Grad composes orchestral adaptation of Björk’s song Unravel

It’s not every day a composer gets to unravel a song by Icelandic singer Björk, gather the threads and expand it into a full symphonic piece performed around the world from Florence, Italy, to São Paulo, Brazil. But then York grad Aaron Jensen (BFA Spec. Hons. ’06) isn’t an average guy. He’s a vocalist, composer, arranger, instrumentalist and music director who enjoys hanging off 30-feet high walls in indoor climbing gyms and authoring cryptic crossword puzzles in his off time.

A tenor, Jensen has performed and toured with the 115-voice Amadeus Choir, the South African song and gumboot quartet Dina Ledi, the Renaissance octet Voci Strane and Retrocity, a 1980s a cappella tribute band. He is also the primary arranger for the three-time Juno-nominated a cappella jazz quartet Cadence, which takes a vocal big band approach to its predominantly jazz repertoire and has a new album coming out in the next couple of months, along with a European tour in the fall. Jensen performs about 150 gigs annually around the world with Cadence members, including York alumni Carl Berger (BA Spec. Hons. ’99) and Ross Lynde (BFA Spec. Hons. ’00).

Left: Aaron Jensen

The score on how Jensen landed the gig composing for the symphony, however, began when The Swingle Singers, an award-winning a cappella group based in the United Kingdom, asked him to do a vocal arrangement of Björk’s song Unravel for their latest album Ferris Wheels. Until recently, The Swingle Singers performed mostly classical pieces, so Ferris Wheels, a celebration of contemporary songwriters, was a bit of a departure. So far, it has paid off with a 2010 Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) nomination for Best Jazz Album and a CARA win for Best Jazz Song for No More "I Love You’s".

They liked Jensen’s 3-minute 57-second vocal arrangement so much they asked him to expand Unravel into a 10-minute, full orchestral arrangement for their orchestral series. Jensen’s adaptation of Unravel was premiered in March by The Swingle Singers and the Orchestra della Toscana in Florence. "The instrumental sections which bookend the piece are more like stand-alone compositions, whereas the vocal part in the middle represents more of an arrangement of the original,” says Jensen, adding that it is a significant departure from the original Björk song, drawing inspiration from the works of modern composers, such as Bé la Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.

It was the first time Jensen had tackled such a long classical piece. "There was an incredible amount of work involved. Writing for instruments is tricky. Each instrument is like a diva. There are very special considerations that have to be understood, for example, if an instrument can’t play quietly in certain ranges, there’s only so much a musician can do to accommodate,” he says. “I had to really learn about each instrument and what it was and was not capable of. It was certainly a large learning curve, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Without the opportunity to hear any of his orchestral arrangement performed live beforehand, Jensen admits to having lost some sleep leading up to the Florence premiere.

Above: From left, Ross Lynde, Aaron Jensen, Kurt Sampson and Carl Berger of Cadence

“There’s a huge margin for error. I was nervous that some small oversight would lead to a train wreck and that I wouldn’t be there to correct it,” he says. Jensen was in Alberta, on tour with Cadence, the day of the premiere. The piece has since been performed by The Swingle Singers in collaboration with the Tucca Philharmonic in São Paulo, Brazil, which Jensen attended. In April, it will be performed in Israel and Germany.

Jensen also does voice work for television and radio commercials and theme songs, and most recently, for film. His is one of the voices that will be heard, along with fellow Cadence members and jazz singer Emilie-Claire Barlow, on the soundtrack for the upcoming film Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston.

Currently, Jensen is negotiating with an international publishing company to release the entire body of his choral works, which will give his compositions even greater exposure. As Jensen says, the “global choral community is very large…there are choirs everywhere in the world.”

That’s good news for Jensen, who is already more than halfway through his next project, which involves selecting one poet from each of Canada’s provinces and territories, setting their words to music, and creating a 13-piece song-cycle from the selections. Once the large work is completed, Jensen plans to travel across Canada workshopping the pieces with choirs in preparation for concerts which will feature the new works. “I’m trying to get a cross-section of both well-established and up-and-coming poets,” he says.

To listen to Jensen’s vocal arrangement of Unravel sung by The Swingle Singers, click here.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer