A stage version of the Icelandic singer's Biophilia album, with cues from David Attenborough, is dazzling MIF audiences.
Bjork show Biophilia opens Manchester International Festival
Last Thursday's world premiere of Björk's multimedia extravaganza Biophilia packed all the wonderment one has come to expect of Iceland's greatest export. Performing in the round at Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival, the 45-year-old singer and serial risk-taker unveiled 10 new songs exploring the links between music, nature and technology.
Each song was cued by the unmistakable voice of the naturalist and fellow lover of life, Sir David Attenborough, while Björk - resplendent in shaggy orange wig and a chinstrap of blue face paint - enjoyed backing from a 24-piece, all-female Icelandic choir that struck tableau vivant poses. The electronics ace Matt Robertson and the virtuoso percussionist Manu Delago completed the able line-up, the music created by the ensemble an ongoing war against cliché.
To magical effect, the show utilised a bespoke array of newly invented instruments, some of which seemed pleasingly retro-futurist. We got four huge "pendulum harps" ("played" by the pull of gravity), a digital pipe organ that Björk controlled via an iPad, and a synthesizer that "played" lightning (the song Thunderbolt was accompanied by the lusty crackle of two Tesla coils placed at the side of the stage).
Up above the proceedings, an octagonal formation of video screens relayed animated footage from apps specially commissioned for each song. That for Virus took a playful look at invaded molecular structures, and Björk's equally playful lyric wasn't so much "sympathy for the devil" as sympathy for the virus. "Like a flame that seeks explosives / as gunpowder seeks a war / I feast inside you," she sang to a spare, music-box-like accompaniment. This time the featured instrument was a "gameleste", an odd hybrid of gamelan and orchestral celeste.
Thursday's show was the first of six the singer has scheduled for her three-week residency at the Manchester International Festival. A biennial event that has become a key showcase for new, often innovative artworks, the festival's inaugural run hosted the first performances of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's Monkey: Journey to the West in 2007, while in 2009, Rufus Wainwright premiered his opera Prima Donna at MIF.
Other 2011 bookings include Snoop Dogg and Sinead O'Connor. It is Biophilia, though - a many-pronged and "explicitly educational" venture that has busied Björk and her team of app developers, scientists and inventors for the past three years - that has folk most excited.
Björk has never baulked at artistic challenges. Biophilia may be her most daring venture to date, though, its live shows a portal to a more interactive and, yes, innovative experience that's best described in chunks.
First there's Biophilia the album, due later this year. Traditional formats will be augmented by an iPad app version developed by Björk and leading programmers such as the precocious Max Weisel, the high-school student behind the rated "musical geometry" app, Soundrop. Apple was reportedly surprised that Björk had managed to persuade various rival programmers to work on the same project, and that they offered to do so on a "no money upfront, profit-share only" speaks volumes about their enthusiasm for the singer's venture.
Biophilia packs 10 apps, each tailored to a specific song and merging a natural phenomenon with a musical idea. That for Moon, for example, has music inspired by lunar phases, while that for Crystalline compares certain musical structures with those found in crystals. Each individual app also packs an animated score, a scientific essay, and an interactive game designed to promote further understanding of the concept being explored.
While that might sound a little dry on paper, pre-show demos at the MIF showed the Biophilia apps suite to be highly engaging in practice. One of Björk's motivations was to create programs in which children could explore and understand music physically and intuitively, rather than through "stuffy" music theory and traditional forms of notation. "Music changes into something else when you read it," she recently told the music website Pitchfork, citing the formal musical education she had railed against as a youngster back in Iceland. "I was always complaining that [my training in music] was too academic."
Accordingly, another strand of the singer's Manchester residency is Music School Biophilia, a playful educational programme allowing children from two local schools to explore the venture's new instruments, apps, scientific concepts and technologies, then "offer up creative responses". With her feral voice, childlike sense of exploration and unbridled enthusiasm, Björk seems the perfect figurehead for such a project, and Thursday's live show had many moments in which she used potent simile to illuminate complex ideas for young minds. "As fast as your fingernail grows / the Atlantic Ridge drifts," she sang on Mutual Core. It felt like Sesame Street merging with the National Geographic as only Björk could manage.
Of course, with Iceland situated above the collision of two tectonic plates, the singer is no stranger to continental drift. Not for nothing did the volcanic beats on Jöga, from 1997's Homogenic, attempt to realise Iceland's physical geography in sound. For Björk, a woman who has often said that she likes to do her composing al fresco, Biophilia marks a natural progression, a deepening of the natural world empathy that has long been a fixture of and a touchstone for her music.
"When I'm in nature everything falls into place," she told me when I interviewed her for The Independent in 2008. "If people spend too long in cities they get neurotic and paranoid, but if you put them in the mountains for two weeks, all those small worries drop down like dead flies." In the same interview, we talked about the animated video for the Volta album track Wanderlust, in which Björk journeys downstream on the backs of two giant yaks, singing "I am leaving this harbour / Giving urban a farewell," and about her 2006, ultimately unsuccessful protest against the plan by the US company Alcoa and the Icelandic government to build a dam to power an aluminium smelter in the wilderness of east Iceland. (Concerns had included the displacement of reindeer herds, and the possible desiccation of a stunning aquatic region.)
All of the above underlines why the Biophilia project is so dear to the singer's heart, and another highlight of Thursday's premiere came when Attenborough cued the song Cosmogony, adding the qualifiers, "music of the spheres, equilibrium". The Icelandic choir began the song crouched down, their massed voices harmonising on a sustained note that gained volume and momentum as they rose to a standing position. If they intended a metaphor for the Big Bang, it worked well.
The body of Cosmogony turned out to be an intensely melodic, rather olde worlde-sounding hymn to our Blue Planet, Björk indeed tapping into the music of the spheres. You could understand why Attenborough was down with the programme, for Biophilia is a remarkable undertaking that furthers his own good work in the field of wonderment.