Force of nature : Bjork returns to Australia with concert spectacular

The Sidney Morning Herald , 16 février 2023

It’s 9am in Reykjavik, a few degrees below zero and still dark. “There’s a beach out there,” Bjork says, peering through thick windows. It will appear when the sun rises in an hour or so. “You can see the northern lights there when the northern lights come,” she adds matter-of-factly, mind-blowing cosmic wonders being the norm around here.

It’s necessary to set the otherworldly scene because this place made Bjork. She is of Iceland’s light and landscape and weather and seclusion and wonder as surely as any creature that breathes here. If we rewound to her childhood she’d be out there right now : an eight-year-old girl wailing into the blizzard on her 40-minute walk to school.

“I remember moments where I was, like, terrified. Just alone. Me against the elements,” she recalled in her seven-hour podcast of last year, Sonic Symbolism. “And I would sing. That would sort of be my comfort … If the weather was crazy you would just sing loudly ... It was my survival mechanism.”

Hence that voice : literally a force of nature, key to a lifelong synergy between sound and environment. But Bjork’s concept of music as a mechanism for survival long ago transcended the personal. Her most recent albums, Utopia and Fossora, and the overarching “digital theatre” work that has sprung from them, Cornucopia, bring ideas of human evolution and environmental salvation to a spectacular crescendo.

“When I started writing Utopia, I realised that it was actually a place,” she explains of the genesis of the show that will occupy its own specially designed and constructed venue on Perth’s Swan River foreshore during her exclusive run of Australian shows next month for Perth Festival. “Like, if you could choose the kind of world you lived in, what would it be like ?

“So it is an attempt to bring ideology, like a manifesto or a recipe of the ideal. And then Fossora is maybe where you land on Earth and try to execute those ideas of yours. So I think it’s very appropriate that Utopia and Fossora together are a theatre piece.”

More about the ideological manifesto later. What’s unusual for her, she says, despite three decades of high-concept audiovisual work spanning 10 albums and world tours, “is that I’ve never gone so extravagant when it comes to theatrical things. I’ve always been more about letting music talk. My sets have never been that elaborate.

“Now we have an army of curtains and screens that are choreographed to every song … the animation and the digital content is quite complex. It’s almost like a moving live animation feature. When you go to the show you’re inside it, like a magical lantern.”

Sharing the space-age dome tent on Langley Park in Perth’s CBD are a locally sourced choir and a series of bespoke musical instruments and spaces : a full-body echo chamber, a magnetic harp, a water drum and a huge, circular flute that requires four members of the ensemble in collaboration.

Songs from Bjork’s eight previous albums are woven into the show too, re-contextualising moments of her creative journey from Iceland to the world and back. They describe a 30-year arc from the personal realisations of Debut, Post and Homogenic to the increasingly universal, environmentally focused ilk of Biophilia and beyond.

“I think in your 20s and 30s, you tend to be more about your own personal expression and developing that and figuring out who you are, or who you want to be in the world,” she says.

“Around 40, I think it’s quite common [that] your horizon kind of widens, and you start to care about how you fit into first your closest environment, and then things like sociology, which I thought was really boring when I was in school. Most of the books I read in my 40s were probably about psychology or sociology for the first time.”

It’s Iceland, inevitably, that makes Bjork’s lens on all this unique. She made her first, albeit tentative, album at 11 years old. From her teens to mid-20s, she explored the anarchic fringes of music with early bands Kukl and the Sugarcubes. By the time she broke into the dominant Anglo-American culture of pop, her artistic sensibility had been formed in virtual isolation.

“I mean, we were a colony for 600 years,” she says of the homeland she returned to in 2013 after her split from American artist Matthew Barney. “We got our independence in 1944. We missed the Industrial Revolution, which wasn’t good then, but now it’s amazing ’cause we didn’t put factories in all our country. And we kind of are isolated, so we didn’t experience World War I and World War II.

“I hope it doesn’t sound too presumptuous, but ... I feel sometimes the English and the USA tend to think that their story is all of our story,” she says. “That’s not true. There’s a lot of other stories going on.”

In her podcast, Bjork talks about “second world” stories from late-industrialising countries such as Thailand, Brazil and Iceland, where “we are still very much in connection with nature and mythology”. As the first world reaps the harvest of its own stories, this is the perspective that gives her latest work the ideological push she mentioned earlier.

In Iceland, she says, “we have the highest rate in the world, for example, [of] women getting paid — I mean, it’s not equal, but we’re getting there.” Also, “when I was in the States, there was one mass murder a day, and now they moved up to two mass murders a day. It’s very strange, you know.

“In Iceland, as well, in those 10 years I was in bands as a teenager, I never experienced that my music taste was less important than the guys’,” she says. “It was more when I went abroad, especially with rock critics, where it felt a bit ... stagnant.”

The euphemism applies specifically to the entrenched patriarchy of the music business, from blokey line-ups and aggressive sounds and posturing to the overwhelmingly white-male music press that laboured for decades to marginalise and deny the more gender-fluid electronic revolution and diversity in general.

“When I was a teenager, it was more a feeling,” Bjork says. “I didn’t really know what patriarchy meant. I just knew that when I listened to punk records with guitars it didn’t do anything for me. And when I heard Donna Summer, Love to Love You Baby, everything in me exploded. I was more relating to the electronic branch, and things like Kate Bush and so on.

“I don’t think it was till later, when I started reading a lot of books about psychology or feminism, that was maybe the first period where the only books I wanted to read were books about mythology of women and I started to put it more in sort of universal symbols,” she recalls, referencing her 2007 album Volta.

Raising her daughter Isadora in New York during the rise of Trump, #metoo and Black Lives Matter turbocharged her perspective, Bjork says.

Recent songs such as Atopos, Tabula Rasa and Body Memory take urgent aim at the divisions of identity politics, the “f---ups of the fathers” and other clear and present social challenges. “It’s hard to believe, but a lot of people approach me actually, and they approach Icelandic people, [looking for] solutions on what to do next.”

The answers, for the most part, come in another language. The music she pitches into the blizzard these days has mostly stopped being pop-friendly in the way of early experiments such as Human Behaviour, Venus As A Boy or even Army of Me. Her nature-worshipping Biophilia project of 2014 was not just an album but a series of apps teaching children, with help from naturalist Sir David Attenborough, new, organic musical systems.

ornucopia is another world again. With the pointedly feminine energy of its flute and choral arrangements, its images of nature ascending and ancient mystical backstories, its overwhelming physical presence seems to reassert the power of music as a primal force for human survival.

“I would love to get credit for that one,” Bjork says with a laugh. “But unfortunately, we’ve got to give the authorship of that one to humanity. I don’t know when we started playing flutes or singing together. It differs [between] anthropologists, when we started doing that, but I feel like it’s always been about spirituality and connection with nature and our place in the group ; the other beings we have relationships with.

“Especially, music has always, more than words or more than actions, been able to tap into this spirituality, or this kind of mystery of existing. I think we all agree on that, [whether we are] tribes of rock and rollers or Catholics or ravers or football hooligans, you know ... I think music has that role in all our lives. I think it always has, and I do think it always will.”

par Michael Dwyer publié dans The Sidney Morning Herald