A musician announcing plans to “re-imagine” a well-loved body of work in the live arena can induce a shiver down the spine of the devoted fan. In anticipation of the results? Or of dread at what might transpire? Perhaps a mixture of both, given the chequered history of this concept.
This televised performance by Björk in Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall—part of a series presenting her songs through unusual instrumentation—sees her collaborate with the Hamrahlið Choir, one of Iceland‘s foremost choral organisations. And there‘s no need for Björk fans to be hesitant to witness the results, as this treatment coaxes breathtaking new aspects out of familiar material.
Many of the songs are taken from her 2004 album ‘Medúlla’, a record constructed mainly from various sounds made by the human voice. Björk decided not to tour the record at the time, considering it too difficult to recreate on stage. But the Hamrahlið Choir, in making 42 human voices available, provides an unmissable opportunity to explore the possibilities of this material.
Artist at play
Taking the stage, Björk projects a stately presence regularly illuminated by flashes of her trademark playfulness. She swishes and sways her blue velvet hooped dress, her face partially obscured by a solid brass mask-helmet that gives the impression she’s sporting a pair of metallic ram’s horns. But through the metal frame it’s easy to identify the joy of someone doing exactly what they are meant to be doing, with the added glee of having just raided the world’s most expensive dressing-up box.
Following the opening number “Show Me Forgiveness”—performed solo and a cappella, as on ‘Medúlla’—Björk is joined by an entirely white-clad choir. The choristers’ clothing provides the perfect canvas for coloured washes of static stage lighting, its visual simplicity allowing the voices of the performers to shine.
But proceedings are not entirely vocal. Björk’s long-time collaborator Bergur Þórisson contributes organ along with some carefully understated beats and electronic sonics. And Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason, musical director of the Icelandic Opera, plays various instruments including harpsichord on Björk‘s debut hit “Human Behaviour”; a quirky pass at a classic track, surprisingly included in the set while the choir take a breather.
The choristers are also on a break during “Vertebrae By Vertebrae”, when Björk’s only accompaniment is Bjarni’s stabbing, spiky accordion. The track acts as a sonic sorbet between choral courses, but its slightly jarring effect does make you look forward to the return of the lush, gentle sounds of the choir. And in doing so, it testifies to the success of this format.
The night’s highlights come in the shape of the two strongest moments on ‘Medúlla’. “Pleasure Is All Mine”—the choir’s first track as they take the stage—has a hypnotic, pure-chant aesthetic. And “Who Is It” just feels like unbridled joy, the smiling choristers casually sauntering around the stage as they sing.
No easy undertaking
This isn’t the first time that the Hamrahlið Choir and Björk have worked together—indeed, a teenaged Björk was a member of their ranks—but even given such familiarity, this concert would be no easy undertaking for any artist. A stage packed with choristers might seem like somewhere a song could hide and let the massed voices do the heavy lifting.
But in fact this format strips songs down and lays them bare, leaning heavily on the songwriting and the choral arrangements—both of which are largely Björk‘s own work. Their quality and strength form the backbone to this performance.
Spine-tingling, but for the right reasons.
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