The New Yorker

Björk’s healing music

In mid-January, Björk—the Icelandic singer, songwriter, producer, creative polymath, and cultural provocateur—rush-released her newest album, “Vulnicura,” after it was leaked online. Stealing Björk tracks feels like a particular sacrilege—it’s one thing for pirates to attack the corporate battleship that is Madonna, but, for Björk fans, taking from her is trampling on sacred ground. The artist handled the situation with her usual equanimity, insisting to her longtime label, One Little Indian, that it release the whole album as a complete work rather than pre-releasing a few singles.

An image from the video for “Black Lake,” a song that is both simpler and more daring than some of Björk's earlier classics.

It was the right decision. “Vulnicura” is a collection of songs at once rawly vulnerable in its emotion and supremely confident in its artistry. The album narrates her breakup with the contemporary-art star Matthew Barney, but avoids tabloid fodder or self-indulgence ; the music speaks to personal and universal feelings of heartbreak. It is reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Here, My Dear” in its unsparing account of a crumbling relationship (though without Gaye’s final twist of the royalties going toward the divorce settlement). Most important, beyond the emotional trauma that birthed it, “Vulnicura” is Björk at her finest as a singer and composer—a rare case of a mature master artist making work at the highest level, responding to her own creative needs and curiosities rather than chasing trends or fishing for acclaim. With a multimedia exhibition at MOMA and a monthlong residency of New York City performances, Björk is having a well-deserved moment.

The creative realms of the popular and the cutting edge are always closer than generally portrayed. An experimentalist as dedicated as the composer Anthony Braxton mines the Super Bowl half-time show for conceptual inspiration for his operas, while a pop celebrity as high-profile as Beyoncé cribs dance moves for her videos from the avant-garde Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. But no contemporary artist so gracefully bridges the divide as Björk. Musicians from hip-hop producers to folk chanteuses bow to her ; a jazz big band in New York City exists to perform her repertoire. Björk’s own influences are as diverse as those she inspires, from Gustav Mahler’s folk-drenched romanticism to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic austerity, from Joni Mitchell’s confessional lyricism to Timbaland’s jittery groove.

In a catalogue essay accompanying Björk’s MOMA show, Alex Ross makes a convincing case for placing her in the company of such radical sonic explorers as Stockhausen and Meredith Monk. (Ross also wrote a Profile of the singer for this magazine, in 2004.) While Björk’s music is more consistently tonal and clearly has more crossover appeal, she imbues all her work, like Stockhausen and Monk, with a sense of ritualism and ceremony. I would add Harry Partch and Sun Ra to this pantheon. Björk’s insistence on richly timbral, customized beats echoes Partch’s homemade pitched-percussion instruments, while his hobo wanderings match her punk-rocker roots. Sun Ra’s taste for outrageous outfits and Saturnalian mythology was central to his work, yet sometimes overshadowed his musical importance—he was the most revolutionary American big-band leader after Duke Ellington. Similarly, Björk’s music videos (which are really short films, by acclaimed directors such as Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze) and spectacular costumes sometimes get the most attention, but they are just physical manifestations of her ever-evolving sound world.

In her sold-out matinée at Carnegie Hall last Saturday, the first of her seven concerts in New York City over the next month, the music was front and center. There were no sets or complicated lighting ; Björk took to a bare stage accompanied by fifteen string players from the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound ; her “Vulnicura” collaborator/co-producer Alejandro Ghersi (a.k.a. Arca) on electronics ; and the percussionist Manu Delago. The strings—with the unusual instrumentation of five violins, five violas, and five cellos, giving a drum-and-bass boost to the acoustic low-end—surrounded the singer in a semicircle. Some of the time, like Miles Davis, she sang with her back partly to the audience, all the better to lead and soak in the ensemble. Lines and circles abstractly illustrated the sounds on a video screen, scrolling by like an animated version of an Earle Brown graphic score. The conceptual thrust of “Biophilia,” her previous album and tour, was the merging of biology and technology. However, with far less pageantry, this ensemble—with the stark juxtaposition of the laptop silhouetted behind the orchestra—demonstrated how the impossibly perfect blend of the explicitly human (including Björk’s own expressive voice) and the nakedly electronic has always formed the core of her work.

The first set was dedicated to music from the new album ; the musicians performed the first six songs in order, before revisiting some older material after the break. As Björk performed the “Vulnicura” songs for the first time, she wore a sparkling face mask, a cross between a sea anemone and an exploding star, that felt more like a shroud for emotional protection than a nod to outré fashion. She needn’t have worried—the crowd’s connection with her was palpable, almost protective, in its support, a heartfelt adulation belied by her modest “thank you”s between songs.

Like on the album and at the MOMA show, the ten-minute “Black Lake” was the centerpiece of the concert. For those of us besotted with Björk’s string-driven, aching anthems such as “Unravel,” or the Brodsky Quartet version of “Hyperballad,” “Black Lake” sings to us, but it is simultaneously simpler and more daring than those earlier classics. At first, the track sounds like it could be a folk song from an earlier century, a four-note melody, the lament of a woman scorned :

My soul torn apart
My spirit is broken
Into the fabric of all
He is woven

But between each verse, the strings freeze in exquisite tension, a fermata sometimes lasting a full thirty seconds—an unheard-of moment of stasis in anything resembling a pop song. Beats sneak in and sometimes threaten to erupt, but always cede the space—a subtle crescendo in the strings acting as the catharsis rather than as an obvious rhythmic release. Björk holds her voice in the middle register, only reaching into a higher wail a full seven minutes into it, the power in the music contradicting the pessimism of the lyrics : “No hope in sight of ever recover—eternal pain and horrors.”

That contradiction is the heart of the project. Despite the misery that created it, “Vulnicura” is ultimately a vehicle of empowerment and affirmation. It is a cliché but a truth : music heals. Shedding one’s past, one’s loved ones, one’s history, can be painful, but it is part of the process of growth and continued evolution and creativity. That is the journey of being an artist ; that is also the journey of being human. Bridging the experimental and the popular, the organic and the technological, and the personal and the universal, Björk reminds us that these are all connected. Playing these roles in harmony remains the goal.

Taylor Ho Bynum

publié dans The New Yorker - 09.03.2015

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