Composer Claire Cowan finds inspiration in the most mundane places

by James Belfield / 08 November, 2017
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Claire Cowan. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Claire Cowan has put aside her award-winning soundtrack work to orchestrate the songs of Iceland’s queen of experimental pop.

In the front room of her home in Auckland’s leafy Westmere – amid the buzz of renovators’ power tools and tradies’ tea breaks – Claire Cowan is lovingly tinkering with her new musical toy.

The harpsichord is by the front window, pushing the usual clutter of flat dwelling – chairs, coffee tables and the like – towards the middle of the room.

But the composer’s housemates are used to her career imposing on their space: they return from their nine-to-fives to find her happily emptying cupboards of wine glasses to find one with the right pitch, or spending hours dropping objects into water to discover a new sound. The harpsichord is just the latest addition to a lounge full of instruments that include an upright piano, a tiny, red, tinkling German-made piano and a harp she’s borrowed from a friend in order to learn.

In her upstairs office, a banjo stands proudly in the middle of the room and the shelves are lined with wood blocks, shakers and tambourines. Presumably, there’s a cello – the instrument she is most associated with – lurking somewhere, too.

Over the course of the next hour or so, Cowan, 33, fiddles unconsciously with the internal mechanism of a music box. But the freshly arrived harpsichord is the latest affair. She acquired it in kitset form from her best friend Rachel’s dad – who happens to be Auckland City’s former official organist, John Wells.

It’s telling that Cowan’s first instinct is to show off what the instrument is capable of when you’re not simply sitting in front of it and tickling its ivories.

“I think I’ll use it a lot on film scores because you can do so much with it – you can get inside it and play it with soft mallets and strum the strings as well.”

And then there’s how the old instrument might be made to look. “I want to get LED strip lighting to pimp it out and illuminate the inside.” Restless playfulness characterises a conversation with Cowan.

Yes, she’s graduated with honours in composition from the University of Auckland; been composer-in-residence with Orchestra Wellington; played keyboards and sung backing vocals with Auckland musician SJD; written and released her own folk album; performed with puppeteers, pop stars and flamenco dancers; won this year’s Apra screen music award for her score for the series Hillary; written for film, orchestras and stage; arranged orchestral parts for Dave Dobbyn, Jon Toogood and Ria Hall; and pushed the boundaries of performance as musical director of chamber orchestra Blackbird Ensemble.

She enjoys finding inspiration for her creativity in the most mundane-seeming places. “I’m interested in things like gardening, and stained-glass windows, and teasing stuff from wood,” she says.

“I went to Bunnings this morning – I love wandering around there: there’s inspiration everywhere. I get to the stage where people are asking if they can help me and I’m, like, no, I just want to get lost.”

Even after writing music for a couple of Air New Zealand adverts – the one starring the Playboy Bunnies and David Hasselhoff – and earning enough money to take a month off, she still ended up creating things, most notably a chicken coop for the back garden.

“I find I can fill time pretty easily with creative things: upcycling furniture, redesigning stuff in houses to make them work better … anything, really. And then there’s Bunnings and kitchen supply stores and Chinese supermarkets where I can go and get dreamy eyed.”

Fabulous fiddler: Cowan tinkles with anything that produces a sound. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Fabulous fiddler: Cowan tinkles with anything that produces a sound. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Her current inspiration, though, is the music of maverick Icelandic pop queen Björk – and she’s having to battle the hubbub of Westmere’s gentrification to come up with 12 new arrangements for Blackbird Ensemble’s All Is Full of Love.

Cowan has used Blackbird Ensemble as a way to reinterpret her favourite modern artists with a modern chamber orchestra and has included Björk tracks before. But this time she’s focusing an entire show of 16 songs – the four others are being arranged by electro-pop musician Sarah Belkner – on an artist for whom she’s always had “a soft spot” and whose work is deliberately challenging.

Originally, the show was planned to celebrate Björk’s 50th birthday in 2015. But Cowan’s act of hero worship took time to arrange around other commitments. She has invited Björk to attend, noting Iceland and New Zealand have similarities as creative environments: “The isolation breeds ingenuity, the nature fills us with inspiration and the solitude gives us space to create,” she says.

As well as vocals from Anna Coddington, Teeks and Jessie Cassin, they’re hoping to emulate the intent of Björk’s work with some left-field ideas – the visual side will pay homage to her love of electricity and nature, words originally sung in Icelandic have been translated into Māori, and there’s some “glitchy” experimentation going on using non-musical objects.

“That’s awesome and exactly what we need. Björk has access to the best musicians in the world and the best technologies and it’s very difficult to compete with that on a zero budget – so with our New Zealand DIY-style, miking up chip packets and tinfoil and adding the effects seems just right.

“It’s important to have the backbone to tackle the music as well as the guts to change it a bit and present it in a way that’s natural for our group. Some of her music has been created in a natural, by-chance way and if we were to completely transcribe it, we’d lose its essence.”

Cowan admits to being a control freak when it comes to Blackbird Ensemble productions, but it’s telling that the only time she swears in this interview is when she explains that the budget for the four-show run and 14-strong cast at Q Theatre rests on her shoulders and ticket sales.

“Yes, it’s a f---ing huge risk. I’ll be in huge debt if this doesn’t do well. But this is me. Blackbird Ensemble is me. It feels like a bigger entity when people come to the show, because the brand is a big orchestra, but this is me. So, yes, it’s a big risk, but it’s all I want to do.”

Blackbird Ensemble plays Björk: All Is Full of Love at Auckland’s Q Theatre, November 8-11.

This article was first published in the November 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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