Manchester International Festival
Some live shows are great, some live shows are awesome, and then there are the live shows that are so good they feel like genuine magickal occurrences - a culmination of sound, vision, venue, performance and atmosphere. Bjork’s Biophilia, which is currently making its international debut with a sold out run at the Manchester International Festival, is definitely one of those. Clichéd terms like “elf-like” have haunted Bjork for years, but when an artist can pull together a show that is this all consuming, this transformative and powerful, there is definitely some truth to those clichés.
Everything about this show is unique. On a baking hot July afternoon we are ushered into a blacked out, cavernous Victorian warehouse space - in the middle sits a round stage, flanked by instruments, and overhead hangs a neat circle of 8 large screens. At one corner of the stage sits a pipe organ, a harpsichord and new instrument called a “gameleste” (a cross between a gamelan and a celeste). These instruments have been programmed to play themselves, a fact which is relayed to the audience by webcams projecting live onto the screens. In another corner sits a huge, manually operated music box, amplified through two very large gramophone trumpets, and beside it stands two new, purposely built, pendulum operated harps, The thudding bass line for the opening track “Thunderbolt” is provided by a large Tesla coil, which spits sparks of electricity over the crowd’s heads.
Still obsessed with the sounds and textures of modern electronica, Bjork underpins all this bizarre musical automata with sub-bass and electronic drums, played live by percussionist Manu Delago and music director Matt Robertson. Plucked chamber music collides with sliced-and-diced breakbeats, booming 808 bass lines accompany delicate organ pieces. It’s a perfect combination of the past and the future (and which is which is hard to tell). The sound world Bjork has created for this show is extraordinary, but it is the choir that really tips this performance over into something otherworldly. Featuring 26 female Icelandic singers, moments of harmony and discordance float from the stage that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Quite simply, this is a new kind of sacred music.
The much-trumpeted visuals are gorgeous. Animated cells sing and coo while spitting out cuddly-looking viruses. Mushrooms grow and expand in stop-motion, a seal carcass is consumed by underwater worms and starfish, and we zoom through veins and arteries while triggering musical notation á la Audiosurf. Bjork has taken a bit of flack for her use of an iPad in Biophilia, but if this is what the actual apps look like, well that’s fine with me. We keep returning to images of the solar system, of galaxies floating in space. There seems to be a theme of circular motion and symmetry here, a music of the spheres if you will, but for Bjork this works on a microbiological scale, as well as the cosmological. At one point she informs us that the rate at which our fingernails grow is the same as the Mid Altantic Ridge drifts. It’s psychedelic without being druggy. In fact, with the heat, the darkness and the spectacle, this is a show where no extra stimulus is needed.
The music itself is largely new and very good too, but there are some classics from her back catalogue thrown in (namely “Unravel”, “A Hidden Place” and a gorgeous choral version of “Isobel”). The new songs are each prefaced by a voice-over by natural historian David Attenborough, which manages the trick of both commenting on the music and unifying it. The show ends with a rousing, triumphant version of “Earth Intruders”, Bjork in a massive orange wig flanked by the choir who are wearing matching gold and blue tunics. We seem to be inundated with crazily-dressed lady pop at this point in time, but we shouldn’t forget that Bjork is a true pioneer of this, and on this showing she still does it the best. Biophilia is set to tour later this year, and I urge anyone with an interest in music to go to a show - it really is that good. 2011 is only half over but I seriously doubt I’ll see another show to equal it. There is no footage of Biophilia yet, as the audience had been asked not to take pictures or make video recordings of the performance. It is a mark of the kind of respect the crowd has for Bjork that they comply to this request - well for the most part , anyway.
Here is the audience’s reaction to Bjork’s Biophilia after the opening night on Thursday June 30th: