I have always admired Björk. That’s never been the problem. Björk has constantly caught my admiration, but somehow adoration—even enjoyment—has been out of grasp. It’s with some trepidation, then, that I find myself at a world premiere of her new Biophilia show, performed as part of the Manchester International Festival. This performance starts at four on a Sunday afternoon, a time usually reserved for sleeping after a glutinous Sunday lunch, and a time that would surely never be deemed acceptable in Reykjavík.
Even more out of the ordinary is the location and configuration of the event. Staged in a former Victorian market hall, Björk performs to an intimate audience of 1.800 from a stage set in the centre of the floor, flanked on each of the four sides by her fans. The audience is separated from the stage by only museum-style roping. Dotted around the stage are a percussionist, an electronic artist and instruments that Björk has specially created for ‘Biophilia,’ such as a digital pipe organ controlled through an iPad, four gravitational pendulum harps, a ‘sharpsichord‘ (me neither!), and a ‘gameleste’—the love child of a gamelan and a celeste, of course.
As grand entrances go, it’s astonishing. Accompanied by a 24-piece, all-female Icelandic choir, Björk enters wearing a preposterous outsized orange wig, reminiscent of a cartoon dog, and a heavily ruffled blue dress. Starting with new song ‘Thunderbolt,’ a caged Tesla coil is lowered from the ceiling. Purple/white forks of lightning fizzle and crack. Björk lets rip with that voice. The audience cannot help but take notice.
‘Biophilia’ is billed as a multimedia project and will involve music, apps, internet, installations, an educational arm and, of course, live shows. The album is to be released as a series of interactive iPad apps, and will be the first of its kind. A surprise voiceover from a breathy David Attenborough informs me that ‘Biophilia’ is a ‘love of life’ and the subsequent study of the relationship between nature, music and technology. It might well be, but I start to worry more about the fragile relationship between artist and audience.
FALLING FLAT, GETTING UP
Some of the new songs fall strangely flat, in spite of the concept and ideas behind them. ‘Moon’ based on lunar phases, fails to ignite, as do ‘Dark Matters’ and ‘Hollow.’ ‘Virus’ is pulled through by its projections of evil, humanised biological battles on the hexagonal bank of screens above the stage.
It’s the older, more familiar songs that begin to connect Björk to her audience. ‘Hidden Place’ positively lights up the room with joyful singing from the choir and graphic, colourful images (a seal is consumed by star fish on the sea floor). ‘Isobel’ also benefits from the choirs’ presence, fusing some of Björk’s often cold beats and stark verses with a genuine depth and warmth.
Iceland is never far from Biophilia. In ‘Mutual Core,’ a song about tectonic plates, images start from a widescreen view of Þingvellir before panning out to show a globe criss-crossed with glowing lines of plates and fissures. ‘Crystalline’ with its dance roots and surprise drum and bass ending is a crowd pleaser. It’s not hard to imagine it blasting from a Reykjavík club.
YET ANOTHER CONVERSION IS MADE
Björk patrols the stage, ensuring that everyone feels included and involved. It’s a strategy that works; Björk in a fearsome wig, standing all of two metres away from you, and looking straight into your eyeballs really does get the heart beating. But it’s the choir that I really enjoyed; sometimes choreographed in bizarre square dance formations and dressed in sparkled blue and gold outfits, they add a touch of humanity to proceedings to counterbalance Björk’s often esoteric concepts, and cold contraptions. I’m told that afterwards they are performing in central Manchester; I feel genuinely sorry that I won’t be able to make it, and even more so when I’m told they were excellent singing in the late evening sunlight.
Björk returns for an encore. She starts with ‘One Day’ from her Debut album. Sung only with her percussionist for company, he plays what appears to be a set of upside down woks, apparently called a ‘hang.’ The effect is simple, sublime, and sensational. It is followed by a magical ‘Jóga’—including the now much admired choir—and ends with a celebratory ‘Declare Independence.’
I’m not sure of the ‘Biophilia’ concept, the newfangled instruments or the clear desire to be the ‘future of music’. Maybe Björk should keep things simple. It seems that this is where she is at her best. It’s those moments of this extraordinary show that will stay with me for a long time to come. I leave converted.