Live Review: Björk’s Biophilia springs to life in Iceland

Special Biophilia performance by Björk at Iceland Airwaves 2011
photo by Ari Magg

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.

Harpa / photo by Althea Legaspi

Tesla coils / photo by Althea Legaspi

gravity harp / photo by Althea Legaspi

Crystalline growth / photo by Althea Legaspi

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.

photos by Ari Magg, courtesy of Iceland Airwaves:

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  1. scott
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    What does a member get out of KEXP going to Iceland? Why does this use of funds make me want to become a member or renew my membership?

  2. Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Hi Scott. We hope that members get a hell of a lot of new musical discoveries in whatever we do! But rest assured, KEXP went as guests of Iceland, brought over and paid for by the country of Iceland, the Iceland Airwaves festival (one of the best in the world!) and generous sponsors like Iceland Naturally. Regardless, in everything we do, we strive to bring our listeners the best musical experience possible, one that goes beyond local borders and into untapped or neglected areas. Take a listen to some of the music we just posted ( from our broadcast. I would bet that you’re likely to find a band in there you really like. And look for the next breakout from Iceland called Of Monsters & Men, who credit KEXP with first exposing them to the outside world a year ago. And we did it only because we thought it was great music worth hearing. If you’re into that, then we hope you continue to support KEXP!

    Also, through our partnership with Iceland, we are bringing back the Reykjavik Calling showcase tomorrow night (Oct. 28, at 8PM) for a FREE concert at Neumos. Four Northern island artists (from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands) perform with four Seattle artists… and it’s FREE!

  3. Jeffery
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Even if my membership dollars were spent for KEXP’s trip, I would support it. Mainly because I can’t afford to go to Iceland and I know that the KEXP is going to find artists I’ve never heard of and probably wouldn’t ever hear of unless this station existed. That’s why I’m a listener, volunteer, and proud member.

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