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Meet the Ensemble Reinterpreting Grimes' Songs as Classical Music

We spoke to Montreal group Plumes about deconstructing the Canadian artist's critically-acclaimed 2012 album 'Visions.'
Photo by Kevin Jones, courtesy of The Music Gallery

This post ran originally on THUMP Canada. In 2012, Montreal-based singer-songwriter and producer Grimes released her third studio album, Visions. Written, recorded, and produced entirely by Claire Boucher over a grueling three-week span the previous year, the one-woman cyborg-pop project received critical acclaim from publications including the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork, and would propel the Canadian artist into the mainstream.


Given the GarageBand-crafted record's sonic maximalism and its nods to "post-internet" culture, you probably wouldn't expect the songs to carry over to a classical setting, but Montreal ensemble Plumes' latest concert series "Many Visions: Plumes Deconstructs the Music of Grimes" proves otherwise. After playing at the 2016 Cluster Festival in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the group—Veronica Charnley (vocals), Louise Campbell (bass clarinet), Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau (harp), Pemi Paull (viola), Karl Jannuska (drums), and Geof Holbrook (keyboard and electronics)—were invited by co-director Luke Nickel to trace the intersection between pop and classical music. They asked 13 Canadian composers including Nicole Lizée, Marielle Groven, Cassandra Miller, Emilie LeBel, and Monica Pearce to offer up their "free interpretations" of the Juno Award-winning record's 13 tracks, which Plumes then performs live.

Currently touring across the country, "Many Visions" is a different show every night, with the artists improvising off their sheet music. Their version of "Skin" sees Charnley mirroring Boucher's vaporous falsetto, elsewhere, the electronics of "Genesis" are reproduced by layering instruments. The series even received a Twitter co-sign from the Roc Nation artist herself. We recently caught up with the ensemble ahead of their Toronto show to discuss how the project came together and why they feel Grimes' music is ripe for symphonic crossover.


THUMP: How did you end up deciding to cover Visions?

Geof Holbrook: It wasn't really random. Luke was suggesting doing an album by Joanna Newsom or Feist, but if we took someone like Joanna Newsom, there's already a certain amount of classical influence. We thought it might be more interesting to take something that is a bit more squarely in the pop music world. It turned out to be a good strategy. It's sort of a collision with a classical composer's aesthetic with these tracks.

These interpretations, do they happen live on the spot? How do you play the music and how strictly do you stick to the sheet music?
Veronica Charnley: Sometimes on the sheet, we're instructed to improvise.

Pemi Paull: But even if you have every note written down, every rhythm written down, if I'm playing strings, how I move the bow, that's my choice. What kind of sound I make, there's no symbol that can tell you exactly what sound to make, so you're always kind of making it up as you go along, even if we have things where we're set up.

How did the synth components translate?
Holbrook: Well, sometimes it actually is a synth. [The composers] asked for a synth sound that was somewhere in the same world, that of course was combined with the classical instruments, like the harp and the clarinet.

What was the best part about translating Grimes' music?
Paull: It's interesting hearing how the composers are picking up on things in the pieces that they are responding to, and then creating something. We're hearing Grimes through the prism of somebody else's imagination. That changes the way we hear Grimes. You get somebody else's inner thought process about the music, expressed in sound.


Do you have a favourite song on the album to perform?
Holbrook: We don't know yet. We're still living the songs out.

Eveline Gregoire-Rousseau: I think the songs are going to grow every night as we play them. We have so many shows, so the interpretation is going to continue to change. And also, because the group has existed for such a long time, the way we see music has changed over the years too.

It's interesting to see a fusion of these two very different communities. I'm curious to hear what the reception is like.
Gregoire-Rousseau: It's a work in progress in general. I think we had a lot of people from classical. From other genres, I think it's going to take time, but we can surely regroup all kinds of audiences to hear us.

Paull: I'm really optimistic because I think that in all the years I've been playing, I've noticed the different musical communities have merged a lot more than have separated. Everybody's much more open to what everyone else is doing, and much more aware of what other genres are doing. I would say that one thing about playing in Quebec from the rest of Canada is that Quebec doesn't look so much to the States at all. Most of the culture that's coming is looking more to Europe than to America.

Plumes Show Dates

March 17 - Cluster Festival - Winnipeg, Manitoba
March 18 - Village Guitar & Amp Co. - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
March 21 - Music on Main - Vancouver, British Columbia

Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.