review by Althea Legaspi
Björk has always been an ambitious, compelling figure, from her work in Sugarcubes (a rumored reunion made its rounds during Iceland Airwaves this year, but alas it didn’t come to fruition), to her astounding early solo albums, such as the excellent Debut and Homogenic. Her body of work is as varied, rich and intriguing as her distinct vocals, with their emphasized, trilling enunciations and provoking emotion.
Her latest creation, Biophilia, is her most ambitious yet. More a project than standalone album, she told Pitchfork it was originally intended to be a musical house in Iceland “where each room was like a song.” There were also designs for a Michel Gondry documentary for National Geographic, but that’s reportedly on hold for now. What did finally transpire was a multimedia application suite for iPad and iPhone that corresponds with all the songs on Biophilia, special residency performances, and an educational component as well -– all of which explores the connection of nature and its inherent relationship to musicology and human emotion.
I witnessed both the classroom and performance aspects of Biophilia in action during Iceland Airwaves this month. The day after her riveting first hometown Biophilia residency date on 12 Oct (more on that later), the beautiful space her residency occupied in the newly fashioned and spectacular Harpa venue played host to children. Sitting attentive and cross-legged on the theater-in-the-round stage, a dozen or so children gazed upwards as two giant Tesla coils played lightning conductor via iPad triggering, which isolated the sound that added extra rhythm during Björk’s performances.
The school-aged kids were flanked by Björk’s newly-created instruments, which included the caged Tesla coils, a gameleste (a hybrid of a celeste and gamelan), a giant wooden-and-metal pendulum “gravity harp” construction that played harp strings as it swung during Björk’s performance, and a large mushroom-shaped saucer called a hang, a kind of drum that provided almost Carribbean sounding rhythms to “One Day” from her previous nights’ performance. All of this presumably fostered their creativity and walking the circumference of the stage I could only feel reverence for Björk’s vision.
Just outside of the concert hall, the students’ science projects were taking root. This was their experimentation with crystal growth, which obviously ties in with Björk’s “Crystalline” song.
Taken alone, the album itself falls short at its most basic listenability, favoring a discordant, seemingly aimless root above melody or harmony. Although there are some glistening moments that bubble up to the surface on songs, Biophilia’s material alone is more often overshadowed by an erratic quality. However, its story is better told as a whole, encompassing her performance and as an innovative classroom environment, where Biophilia’s overarching concept is fully realized. The sum of its admirably idealistic parts is grander in practice than on record. And while the recorded music serves as the nucleus from which the rest of the project orbits, it’s hard to fault Björk seemingly falling shy of brilliance on recording alone, when her theories are to work in tandem. Which brings us to her enchanting and unforgettable performance on Wednesday at Harpa. The handcrafted instruments added definition and structure to the scattered-ideas-on-record compositions: the gamalese radiated a childlike wonder with its tinkly melodies on “Crystalline,” the caged double-Tesla coil aptly added a literal electrified lightning rhythm into “Thunderbolt.” Björk, wearing a gigantic hair-piece that mimicked the bright colors in a flame, was a force of nature herself, playing to all sides of the stage, while her 24-member all-female choir buoyed each drawn-out Björkian syllable. In the intimate theater-in the round, where 800 fans had great sightlines no matter where they stood/sat, jumbo screens broadcasted video created for Biophilia (comprising some of the iPad application games), while a booming pre-recorded announcer voice courtesy of David Attenborough narrated between songs, and musicians Matt Robertson, Jon Sims and Manu Delago colored in the sketches of what sounded incomplete on album. In the live setting, Björk and her Biophilia ecosystem pulsated, blossomed and flourished. That she added “Isobel” and the rousing “Declare Independence” finale to the mix was extra icing. It was a major highlight of this year’s Iceland Airwaves festival.