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Vince Mendoza: Color, Counterpoint and Open Ears

By Published: September 10, 2007
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Working With Björk

AAJ: I have to ask you about Björk, whose music I really admire. You did the orchestrations for her 2000 Selmasongs (Elektra) and her 2001 Vespertine (Elektra) CDs, and I just think the world of what you did with her.

I think you worked with her first on the Selmasongs recording, which consists of the musical pieces for Lars von Trier's film Dancer in the Dark. I really love the way you arranged for her, and I hear things she's always liked to use—those surging, ascending melodies—in the string parts you did for her. How'd you come to work with her, and in what manner did you work together?

VM: Well, we met through a project that I did with Don Henley in Los Angeles; she came out and sang a Billie Holiday tune that I arranged for her that I guess she liked. So she called me when she was working on Lars von Trier's movie, and we talked about doing some orchestral music to go along with it. There was a long process of discussion about what we really wanted to do, but the byproduct of the discussion was that we really had a similar approach to what we wanted to do with the music.

And, especially, what we didn't want to do [laughing]. Which had something in common away from Lars, because Lars, I think, wanted something completely different from what both Björk and I, artistically, felt comfortable doing. So of course we went with our instinct and did what we wanted to do.

And she was very kind about giving me license to write what I thought was appropriate, and it was a really nice experience. But it was unlike most other film experiences. The tracks were sent to me, and I wrote around the synths, vocals and drum machine stuff and went to London and recorded it—but I never saw Lars, and we never made demo tapes, and there were no meetings, no revisions, no redos. We just did it, and it was done. They filmed to the music, and that was the end of that.


I think that her experience as an actress in that movie drove her directly back into the studio for Vespertine; she just wanted to be a musician again. And I welcomed it, of course, and I think that Vespertine is my favorite of all her records.

AAJ: Well, Vespertine is one of my favorite records, period.

VM: It just has so many wonderful layers to it. She did a wonderful job, and I'm very proud to have been able to work on it and be associated with it. But that was a completely different process. We talked a bit about what she wanted the CD to be, and went through some songs, and listened to a few things that didn't end up being on it, and I told her what I thought would be optimal orchestration to use—strings, flutes, percussion. I kind of had this thought that I would try to make it like if Pierre Boulez were writing for the record, and use that percussion and flute aspect. But a lot of that [laughing] didn't get used!

As for the choirs—we did some recordings with choir, and for the original choir that I wrote, we actually had a live choir in the gallery at Air Lindhurst [Studios] playing with the orchestra. They did not use the live choir [laughing]; they used the sampled choir, unfortunately, because I thought the live choir was really quite dramatic, and sounded beautiful. But they used live choir on "Hidden Place, I think.

But the process was really different. It was a little more modular—there were people doing bass parts, and harp parts, and things went in and out. When we recorded it, they put it on the ProTools, and she took it to editing and mixing and used some of it, and didn't use other parts. I suspect that there might have been parts that she relocated—if, say, she wanted strings in some places and not in others. She took a little more control about what she wanted to use and what she didn't want to use. Which wasn't the case with the music for the movie. There, I think we pretty much did the tracks, and got them done, and that was it.

But Vespertine is a very well-crafted record. Everything is where it's supposed to be, in retrospect. And she was wonderful to work with, and a lovely person. I wish all of my gigs could be like that.

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Working With Joni Mitchell

AAJ: I think I must ask about Joni Mitchell. You did the 2000 Both Sides Now and 2002 Travelogue records for her.

VM: Well, both records had a lot to do with my relationship with Larry Klein. Of course, over the years, we've become good friends—but we've also realized that our approach to writing and recording, and the people we like to listen to, and the people we like to read, and the photospheres we like, were all similar. And also, our points of departure with a lot of the music we worked on, whether it was [bassist] Kyle Eastwood, or Joni, or whoever, were similar.

So we had a working language, and a mutual trust, so he let me do what I needed to do, what I wanted to do. And I trusted that I had certain parameters that I needed to work with, and that I could leave others behind. So those two records came out of that relationship.


For the first one, as you know, most of them are standards. We did a couple of Joni's tunes. And the experience was so nice that we immediately went into plans to do another one, which consisted of all her music this time. I think it was partly because we thought that on the first record, her songs were the most effective in an orchestral setting, treated as tone poems.

Her poetry is so wonderful, and deep, and interesting, that to write poetry in music was the natural thing to do. So the second record was really all about writing tone poems with her music. Of course, there were a lot of challenges involved in that—when to use guitars and when not to, when to use her parts and when not to use her parts, what is composed and what isn't. All the problems inherent in redoing such staples in the American popular culture.

That was a challenge. But just the thought of doing orchestral tone poems to her music was natural; the words are so vibrant and deep that was a natural thing to want to dive into that pool.

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