Two students were queuing behind me for an event at this summer’s dynamic Manchester International Festival, a festival that prides itself on commissioning entirely new work.
“Wow, what a building!” one of them said, marvelling at the huge warehouse-like space of steel girders, glass ceilings and dark expanses. “What did it used to be?”
“It’s the Museum of Science and Industry,” replied her friend, whose grasp of (local) history clearly didn’t go back any further than her tender years (or the memory of her iPad). Actually, the building was formerly the first passenger railway station in the world, right here in the centre of Manchester, the first industrial city.
Which, ostensibly, made it the perfect setting for the world première of Björk’s new project / concept album / live show, Biophilia, in which the Icelandic legend combines the pre-industrial simplicity of the human voice with the post-industrial gadgetry of apps and iPads (though, paradoxically, banning the audience from using theirs during the show). Then there are the onstage instruments, from the antiquarian – a celeste fitted with the pipes of a gamelan, and a sharpsichord (a pin barrel harp) –to the state-of-the-art: a particularly funky set of digital steel drums.
Biophilia means “a love of living things”, and was first propagated by Edward O Wilson, an American biologist who did much of the early research into biodiversity, specialised in the study of ants, and once said of them that “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” His “biophilia hypothesis” argued that we each have a strong affinity with the natural world, and a yearning to interact with it more deeply.
Bjork don’t test this hypothesis; she totally believes in it. “My romantic gene is dominant,” she sang in the very first song, “I hunger!” The idea behind her project is that technological innovations will take us “forward to nature”, and help to satisfy our interactive need for the natural world, while, crucially, creating a more sustainable future.
As she danced around the stage in a huge orange wig and six-inch platform heels, the eight screens above her play scenes from her favourite wildlife programmes, as well as footage of shifting tectonic plates, the movement of the planets, DNA (she sings “drunk on DNA” at the same time), and worms devouring the corpse of a seal. Somewhat annoyingly, by way of introduction to many of the tracks, there was a voice-over by the wildlife icon of UK TV, David Attenborough (Björk has loved his work since childhood), spelling out the link between the natural world and music: “Tectonic Plates….Chords,” for example. Similarly, Björk’s new single, Crystalline, explores musical form by way of an analogy with crystal structures. It’s all a little bit more-holistic-than-thou, a little bit Glastonbury healing fields.
Accompanied by an Icelandic choir of 24 women, she sang all ten tracks from the album to be released in September, from the classically Björk stomp and astonishment of Crystalline to the biomedical, yes, biophilial love-song, Virus: “As a virus needs a body / As soft tissue feeds on blood / I will find you / The urge is here.”
Like most of the 2000-strong audience standing on football-terrace type platforms on all four sides of the stage (and clutching plastic bottles of beer), I was spellbound by the singer’s extraordinary spirit, by that voice that seems to have lost little of its power, by the gleeful shapes her face and mouth make when she’s singing, both emanating and invoking wonder. And yet I am not sure if the accompanying, synthetic representations of nature – those accursed screens and textbook voice-over – did anything for me. Besides, shouldn’t a biophilia concert take place in a forest somewhere? Shouldn’t we be standing barefoot in the soil? Or ankle deep in the ocean? At the very least, don’t we already spend long enough staring at screens not to need them when we want to hear a human voice that makes us realise what sound is for, and when we want to fashion joy from a rhythmic movement of limbs? Which begs further questions: can technology really take us closer to nature, and if so, how? Because during the performance, nothing took me closer to nature or to the cosmos than the human voice, whether Björk’s or those of the magnificent choir.
The songs from the new album are pretty, and uplifting, but a little too pedestrian for a live show, a little too esoteric. I mean, doesn’t Björk impel us to a consideration of these themes in her usual work anyway? Why has she chosen to intellectualise her inspirations instead of passing them on to us, as she usually does, in music, movement, words unburdened by the weight of concepts? Isn’t one of Björk’s great talents her seeming spontaneity, both in terms of the amazing elasticity of her voice, and the quirky meaningfulness of her lyrics? Ok, she wants to do something different, she is never less than innovative, but at times this show felt like an educational programme with songs. Indeed, the project will be accompanied by educational workshops in science and music for children, as well as song-related apps, some of them games, to be released at the same time as the album.
Then something happened. Björk came back for three encores, much to the cacophonous delight of the audience, who were by now letting off more steam than those engines back in the 1830s. With blank screens above, no one operating the Apple at the corner of the stage that had been directing the show, no choir, and just a guy on the digital steel drums, the singer produced an exhilarating version of One Day, followed by an equally thrilling, if accompanied, State of Emergency. That was the music of the spheres. That was interaction. That was why the audience at the end felt their souls atremble with cosmological significance. “There just isn’t anyone else like her on the planet,” said a guy outside, as a big half-moon sat low in the sky behind him.