Musicians hear things differently. Take Blackbird Ensemble artistic director Claire Cowan on her favourite song, All is Full of Love.

"The moment the beat kicks in ... " she says, a hint of wonder in her voice, "I don't know how Bjork makes this beat. It's really deep, almost too low to hear, and it has a whirring character over the top of it that sounds to me like someone flicking through a phone book."

Cowan pauses in appreciation then adds: "That beat always gives me tingles."

Icelandic popstar Bjork has been giving music lovers tingles since 1987, when the song Birthday by her band The Sugarcubes was named single of the year in hallowed rock magazine Melody Maker.


Cowan's own relationship with Bjork's music developed later, when a university friend gave her a copy of the 2001 album Vespertine.

"Listening to that was amazing," says Cowan. "I thought, 'what the hell is this?'"

"This" is arguably the finest album by one of popular music's most consistently inventive artists. Characterised by cascading filigrees of sound, rainfall pitter-patter microbeats and Bjork's sighing vocals, Vespertine is - by any standards - a masterpiece.

Blackbird Ensemble artistic director Claire Cowan says Bjork's music gives her tingles. Photo / Striped Trees Productions
Blackbird Ensemble artistic director Claire Cowan says Bjork's music gives her tingles. Photo / Striped Trees Productions

A good place for Cowan to start, then. Start but not stop, because her Blackbird Ensemble's next project is a series of concerts devoted entirely to Bjork's music.

If a Bjork tribute concert by a chamber orchestra comprising mostly classically trained musicians seems unlikely, there is precedent, not least in Bjork's own work.

The singer toured 2015's Vulnicura album with a string orchestra, but whereas those performances formed part of Cowan's research for her own project, they didn't unduly influence her.

"I had a look at the live videos and thought [Blackbird] could do better. The way Bjork's musicians were playing was quite traditional. Our players can do more, they're all versatile and double on other instruments, and some of them will sing."

Anna Coddington is among a quartet of frontline vocalists and a 10-piece group features an experimental percussion section that includes producer Mark Michel, who will use live sampling and mixing to help replicate some of Bjork's complex rhythms.

Cowan is in charge of bringing all the disparate elements together. She's primarily a screen composer - her score for TV series Hillary recently won a Silver Scroll to sit alongside the APRA Professional Development Award she claimed in July - but Blackbird Ensemble is her labour of love.

She not only founded the chamber group, she maintains tight control of almost every detail, giving direction on the music, aspects such as lighting and costume, and she even designs the advertising posters.

Cowan usually does the arrangements, too, but this time those duties are split between her and, in one of those strange twists of fate, Sarah Belkner - the university pal who gave Cowan her first Bjork disc, and now an electro-pop artist living in Sydney.

Cowan says she prefers to surround herself with people she knows.

"I hire people who I know are good musicians but who are also great to work with. It makes it more fun and it's a contrast to my other work, because as a composer I'm usually in a room by myself; Blackbird gives me a chance to talk to other people and figure out ideas and have more creative time within a group."

There's also a practical reason to hire friends.

"I know who can work under pressure and also we don't have lots of money so it's hard to ask people you don't know to work for very little money without them knowing how cool it is to be involved in Blackbird's productions."

By all accounts, to be a member of Blackbird Ensemble is very cool indeed.

"Blackbird is always a thrilling show to be part of," says Alex Taylor, a long-time member of the group and himself an award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist.

"There's no expense spared; it's more than just a music show. You might look at it and think it's only a covers band but it's so much more. It's a lot of musicians onstage in outlandish outfits and with an amazing set. There's always an aesthetic 'pumped-up-ness' that I really like."

No matter how pumped up the production, Cowan says her adaptation is respectful.

"Bjork is my favourite artist and I want to do her music well," she says.

"I want the audience to have a sense of being enveloped in Bjork's world, or our version of it, and feel the love we have for her music and the love we have for presenting music of this calibre."

What: Bjork: All is Full of Love, by Blackbird Ensemble
Where and when: Rangatira at Q Theatre, November 8-11