Few entertainment clichés are more tired than “a show like no other,” but just one song into Björk’s set in the Great Hall of New York’s Hall of Science, the phrase began, for once, to ring true. What with the 24-voice all-female choir chanting in luminous robes, the Tesla coil in a cylindrical cage creating a bass line out of lightning, the eight screens of juddering computer graphics, the lighting crew suspended in chairs high above the stage in the round, and the venue itself — with its one continuous, 100-foot-high rippling wall of concrete and faceted glass — the effect was that suggested by the song’s title : Thunderbolt.
Ambition in concerts, for rock and pop stars, is usually equated with size, and although Björk herself is no stranger to excess — the Icelandic songstress’s past two Toronto shows were outdoor concerts with massive projections, fireworks, and lasers painting pictures on faraway trees — her “Biophilia” tour scales down in order to blow minds.
When the lights dimmed and the set began, David Attenborough’s disembodied voice exhorted the crowd to remember that as humans, they are “the gateway between the universal and the microscopic.” So as Björk sang songs about microbes and stars from her new album Biophilia — a sort of concept work about life, the universe, and everything, released with a series of iPad and iPhone apps — the show was very much on a human scale. Only 450 or so people were clustered around the barely raised stage, and no projections were necessary for anyone to see the famously pixie-like singer, clad in a biomorphic electric blue dress with nautilus-shaped whorls at the breasts and hips.
Such proximity and intimacy suited the more austere songs from Biophilia, and also helped her show off some of the new instruments she’d commissioned for the project. Among them were the musical Tesla coil (a high-voltage transformer housed in a cylindrical cage and making sound with controlled arcs of electricity), a MIDI-controlled pipe organ (which Björk triggered by means of an iPad), and the gravity harp : a set of four pendulums with plectra rhythmically plucking strings. At times the concert felt like a science fair with demonstrations by a lovably eccentric teacher.
Indeed, there’s an educational component to Biophilia, and the apps accompanying each song are designed to teach children about scientific principles such as crystal formation. Björk’s six-show New York residency is supplemented by a branded series of exhibits in the Hall of Science’s 1964-vintage low-tech, retro-futurist galleries. There, the Biophilia material feels uneasily grafted onto the museum’s old-school permanent exhibits, with their trackballs and controller knobs that no longer work so well. But onstage, her team’s high-tech wizardry works seamlessly with her own force-of-nature voice — one of the concert’s most affecting moments was her duet with the gravity harp, its wood-and-metal rods swinging back and forth and rotating to hit different strings with a forlorn twang.
Where some of the music on Biophilia can be somewhat “difficult,” more approachable in concept than in execution, it came alive with her interaction with the choir, percussionist Manu Delago, longtime harpist Zeena Parkins, and young app developer/keyboardist Max Weisel, who as he played triggered visuals featuring proliferating starfish and swirling Asteroids-like crystals.
The toughest challenge Björk faced — and one which she couldn’t quite overcome — was the low-tech issue of staging. With her audience spread out across 360 degrees, she couldn’t face all directions at once, and though it could be riveting to see her sing a few feet away, it wasn’t terribly engaging when she and her choir moved to the other side of the stage, their backs turned, for whole songs. What’s more, the stationary musicians themselves could get in the way of good sightlines. The concert’s best numbers were its most dynamic, with the choir spread out and Björk prowling among its members, striking 2D dance moves (so as not to disturb the whorls) and whipping up the crowd.
Her fans lustily cheered her reinventions of older material — One Day, from 1993’s Debut, became a duet, with Delago playing a trance-like groove on the hang (a percussion instrument like an inverted steel drum) ; Hidden Place was enchanting with danceable break-beats and angelic choral counterpoint ; and the closer, Declare Independence, was a hoot. With the choir jumping up and down like agitated atoms, Delago bashing out a punishing beat, the Tesla coil (perhaps the coolest instrument ever invented) braaaap !-ing out a fierce ostinato, and Björk herself pumping her fist furiously and encouraging everyone to “Raise your flag, higher, HIGHER !,” the performance was joyous, punky and utterly bonkers.
One of Björk’s hallmarks as an artist is her ability to bring talented people from various realms together and encourage them to develop ideas in new ways. Biophilia, as a whole, is perhaps the best example of this, and its live incarnation makes sense of what can be a sprawling, bewildering project. If it isn’t perfect, it’s at the very least inspiring. “Listen, learn and create,” Attenborough tells us in his narration, and Björk leads by her own marvelous example.