The evening summer light glinting through the blacked-out glass ceiling of Manchester’s Campfield Market Hall, an endearingly basic space set in a Victorian arcade, has the feel of a canopy of stars, an incidental observation that nevertheless seems particularly fitting for what’s about to happen. It’s here, in this curious venue, that she-who-needs-no-introduction has chosen to debut her new multi-platform Biophilia extravaganza as part of a three-week Manchester International Festival residency, and tonight is the first official performance following Monday night’s preview. Staged in-the-round, the audience encircle a roped-off area containing a variety of bespoke instruments, created by Björk and her crew to harness the power of cutting-edge technology and connect it to the natural world.
In one corner stand two large double ‘pendulum harps’, and behind those a ‘sharpsicord’, a striking, solar-powered, ten-foot high pin barrel harp that reimagines old-timey music boxes for the digital age; in another corner sit a digital pipe organ and a ‘gameleste’, a hybridised instrument that combines the metallic chimes of a gamelan with the orchestral complexity of a celeste; in the third, among various drum machines and gadgets, sits a curious flying saucer-shaped contraption called a ‘hang’, which creates an impressive array of percussive sounds depending on where and how hard it is struck, sometimes sharp like a snare, at other times tropical and hollow like a timpani; and situated in the final corner is a daunting bank of midi and electronic equipment masterfully handled by musical director Matt Robertson.
Described by Björk as a 21st century “music of the spheres”, Biophilia is the Icelander’s attempt to bring musicology out of an abstract, linear learning context and into a world of rhythm and scales that appeals to the physical senses as well as the mind. Screens on the floor display novel approaches to music notation as well as the songs’ lyrics, while those hanging overhead in octagonal formation show fascinating visuals to accompany the music, from the singing nuclei of ‘Virus’ and DNA strands of ‘Hollow’ to the beat-driven pulses of the starfish in ‘Hidden Place’ and the cosmological diagrams of ‘Solstice’. Striding on stage wearing huge platform shoes, a figure-hugging sparkly dress with a one-shouldered cape and a nebulous orange headpiece, Björk was surrounded by a 24-piece Icelandic female choir dressed in equally dazzling outfits of blue and gold. But rather than launching straight into the music, the crowded stage paused as a David Attenborough narration introduced us to the Biophilia concept, instructing us to listen and learn as we collectively explored Björk’s extravagant, high-concept musical universe.
The aptly named ‘Thunderbolt’ gets proceedings off to a crackling start with a beat pattern manifesting as electrical sparks that zip dramatically between the two conductors of a giant Tesla cage that descends with a mechanical whir from the ceiling. Even at forty-five, Björk’s famous voice sounds as unearthly and free-spirited as ever, soaring with immaculate control and precision. Despite the scientific and educational basis of the Biophilia suite it is clear that there’s real emotion invested in these songs. The simple ‘Moon’, which uses rising and falling musical scales to shadow lunar phases, is bare and divine, and the joyous pop of ‘Virus’ personifies obsessive love as a conquering infection. First single ‘Crystalline’ makes exceptional use of the choir, and the manic explosion of drums at the finale provides the evening’s first real moment of abandon in a riot of dancing and roaring applause.
After journeying into the human body with ‘Hollow’, Björk takes to the iPad for the first time on ‘Dark Matter’, remotely controlling the pipe organ to underpin the choir-intensive piece with an almost amelodic drone, before digging back into the past for a trio of songs that culminates in a gloriously swooping version of ‘Isobel’. The visuals for ‘Hidden Place’ neatly reference the song’s slimy, peculiar video as worms burrow into a dead seal’s eye on the seabed. Vespertine favourite ‘It’s Not Up To You’ sounds as fresh as it did a decade ago, and Björk scurries forward to playfully run her fingers along the top of the gameleste as she coos the song’s trebly final words. Of the other new songs, ‘Mutual Core’ features lyrics about tectonic plates and jagged computerised landscapes that recall the brilliant video for Homogenic‘s ‘Jóga’, while the solar duo of ‘Cosmogony’ and ‘Solstice’, which close the main set, are full of fire and complexity. Those giant pendulums finally swing into action on ‘Solstice’, which Björk performs alone with her iPad, creating and manipulating irregular beat patterns dictated by gravity – a conceptually simple yet ingenious idea.
Björk and percussionist Manu Delago return to the stage for the first song of the encore – the enduring Debut track ‘One Day’, performed solely on the hang – before everyone else piles in for an euphoric, ear-blasting romp through ‘Declare Independence’, complete with audience shoutalong, and the surprise finale of her blistering 2008 charity single, ‘Nátturá’, which makes perfect sense thematically but leaves much of the audience mystified. Astounding and confounding in equal measures, the Biophilia live experience is a lot to take in all at once, especially with the album release still a whole three months away, but Björk’s grandiose ambition and desire to communicate her ideas are well served by what is, by anyone’s standards, a spectacular (and spectacularly odd) pageant of inspired composition and technological prowess.
Thunderbolt / Moon / Crystalline / Hollow / Dark Matter / Hidden Place / Mouth’s Cradle / Isobel / Virus / It’s Not Up To You / Sacrifice / Sonnets/Unrealities XI / Where Is The Line / Mutual Core / All Is Full Of Love / Cosmogony / Solstice / One Day / Declare Independence / Nátturá