Wallis Bird & Spark: Visions of Venus – Bringing 1,000 years of music by women to life with vigour and insight

Berlin-based Irish singer-songwriter collaborates with contemporary German classical quintet in a genre-breaking blend of pop, jazz and classical

Visions of Venus
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Artist: Wallis Bird & Spark
Genre: Classical/Art-Pop
Label: Edel/Neue Meister

Bringing 1,000 years of music by women to some form of life is a challenge that only the most courageous (or foolhardy) performer could face, but kudos to Wallis Bird for bringing such vigour and insight to the project that, even when it doesn’t work perhaps as well as it could, you have to congratulate the Berlin-based Irish singer and songwriter for throwing her heart into it.

With a shifting soundtrack that took shape over several years, Bird and her collaborators, the contemporary German classical quintet Spark, selected works by 18 women. They start in the year 1098, with the birth of Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine abbess, philosopher, mystic and visionary. Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae is a meditative piece referencing divine wisdom that Spark outline in drone-like fashion. A Mirage, a chamber-music arrangement of a song by Amy Beach, the first American woman to compose large-scale art music, is beautifully delivered by Bird. Billie Holiday’s Now or Never receives a faithful rendition, even if Bird’s voice seems too wholesome for its jazzy vibe.

Contemporary women’s voices and their songs (including Björk’s Oceania, Kate Bush’s Babooshka, Anohni’s Daylight and the Sun, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, Enya’s Only Time, Carole King’s A Natural Woman) rest beside lesser-known work by the likes of the Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (Fast Blue Village), the Austrian pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis (Sicilienne), Fanny Hensel (There Be None of Beauty’s Daughters) and Clara Schumann (Lov’st Thou for Beauty), as well as the Bird original Dr James Barry.

As one might expect with such a diverse range of work, the outcome isn’t always perfect, but to expect that would be to miss the point of the endeavour, which is to highlight the pioneering (and often unheralded, unheeded and deliberately buried) work of women who were far ahead of their times. It is also a true collaborative project in which Bird and Spark sonically rub off each other, creating a genre-breaking blend of pop, jazz and contemporary classical.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture