A strong northerly gale pushed against me as I approached the constantly darkening façade of Harpa. Inside, multimedia would meet education in Björk’s Biophilia.
All-consuming consumption of 8 (how we ate)
Björk’s Biophilia stems from years of her own activist work to raise awareness about the state of the Icelandic environment and Icelanders’ relationship to it. Her solo music has long held metaphoric reference to the environment (flip through her catalogue of lyrics for a cornucopia of examples). More recently, she put her power into the Náttúra campaign, which included a free outdoor concert in summer 2008. Last year, Björk took on MagmaCorp‘s (now called Alterra Power Corp) purchasing of bulk shares in HS Orka (which raised the side issue of management of the commons regarding geothermal resources in Iceland).
With the recent bounty of foreign environmental-activist visitors to Iceland — including Vandana Shiva, David Suzuki, and Julian Cribb — it is timely to have as one of Airwaves’ most anticipated shows Björk’s new project Biophilia. “Project” is more a word that encapsulates this work, since it is multi-leveled with environmentally inspired instruments created for it, science-meets-music educational workshops for youth, a new album, and more. The concerts held at Harpa provide one possible entry into the complex world of Biophilia. In this way, Björk’s finale Airwaves performance felt an iceberg tip denoting significant mass lurking beyond the seen, felt, and heard concert moment.
Upon the audience’s entrance, Harpa Silfurberg featured renderings of Björk’s pre-Biophilia repertoire on the showpiece instruments for this project including the pipe organ, hang, and gameleste. Bordered by patron seats to the south and risers in all other directions, Biophilia is performed in the round for an audience of eight hundred. The gameleste, gravity harp, drum kit, and synth station dominated the stage’s corners. Eight screens ringed the stage’s ceiling, depicting videos for more than half the songs.
Eight and eight: the eternal hunger for a figure spinning, twinning its ellipse.
Nature + Music + Technology = Biophilia
For the last decade, I’ve carried this quote with me:
“Electricity and equipment are just tools…. If there’s not soul in the music, it’s because nobody put it there… and it’s not the tool’s fault.” — Björk, from a 1997 documentary
I rubbed this quote between thumb and forefinger, as one does a worry-stone. How does the digital or digitized gesture map human desire onto (or embed it within) its non-sentient collaborators (or tools)? How does my act of listening imbue collections of new, processed, electric, electronic, eclectic sounds with narrative or my own unavoidable anthropomorphic tendencies? Biophilia answers with the curious finesse of the always hungry artistic explorer, as Björk explodes her previous technological offerings by partnering with instrument designers, iPad app builders, musicians, videographers, and even the voice of nature porn himself: David Attenborough.
As the concert room dimmed, Attenborough welcomed the audience via recorded audio as the Tesla coils lowered: “Sound, delivered with generosity and emotion, is music.” This pronouncement raced into mind questions such as: Is this not also describing language? Is music, then, not also a kind of language? What is communicated in this musical delivery? Attenborough went on to describe the coming experience as Nature + Music + Technology = Biophilia.
And then the musicians entered. Björk curtseyed her hello.
Show, shown, shone
Playing in the round demands a different approach to staging, and the show is punctuated with loose choreography for its many choir members and Björk herself, who all cluster and travel as herds, flocks, or excited atoms throughout the space. For the collection of performers whose stage experience likely largely fits more the proscenium arch “one perspective” style of performance, the Biophilia blocking feels carefully plotted so that all sides of the audience are included, with dynamism and intriguing visuals at every turn.
With such a visual feast, the costuming is worth special note. The choir wore shimmering blue-and-gold garments with matching leggings (though each outfit unique). Björk wore a green/black and gold knee-length dress, matching tights, towering tan wedge heels, and a cosmos-inspired pink-orange-yellow wig. Each choir appeared humble, themselves in how they sing as tribe. This is mirrored in Björk, who shone in her role as ensemble player.
When in the history of a Björk concert has an album been played in its entirety? This conceptualism orbits the same sun as progressive rock, rock opera, but is ultimately its own fantastic beast: multimedia with message.
Setlist: vertebral echolalia
æ “all my body parts are one as lightning hits my spine” (thunderbolt)
æ “to risk all is the end all and the beginning all.” (moon)
æ “we mimic the openness of the ones we love.” (crystalline)
æ “i yearn to belong; let me belong.” (hollow)
æ “oooooooooooooooooooooooooo” (dark matter)
æ “seek solace, sanctuary.” (hidden place)
æ “there is yet another one that supports me.” (mouth’s cradle)
æ “when she does it, she means to.” (isobel)
æ “my host is you… my sweet adversary.” (virus)
æ “she knew what you needed and she gave it to you.” (sacrifice)
æ “…raises her spine…” (vertebræ by vertebræ)
æ “enough is enough.” (where is the line)
æ “what you resist persists.” (mutual core)
æ “our universe was an endless land until our ancestors…” (cosmogeny)
æ “you remember why it got dark.” (solstice)
æ “one day it will happen.” (one day)
æ “allt sem við lendir, allt sem við lendir: náttúra!” (náttúra)
æ “don’t let them do that to you!” (declare independence)
In Hollow, DNA mapped voice onto the steady connective flow amidst busy too-fast-to-untangle beats, multirhythms, choir parts. For Virus, Manu Delgado played the hang, with a stunning second verse where he filled up all the space with an impossible carpet of breeding beats. Björk’s heartfelt lyrics urge a biocentric engagement with fellow earth inhabitants (to be appreciated as their own entities, even if parasitic, without ‘beauty’, unknowable): “I feast inside you; my host is you, my sweet adversary.” During the encore, Náttúra’s dizzying energy was unleashed on the audience. Björk’s voice sounded alarm at the treatment of the commons. Red lights warned of love and loss.
What is the overall message we take away from this selection of songs? What is the deeper, long-term objective received from a musician of Björk’s calibre? How is this a larger effort to educate about the earth and its biotic and abiotic systems so as to increase an understanding of, appreciation for, and interconnected affiliation with the environment?
And what does it mean for us to stand and listen to an hour and a half of concert at the end of Airwaves? What does it spur us to do? Is this experienced as “entertainment,” as “ekstasis,” as “ecocentric”? To what are we listening? For what are we listening? How do we listen (to each other, to ourselves, to our environmental soundscapes)?
Ecocritics, environmentalists, biocentrists, philosophers, economists, scientists, and more are all approaching this larger question of how to shift human valuation of environment — so that widely held attitudes more accurately reflect the dependency of the human species on the environment (and its ecosystem services, as economists crassly refer to environmental components). Through the comfort and catharsis of voice, a deeper appeal to emotions provides an intuited interconnection with other entities (biotic and abiotic). This form of communication extends language into more felt or intuited spaces — more bodily (and less heady). It is less easy to rationalize emotion, but easier to rely on one’s own taste. If the anthropomorphic impulse (to explain environmental unknowns through relating to their possible humanity) urges us toward compassion, action, respect, then it is well worth listening with ears wide, wide open.
The only off-moment in this musicological ecosystem happened at the show’s outset, when Attenborough recommended the audience forget their bodies to allow nature to embrace “us with all there is.” It would seem more in keeping with the project’s philosophy to deepen each audience member’s connection with her own body as nature, and thus as interconnected through mechanistic and emotional threads with environments.
Amidst song and siren, yearn and din, Harpa’s dim interior embraces a call to explore the external as internal. The amalgam of Björk’s solo oeuvre speaks to a long-term acknowledgement of the environment as synonymous with our human selves, and with the endangerment of both through careless employment of technology. Hers is not a “versus” or “either/or” comment on technology, environment, and social welfare; instead, Björk’s projects beam with careful and passionate recombinant re-presentation of the environmental human as machine, the mechanical environment as human, the humanity in environmental technologies. With Biophilia, make no mistake: this is a deeply educational and activist artistic gesture.