Accompanied by a 56-piece orchestra, an 11-member Inuit choir from Greenland, the San Francisco electronic duo Matmos and harpist Zeena Parkins, the first half of the show—drawn from her recent “Vespertine” (Elektra) and “Selmasongs,” the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”— deepened the opening’s chimerical shading. The juxtapositions of the disparate elements, which included Matmos’ computerized rhythms (conjuring a bizarre universe of sound from sources as mundane as footsteps or a scraped tabletop), the orchestra’s romantic surge and Parkins’ celestial pluckings and trills, combined to create a dreamlike soundscape as instinctively surreal and engrossing as Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” or the early films of Maya Deren.
Performed before a series of pastel-tinted arctic landscapes, as serene and uninhabited as the moon, the songs from “Vespertine” felt like interior monologues inhabiting a space of fierce solitude. When she breathlessly repeated the phrase (echoed by the chorus) “I love him” during “Pagan Poetry,” it felt less a declaration than a mantra, a secret whispered to oneself.
The brilliance of Björk’s performance is that she’s able to draw the audience into this distinctly personal vision and make it emotionally accessible.
The second set was painted in warmer hues. Wearing a bright red puffy dress, Björk addressed more corporeal concerns such as romance. From the moment she returned, running through the crowd while singing “I’ve Seen It All,” the evening’s energy level was raised and the disparate musical elements were more integrated, especially on “Isobel,” “Hyper-ballad” and “Army of Me.”
In the second half, Matmos was used as a more traditional rhythm section, while Parkins played an electronically treated harp to add intriguing textures, and the orchestra provided wide-screen swells worthy of Franz Waxman or Dimitri Tiomkin. But the most effective moment was also the quietest as Björk sang a poignant “Anchor Song” accompanied only by the eerie wheeze of Parkins’ harmonium.
The evening reached it’s emotional climax on the final song, the unreleased “It’s in Our Hands.” Skipping across the stage, leading the choir and Matmos in rhythmic clapping, the song’s belief that humanity cannot only endure but survive with unity and faith was a rousing finish to an evening of often hushed introspection.
If Björk’s music often seemed ethereal, Matmos’ opening set was very much concerned with the body. While some bands try to get under your skin, Matmos literally plays their skin. Performing songs from “A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure” (Matador), the band used a plug that amplified the bodies’ electrical impulses. With a mini-camera that gave excruciating close-ups of the pores, pimples, nostrils, uvula and other body parts, their set was not for the squeamish.
Using tapes and computerized sounds that nodded toward electronic music pioneers such as Xanakis, Morton Subotnick and Kraftwerk, and a presentation drawing on performance art from the ’60s and ’70s, Matmos comes off as a less cuddly version of the Blue Man Group.