What started as a mutual admiration uncovered by Dirty Projectors’ cover of “Hyperballad” for Enjoyed crystallized into an unforgettable evening of Bitte Björka at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo on Friday. Our very own Brandon Stosuy worked tirelessly to conceive and bring it to reality (Brandon is a HW board member and this event was a benefit for the charity). There was a balcony for those designated VIP; there were tables and chairs for the most charitably generous with their ticket money; and there was every other space in the store, filled with some 250 others — from M.I.A. to St. Vincent to David Byrne to Vampire Weekend to Battles to Four Tet to Kría Brekkan to the National to, uh, Haley Joel Osment — milling about and cramming the stage. Dirty Projectors’ four-song set from Bitte Orca was tailored to the evening, and to maximizing the evening’s setup: all the voices, none of the drums, Dave on guitar and Nat Baldwin on upright bass. This meant acoustic versions of songs that were generally electric — “Temecula Sunrise,” “Cannibal Resource,” “No Intention,” “Remade Horizon” — and no “Two Doves,” because as beautiful and acoustic as it is, it is only one voice, and Longstreth was trying to acclimate and prepare four of them. As warmup material, songs from Bitte Orca are embarrassingly rich drill bits. But Friday night they were in fact warmup material, for Dirty Projectors, and for the crowd.
After those songs, Dave introduced the piece he composed for this evening, and its star:
“We’ve never played it in front of anyone before, and we are just incredibly honored to sing this music with Björk.” The six-song suite spanned twenty minutes, Longstreth explaining: “It is about a day three weeks ago that Amber Coffman was in Northern California watching whales from a mountain called Mount Wittenberg. The six songs are imagining the moment Amber saw this whale, and the whale saw her. I think it is called Mount Wittenberg Orca.” Longstreth took lead on two songs, the DPs girls on one, and Björk on the remaining three. It was stunning stretch of music on its own terms, even more so to consider it was composed in a matter of weeks, and on the heels of his finest album yet. Björk’s seismic vocal proved a perfect counterpart to Dirty Projectors’ staggered, staggering needlepoint vocal harmonies, and a perfect mouthpiece for Longstreth’s melodies. But it isn’t surprising Dave’s brilliant composition suited her. When talking about his cover of “Hyperballad,” he explained her influence on his work: “I think what I took from Björk when I was obsessed with her in high school was her way with deconstruction. She writes these classic melodies but breaks them apart so that it’s sort of up to you as the listener to put them back together.”
In lieu of further describing the suite on our own, we thought it better to invite Dave to share his thoughts.
STEREOGUM: As suggested by the Bitte Orca Premature Evaluation, we’re fascinated by your compositional trajectory — the stylistic leaps between releases, but also the ways they’re connected. “Mount Wittenberg Orca” seems to expand on devices and maybe even themes from Bitte. Curious to hear where you feel it sits in terms of your past material and prospectively.
DAVID LONGSTRETH: It is definitely like Bitte Orca‘s younger, hotter sister. I spent months writing the music and words of Bitte Orca, and then as a band we spent months learning the parts, practicing and finally recording them.
The Housing Works songs though — I wrote them in about a week, and then we performed them a week later. It was a different kind of thing, more like trusting your instincts, going with the first thought every time, not letting yourself edit or revise. Last Tuesday, I was hanging out with my brother at a bar and I left to go work on the words for the third song. I started walking, wrote all the lyrics on the 5-minute walk back to the apartment, then turned around and went back to the bar. When I got back, everybody at the table was still talking about Hugo Chavez.
So I hope that rather than having that deeply burnished orb/Rubik’s cube resolution feeling, these songs have something else: instinctual thrust, powerful thoughtlessness, easy unity, natural law, etc. — emotional directness!
Both the lyrics and the music ended up coming from the same stuff as Bitte Orca, but thru a different lens. It seems like visual artists play these kinds of games all the time, playing with size and proportion, sketches v. finished pictures, that kind of thing.
STEREOGUM: Was Amber’s encounter with the whale the organizing principle/inspirational reference point throughout on a compositional level? For the passages with Björk, how much of it was writing for Björk instead? How did writing for Björk affect your process?
DL: Björk and I had randomly had a bunch of conversations about natural history and geology and stuff, so it was just my first thought that the songs have a theme that was in some way natural and global. I’ve been wondering about trying to write songs from a global standpoint and to write music that is like nature. I asked Björk whether she would be up for trying something like this and she was like, “I would be thrilled!”
The whale watching scene got me psyched because it actually happened, and Amber was so excited about it. And it had all the components of this group of singers: the whale, the whale calves, and the whale watcher. I liked the idea of Björk playing the mother whale, because she’s been a whale before (in Drawing Restraint IX), so that was kind of nice, and because she is very maternal with us, especially about taking care of our voices and with advice about singing. Also the idea that the ladies are her calves, her artistic children or something, who could be an antiphonal chorus, commenting on the action in an omniscient, objective way. And I liked the idea of me playing Amber, because it is confusing and funny.
It’s organized into seven songs:
01 “Ocean”: Whale calves gliding in the tides, the cycling and gradual growth of the tides
02 “Ever Onward”: Song of the Mother Whale to the calves
03 “Until The Day I Die”: Song of Amber, sighting the Whale, statement of devotion
04 “Singing Through A Tinted Window”: Song of the Calves, observing the scene
05 “Mother Orb”: Song of the Whale to Amber, statement of unity, appeal to the Earth
06 “No Embrace”: Song of Amber to the Whale, as the whales depart, motown philly
07 “All We Are”: Benediction, final duet.
This all looks pretty 19th century, but the inspiration is really 17th: Björk and I had been talking about the birth of opera in Italian song forms: madrigals and chanson and stuff. Housing Works Bookstore reminded us of early Italian concert halls, which relied on the singers ability to project and the natural amplification of the space. She’s done a tour where she played in these spaces, and it was fascinating to learn about it from her. We wanted the show to have that feel. Eventually, songs 5/6 will be full duets between B and me, and 7 will have a full on polyphonic ensemble feel, Gesualdo style.
Writing for Björk was not all that different from writing for myself or the girls. Half the time I am writing a melody I think I’m imagining her singing it anyway. I guess I didn’t really trip. We had to change some keys around. It was more like what she brought to the melodies, which was some kind of indescribable effortless coherence — it was beautiful and powerful and actually weird. She is so amazing!
STEREOGUM: “All in all is all we are.” Powerful closing lyric. Familiar, too. Maybe you could elaborate on using it. It mirrors “On and on and on, and ever onward.” If they’re tied, how so?
DL: The moment of Amber seeing the whale and the whale seeing her is like the cover of Bitte Orca: two beings apprehending each other from different universes. One from water and one from land. I want “Mt Wittenberg Orca” to feel like a children’s play, or sorta like an interspecies Tristan und Isolde, except with a better, less doomed ending. 15 years out, it seems like Cobain’s life was all about equating fulfillment and death in the same way that Tristan and Isolde did … not a sustainable model, really. I like the idea that neither Amber nor the whale die or combust after their moment, that instead they are left with some sort of feeling of unity, even if it is shot through with desire, confusion, hope, joy, sadness. So that lyric was just shorthand, the first thing I thought of, but I like it.
As do we. Now enjoy this gorgeous spread of photos of openers Kurt Weisman and Ólöf Arnalds, of Housing Works, and of Björk and Dirty Projectors by Ryan Muir. And enjoy the piece that started it all: