"Craving miracles," Björk sang, enunciating each syllable like an eager child, in "Thunderbolt," the first song of her remarkable opening-night show at the concert hall Harpa in Reykjavík, Iceland last night. Then, surrounded by 24 female singers in shimmering gold and blue robes and an armory of invented instruments such as the gameleste – a hybrid of a celeste and an Indonesian gamelan – and a custom-built pipe organ that seemed to play itself (thanks to a digital interface with an iPad), Björk conjured her own miracle: a large circular cage that descended from the rigging over the stage. Inside, two large Tesla coils threw lightning at each other at an insistent tempo that triggered, somewhere in the electronics, a squishy bass line that could have come from a late-Seventies disco record. It was only the first time last night – the first of nine concerts here over the next three weeks – that Björk demonstrated a nifty truth about her new album, Biophilia: It is a record that must be seen as it is being heard.
According to an essay on display in the lobby, along with half a dozen video screens showing graphics and film clips associated with the album, biophilia is an ancient philosophical notion that the orbits of the sun, moon and planets are reflected in musical harmony and movement. Biophilia, the album, goes further. Björk likens the human emotions – love, physical obsession, changing moods, violent hurt – in songs such as "Mutual Core," "Moon" and "Virus" to natural phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, lunar phases and contagious disease. In the show, a pre-recorded David Attenborough served as narrator, introducing each song's theme like a voice from heaven with a Nova-documentary accent.
But the intimate setting – a small band (Matt Robertson on electronics; keyboard player Jons Sims; percussionist Manu Delago) and the Graduale Nobili, a local choir, squeezed onto a square platform surrounded by 800 people in one of Harpa's small theaters – made Björk's cosmos feel within easy reach. "We mimic the openness," she sang with delight in "Crystalline," a mix of space-funk strut and toy-factory jingle (thanks to the gameleste). In "Moon," the choir's silvery voices coated Björk's yelps and coos like wraparound light. And during "Dark Matter," you could see Björk's impish delight as she emphatically slapped her iPad, setting off explosions of church organ. She was so close to her audience that one could also make out individual strands in her giant orange-cotton-candy hairpiece, a continent in itself.
'Biophilia' in Action
Björk's first night at Harpa, a lavish new arts complex on Reykjavik's harbor, marked the opening of Iceland Airwaves, the annual festival sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair. (More than 250 acts, most of them Icelandic, are performing in the city through October 16th.) Class is in session at Harpa as well. As part of her residency, Björk has set up daily workshops for local schoolchildren in which teachers lead discussions about music, nature and technology with the aid of apps Björk generated to go with the album's concept. The students then explore the harmonic possibilities themselves on iPads and laptops. At the end of every session, each child takes home a USB stick with his or her new compositions.
Björk showed off some of her extra homework during the concert, breaking away from the new material to play rearranged versions of older songs. "Hidden Place" from 2001's Vespertine was an easy fit, with its glistening coat of harmonies and gentle-Kraftwerk synthesizer riff. "Isobel" combined marching-drum rolls with the punctuative gulp of dub reggae, while the Tesla coils reappeared to spit the rhythm for Björk and her bouncing choristers in the ecstatic finale, "Declare Independence." But there was always spectacle enough in Björk's voice: those operatic leaps in tone; the air-cutting quality of those impossibly long clean notes. In "Solstice" from Biophilia, she performed alone, with her iPad. "Remember that you are," she sang, "a light-bearer receiving radiance from others." There was, in the way Björk chewed and emitted the words, plenty of illumination to go around.