegory: a virile heroine, a feminine hero. Rounded characters, rich circumstances, finely crafted. An utter delight for after the kids have gone to sleep.
  • Those Who Kill

    Those Who Kill

    The Eagle (Ørnen) (Sweden)
    Just getting started on this one. Stay tuned.

  • The Fall (N. Ireland)
    Best of Breed. Gillian Anderson as the cop who is almost as sick as the villain, who makes Norman Bates look like a choir boy. Reminiscent of Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect”, it goes way beyond scary, beyond spooky, into morally upsetting. Hitchock territory.
  • The Killing (Sweden, remade in US)
    This was the first one I encountered, unfortunately in the US version. Single mother, obsessive, neglecting her son and herself to pursue The Case. Suffers from an overly contrived plot, makes excessive demands on suspension of disbelief.
  • Top of the Lake

    Top of the Lake

    The Kingdom  (Sweden)
    Created by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”, “Dogville”), it’s the story of a sick hospital. The building isn’t haunted, it’s diseased. Little suspense, lots of malaise.

  • Sebastian Bergman (Sweden)
    A 50-year old police consultant, damaged and scarred in every way imaginable. You don’t watch him, you accompany him, through his pain and confusion and struggles. Unfortunately, only two episodes.
  • Those Who Kill  (Denmark, remade in US)
    She’s too beautiful, her partner is misconceived and miscast. It’s not fingernail-biting – you may chew off the fingers themselves. Not for the weak of heart.
  • Wallender


    Top of the Lake (N. Zealand)
    Made by Jane Campion, reminiscent of her “The Piano”. Unfortunately starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “West Wing”). But the visuals of the scenery, the villain, and the commune of wacko women misfits let by guru Holly Hunter make it all worthwhile.

  • Wallander (Sweden, remade by BBC with Kenneth Branagh)
    A 50 year old everyman detective in backwater Ystad, more whodunit than most.  His daughter joins the small detective squad. She’s the scarred one here.

These series (serieses, as I like to call them) are the reason I haven’t been getting anything else done for the past half year. I’ve checked out the US versions of “The Killing” and “The Bridge”. Do yourself a favor, go for the originals – the gloomy, dark, angst-ridden, terrifying, human world of Nordic Noir.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Jeff’s posts on The Real Group

Jeff’s posts on A Cappella

Jeff’s posts on Nordic Music


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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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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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