Sound on Sound

Guy Sigsworth : Björk Live

You might expect Björk’s eclectic repertoire and capricious temperament to make the task of arranging and sequencing her live shows a nightmare. As Paul Tingen discovers, however, for Guy Sigsworth, that’s half the fun...

Björk’s recent UK tour raised more than a few eyebrows, and not just because of her electrifying stage presence — likened before now to a cat on bonfire night. Yet for the Icelandic singer’s strange, idiosyncratic music to have broken through to a mainstream audience is no mean feat. A bizarre cocktail of the latest developments in all sorts of techno styles : dance, house, ambient, trip-hop and swingbeat, it also embraces elements of world music, folk, classical, Renaissance, jazz and even big band music. A lot of it is far-out stuff, and not the kind of thing that one expects to appeal to the man or woman in the street. Yet Björk is currently very popular, something that can be measured from the success of hit singles like ’Venus As A Boy’, ’Big Time Sensuality’, and ’It’s Oh So Quiet’, and her two solo albums to date, Debut (1993) and Post (1995). These have attracted such diverse producers as Nellee Hooper in the first case, and a combination of Hooper, Tricky, Howie Bernstein and Graham Massey (of 808 State) in the latter.

However, it’s one thing for an artist to sell a lot of records on the back of a few relatively catchy and approachable singles and a unique image ; it’s quite another to watch thousands of punters dance along enthusiastically in a cold and characterless hall like Wembley Arena to a largely technology-driven show that features some of the weirdest sounds and most heavy-duty, hardcore techno rhythms ever heard on these shores. What’s more, Björk’s extraordinary, throaty vocal style and often very abstract vocal lines, largely devoid of what we would normally call ’tunes’, gave them very little to sing along to. Yet they loved it anyway, cheering loudly as the elfin singer roamed the impressive stage set, which featured a mixture of images and forms from the worlds of industry and nature.

Significantly, and typically, Björk had done very little to make life easy for her new-found audience. Unlike most acts who reach Wembley Arena, she had chosen not merely to reproduce the arrangements and sounds of the songs of her albums. Instead, a 4-piece band, consisting of Briton Trevor Morais on drums and octopads, the Japanese accordionist Coba, Londoner Guy Sigsworth on keyboards and harpsichord, and the Iranian Leila Arab on the mixing desk, worked their way through largely familiar material in a very unfamiliar fashion.

This was remarkable, since somewhere backstage there was clearly a sequencer performing a lot of tasks, and most technology-based bands tend to slavishly reproduce the same sequences live as they use earlier in the studio. Combined with reports that Björk’s shows can vary wildly from night to night, it made the whole thing rather intriguing.

MODULAR MAKEOVER

The person best placed to shed light on the mysteries of Björk’s live show is keyboard player Guy Sigsworth. He’s been part of Björk’s live band for three years, and was responsible for translating and arranging the material on Björk’s albums for live performance during this second world tour. When I spoke to him a few days after the Wembley gig, last January, he had just left Björk’s band, because his own band, Acacia, had been landed a major record deal. Living in a basement flat only a stone’s throw away from Abbey Road Studios, Sigsworth explained that the scale of the differences between Björk’s albums and live shows were due partly to the way he had re-sequenced and rearranged the material, and partly to the onstage role of Leila Arab, whose treatment of much of the sequenced material amounted to a virtual ’live remix’. Sigsworth explains :

"Post was recorded with a range of different producers, and when it came to arranging the album material for live performance, only Graham Massey was available to give me program numbers, samples, patches and sequence information. So I went into a recording studio and re-sampled a certain amount of sequenced material off the multitracks — mostly analogue 24-tracks — using an S3000, and rebuilt the sequences that we needed in my Atari/Notator sequencer. I created a more or less complete model of each track, and took these sequences to the rehearsal studio when the band came in. Then, it was a case of deciding which parts to give to the live band, and which sequences to give to Leila to mess around with.

"Björk doesn’t like the idea of slavishly reproducing her albums tracks live, and so Leila’s role was to bring a live element into the sequences. She certainly surprised us many times, bringing down choruses to almost nothing where we expected something big, radically distorting and manipulating the sounds of certain parts, and so on. In many ways, her role was the most spontaneous of us all — she was probably the only one who never played the same on any one night. This was why we also decided on an irreducible minimum set of sequences, anchor parts that were essential for the band to always know where we were. They went straight to the front of house — nobody was allowed to touch them. But there weren’t too many of those sequences."

FREE SPIRIT

Thirty-five year-old Sigsworth has not always been at the cutting edge of modern electronic music. On the contrary, his background as a musician couldn’t be further removed, and is in the areas of early music, avant-garde classical music and ethnomusicology, subjects which he once studied at St Catherine’s College in Cambridge. Later, he went on to study harpsichord at the Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands, and subsequently worked as a harpsichordist with the European Baroque Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra.

Despite his classical background, Sigsworth points out that he has always been "into modern stuff and electronics", and that he was already playing around with sampling in the mid-’80s, on one of the very first affordable samplers, the 8-bit Green Gate DS3, which ran on an Apple computer and also sported a 4-track sequencer. "From an audiofile point of view it was ghastly, but from a creativity point of view it was great, and I learnt a lot from working with that machine," he recalls.

Sigsworth’s first break into non-classical music came through his brother, a documentary film maker, who asked him to score one of his films. Building on his experience with the DS3, Sigsworth had built his own home studio, made up of "cheesy budget gear", such as a Roland S330 sampler and Yamaha DX11 synth. A chance meeting with Seal in a squat in North London resulted in the singer inviting the keyboard player to help him out with his debut album — he’d been impressed by the demos Sigsworth had recorded on his home setup. It catapulted the classical musician straight to pop success, for he co-wrote several well-known Seal tracks with the singer, such as ’Crazy’, ’Wild’, ’Violet’ and ’The Beginning’, and also played keyboards on the singer’s debut album. From this, Sigsworth went on to work with Adamski, Tim Simenon (he co-wrote the gorgeous ballad ’Winter In July’, and played live with Bomb The Bass), Hector Zazou, Nokko (a big Japanese pop star), and even produced a record by US heavy metal band Naked Truth — thus detaching himself as far from early music as is imaginable.

PILLAR TO POST

When friend and Simply Red drummer Gota was invited to play on Björk’s first world tour in 1993, he in turn suggested Sigsworth to her as a keyboard player. On this first tour, Sigsworth’s role was limited to playing the "disciplined" keyboard parts, whilst his fellow keyboardist, the legendary Bernie Worrell, worked out on the more fancy parts. The 7-piece band — "no guitars, which appears to be a golden rule with Björk," performed most of the material live, with the exception of only three songs that used some sequencers, "because there was no other way of doing them live".

For her second album, Post, Björk almost passed Sigsworth by — his contribution was limited to playing harpsichord on one track, plus a B-side — but she then virtually promoted him to musical director, entrusting him with the job of translating the album arrangements for live purposes. Guy explains the course of events :

"By the second album, Björk had decided that she wanted both more technology, and more natural, acoustic stuff, and to pull out the things in the middle. I was to play keyboards live, but increasingly, she wanted me to play instruments like harpsichord and pipe organ. She asked me to put the band together, though it was her idea to have Leila — who had played some keyboards on the first tour — to mix and treat sequences live on stage.

"There were a lot of strings on the album, arranged by the famous Brazilian arranger Eumir Deodato, because both Björk and I agreed that sampled strings sounded really ’yuk’. I suggested that we use an accordion for the sustained and/or string parts. We were lucky to find Coba, who is well-known as an artist in Japan. Drummer Trevor Morais was Björk’s idea ; she knew that he was adept in playing with Octopads, and would be comfortable with being a kind of rhythmitist, rather than a traditional rock ’n’roll kit drummer.

"Trevor had an Akai S3000 with samples, both his own and samples that had been taken from the record. At the beginning of the tour, he used a Simmons kit. Later he had KAT Octopads, which are much smaller and allowed him to instantly switch between acoustic and electronic drums. Sometimes he was reproducing parts from the album, but at other times he was creating completely new parts. I’d programmed the sequencer to supply both Trevor and myself with clicks, which we could listen to via headphones when we wanted, because obviously we couldn’t drift. But one of the things I love about working with Björk is the extreme contrast between the strict rhythms of the sequencer, and the completely free time of the acoustic tunes. They are a complete antidote, where everything is in theatrical, not machine timing.

"’It’s Oh So Quiet’, for example, was done with me on celeste and piano, Coba on accordion and Trevor on Big Band-style drums. The nature of that song, with its stop/start rhythm, is that the tempo has to be really flexible, so we didn’t use sequencers on it. ’Venus As A Boy’ was performed with just me rippling away on a harpsichord, and was also completely in free time. There were a few other tunes which were performed in free time without the sequencer, one of which featured just Coba and Björk. The accordion is a beautiful instrument for that, where you can swell through chords and then suddenly stop."

Even if some of the non-sequenced songs could be erratic, the timing of the sequenced tunes had to be as tight as possible — and Sigsworth explained that this involved him having to go through a lengthy process of sampling many of the album multitrack sections note by note, and rebuilding the sequences note for note, rather than lifting material in longer stretches :

"The S3000 has three minutes and 10 seconds of stereo sampling time, so I could have peeled song stretches from the multitrack, or created 8- or 16-bar loops, but I decided not to do that, because a sequencer can drift sometimes, and even with 8-bar sections that would sound unmusical. So if timing was critical, I broke the samples down to single notes, whereas if it wasn’t so critical, I used two-bar loops — but never longer. Also, in the course of the tour we sometimes wanted to change the tempo of certain pieces, and obviously, the more loops you have, the harder that is."

NEW TRICKS FOR OLD DOGS

Both Guy and Leila use Akai S3000 samplers on stage, in his case with a Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Emu Vintage Keys, fed through a Mackie 1604 mixer, and played from a Kurzweil PC88 mother keyboard. He has more portable companions, however :

"I also always carry a little Korg 01/W with me, because it’s a very good, general purpose thing. It’s not the best synth in the world, but it’s really good during rehearsals or in a hotel room, to get some ideas going, because it’s very quick and easy to find approximations of other things on it.

"At the front of the stage, I had a Rogers electronic harpsichord. It’s a brilliant instrument, distributed by Roland, but with its built-in speaker, it’s really meant for the performing classical musician, not the rock market. It has two manuals, and the harpsichord sounds have been sampled very well, especially the key release sound, which is an essential part of harpsichord playing, and which is usually absent from commercially available harpsichord samples. It feels like a real harpsichord ; they’ve thrown in samples of pipe organ and celeste, and it even has Sound Canvas sounds in it, though I didn’t bother with those."

Björk’s World Tour has taken Guy’s beloved Rogers to the Far East, but this time with two new keyboard players. With Acacia’s signing, Guy has his hands full. At this rate of progress though, it can’t be long before he can afford an electronic harpsichord of his own. Living on the edge does have its rewards !

BLOSSOMING OUT

Guy Sigsworth is currently working with Alexander, singer and the other half of Acacia, writing and recording material for a forthcoming album. To this end, he’s building his own home setup, consisting of an Akai S3200XL, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Roland JD800 and Vintage Keys, Yamaha DX11, Emu Proteus World and Proteus Orchestral, Roland D110, a trusty Atari ST running Notator and a Mackie 1604 mixer.

For live purposes, Acacia employs the services of guitarist Mauritzio Anzalone and Indian percussionist Ansaman Biswas. Sigsworth describes their music as "pop melodies with very strange arrangements."

With Guy’s ear for a good tune, and experience in working with much weird and wonderful music, Acacia’s debut single, ’Hate (Radar)’ is exciting some interest. There’s also a tour to look forward to !

OUT OF THE ARK

Although Sigsworth originally programmed Björk’s sequences in an Atari computer, it was decided to switch to a more reliable hardware sequencer for live performance.

"We transferred the sequences to a Roland MC50. We took two, in case something went wrong — in fact, we had doubles of every piece of gear that we took with us ! I was the one who pressed the sequencer Start button, whilst a backstage tech changed the programs. The sequencer triggered an Akai S3000, which contained mainly beats, plus a Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Vintage Keys. If a particular sound on the album wasn’t that unique, I tended to program a fair imitation into the Vintage Keys or Matrix.

"Leila received 8 channels of S3000 on her 24-track Soundcraft Spirit desk, and she also had an extra S3000, which she could play from a small Ovation keyboard, to trigger sounds she wanted to throw over the top, or for making links between songs. Her treatment gear included an Eventide H3000, which had some very bizarre programs in it, and various other units that she would fall in and out of love with. At the latest stage of the tour, she fell in love with the Boss SE70, the incredibly cheap half-U rack box. It has great simultaneous effects, and a ring modulator that she thought was brilliant."

Paul Tingen

publié dans Sound on Sound - 01.05.1996

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