Creative Stars Review: Björk, Biophilia at MIF 7 July 2011

Review 1

Music, technology and nature – these three principles form the basis for Björk’s ambitious new project Biophilia. Set in MOSI’s Campfield Market Hall the performance space is littered with drum machines, a mixing desk, some strange pendulums and instruments that look as if they’ve been hand made out of junk and hope. Screens in a circle above the stage show a video of a self-playing piano that plays a short mash-up of six of her previous songs over and over before the show begins.

When the lights go down at 8 sharp and Björk herself totters out, the audience isn’t sure whether to laugh or kneel down in praise. Dressed in what looks like a gold lamé dress and a blue frilled jacket Björk looks relatively normal. That is until you notice the wedge shoes she is wearing which don’t seem to have a heel and which rock her back and forth like a hobby horse. Oh and the giant afro wig on her head. She looks like a cross between a clown and a futuristic priestess and it perfectly sums up Björk’s idea of being a performance artist rather than just a singer. She is joined on stage by an all-female Icelandic choir; all dressed in matching blue and gold dresses and tights.

As her first song ‘Thunderbolt’ starts, we begin to see how music, nature and technology are coming together. Her otherworldly voice is matched by a Tesla coil, which produces the bass through small flashes of electricity and the audience is captivated by the miniature electrical storm Björk has harnessed for her music. The recurring themes of Biophilia are seen again and again: ‘Moon’ has a song structure meant to mimic the phases of the lunar cycle and later on in ‘Virus’ the screens show cells singing along to the song as a virus takes over and infects them.  David Attenborough provides shorts narratives and some of the clips that accompany the songs are taken from his nature documentaries. The nature of some of the more bizarre instruments becomes apparent – the pendulums harness the Earth’s gravitational pull in order to change the musical patterns, a modified pipe organ played using digital music notation is used as well as a gameleste – a celeste (a kind of cross between a glockenspiel and a piano) adapted to be played on an iPad.

‘Crystalline’ and ‘Where Is The Line’ are definite highlights. Even the vaulted ceilings of the Market Hall can’t seem to hold Björk’s simply stunning voice, which is amplified by the young members of the choir. She finishes solo with ‘Solstice’, a song from the latest album, which incorporates the gravitational pendulums, each turn creating a new sound reminiscent of Japanese shamisens.  She totters offstage to thunderous applause and the audience demands an encore. After a few minutes we are greeted once again by the orange wig and the choir for an encore performance of ‘One Day’ and ‘Joga’. ‘Joga’ defines Björk’s sound, calling to mind the soaring geography of Iceland with an emotional and heartfelt chorus mixed with a thumping low bass and violins.

Finally, a harsh discordant bass intro announces the final song ‘Declare Independence’.  The choir, who until now have remained calm and still, go crazy and dance to shouts of ‘higher, higher’. It’s a brilliant choice of final song and allows the audience to let loose and sing along after a thought-provoking and intense few hours. Biophilia is a musical tour de force, combining elements from the natural world and technology, which only just seems to have caught up with Björk’s visionary talent. Revolutionary, brilliant and magical – this is Biophilia.

Review by Creative Star, Masie Barker (Jul 1011)


Review 2

After eventually escaping the buzz of the perpetual queue surrounding what seemed like half of Castlefield, we had the time to ponder our surroundings with the somewhat blasé bewilderment even a Björk beginner (like myself) shouldn’t be surprised by from an artist known for her avant-garde style and ideas. The stage is set in the round, its Victorian setting in the Campfield Market Hall coupled with giant TV screens, ethereal lighting and instruments that resemble medieval torture devices giving it the look of a time-traveller’s laboratory.

The hum of excitement remains ubiquitous even after a long wait with only the monotonous tones of the ‘gameleste’ – it looks like a celesta but sounds like a gamelan, the first of many specially commissioned instruments for Biophilia – repeated in the background. The tension is broken as David Attenborough’s voice acts like the Modern Prometheus content in his lab, introducing Biophilia and Björk as if they’re yet another subject of his documentation (/experimentation); Björk even resembling a bird-of-paradise from a wildlife programme in her orange Brillo pad wig and extravagant dress. Suitably, the opening song “Thunderbolt” helps galvanize the audience with the help of a Tesla coil, its erratic notes harmoniously contrasting Björks vocals which are as transcendental and beautiful as ever.

This sensory overload of sound and visuals, music and science, continues throughout as it strives to live up to Björk’s proclamation of it being the 21st century “music of the spheres”; a theory explaining the movements of the solar system with an inaudible music  based on the mathematics of orbits and radiation frequencies. While this may seem bombastic in the eyes of a scientist, or dubious in Björks attempt to live up to such a provocative, somewhat nihilistic idea, many of Bjork’s new songs for Biophilia do seem to reach heady heights. ‘Crystalline’ provides a mixture of more conventional beats for the mainstream Björk fan, but this song is in a minority. Many of these songs stray far from the worldly dance tones of Volta released over 4 years ago, seeming at times more like a recording from a mechanical woodland scene; incongruous melodies and tonalities coming together oddly well like the holistic notions that Biophilia is based on. This is emphasised in the use of another Biophilia-bespoke instrument – a pendulum-harp – bringing the force of gravity into the musicology/cosmology/Biophilialogy of the performance.

However it’s not just music and the forces of nature that collaborate in Biophilia, as the technological age is also prominent through the use of iPads, lighting and video. Each song is accompanied by corresponding visuals, giving the audience a problematic decision of what to watch – the often mesmeric screens or the equally entrancing expressions of Björk and her accompanying Icelandic choir? Whether animated strands of DNA frolic in a mirage of hallucinogenic colour, or images of Earth’s tectonic plates take the audience back to a high school geography lesson, the visuals are a pleasing alternative when there’s less to see on stage (one of the downfalls of the stages layout). But do Biophilia’s irregular beats rely on these hedonistic additions or will people other than Björk obsessives be listening to them on their iPods?

It’s with the help of some brilliantly-performed older songs such as ‘Isobel’ and ‘All Is Full of Love’ that the audience’s minds don’t spill over with the complexity of both the art forms and ideas behind Biophilia. Scenes that seem to have been taken straight from Planet Earth along with Attenborough’s dialogue occasionally take the screens as time-lapse photography shows the throbbing simplicity of nature’s beauty. It is this equilibrium between the philosophical intricacies of music-human-universe relationships and the more lucid observations of beauty and interaction that give Biophilia the perfect midpoint of both challenging and entertaining its audience.

Review by Creative Star, Alastair Howard (July 2011)