Björk’s Cornucopia was billed as the Icelandic pop-iconoclast’s “most elaborate staged concert to date,” and it would be a tough claim to refute. The world premiere of the concert-like multi-media piece, commissioned by the newly-opened New York City art temple The Shed — an avant-garde culture outpost that opened last month alongside the controversial Hudson Yards luxury real estate development — featured a spectacular surround-sound installation, a 52-member Icelandic choir that at one point swarmed through the audience, other-worldly costuming, and vivid staging, including a bounty of jaw-dropping, lushly layered video projections. If the show ever makes it to Denver, where psilocybin mushrooms were just decriminalized, its swirling phantasmagoria would surely find a receptive audience. But it did, too, in the singer’s adopted hometown of New York City, as she wove together songs from her catalog into a female-centric fable of environmental crisis and pitch for radicalized Earth-stewardship.
Inside the Shed’s McCourt Theater, which indeed felt like a massive shed, fans were greeted by a soundtrack of digitally gilded birds and bugs, with the intermittent sizzling of electrostatic noise — a sort of cyber-sonic Garden of Eden. The stage was curtained at various points with thread walls that functioned both as translucent scrim and projection screen. When the lights dropped, trumpeters heralded the start from within the crowd, then moved to join the Hamrahlíð choir, assembled in front of the stage. They performed a handsome selection of a cappella pieces, including Björk’s “Sonnets/ Unrealities XI” (from Medúlla) and “Cosmogony” (from Biophilia), evoking by turns the choral work of Arvo Pärt and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. At points, their voices were swallowed by the space, which showed iffy acoustics during the course of the evening. But when the singers broke formation to march through the crowd, singing and scattering harmonies across the room, the effect was dazzling, and grounding given the sci-fi journey that lay ahead.
That swarming effect was echoed electronically after the choir exited and Bjork commanded the stage, as high-volume beats, synth blasts and processed phonemes careened around the room via strategically-placed speakers. In a curious dress, with a voluminous, seashell-like stole hugging her shoulders, and a hairdo that could be categorized as amorphous afropuffs, she was surrounded by seven flutists (the Vibra Septet), a harpist (Katie Buckley), a percussionist (Manu Delago) and a laptop-fiddling multi-instrumentalist (Burgur Pórisson). They performed on raised platforms that looked like phosphorescent lichen, amidst projections that were wildly psychedelic, clearly drawing on patterns from the natural world: botanical fibers bloomed like stop-motion flowers, flocked like starlings, or followed patterns of exploding fireworks; fleshy constructs writhed like cosmic vulvas. On one side of the stage was a sort of skull-shaped isolation booth where singers and flutists retreated to alter their acoustics, or perhaps take a break from the chaos elsewhere. Some of the instrumentation was unusual. Delago coaxed fascinating rhythms from gourd-like percussion partly submerged in Lucite water tanks. At one point, flutists harmonized on light-tipped whirly tubes. At another, a metal ring lowered from the ceiling turned out to be a circular flute, which four of the musicians played as Björk stood in its center, a queen bee at the heart of a strange hive.
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Fans seeking more traditional pop exchanges — the performing of signature hits to trigger push-button sing-alongs — may have been disappointed. But most longtime Björk followers have learned to expect the unusual. “Venus as a Boy” and “Isobel” were abstracted in ways that made them difficult to recognize, in the spirit of latter-day Dylan, although material from 2017’s Utopia hewed closer to album arrangements. (A duet with serpentwithfeet on the remix of “Blissing Me” was one of the show’s high points.) Dwarfed by the giant projections, Björk was often lost amongst them but for when she appeared on-screen as a wildly animated warrior-sprite, or when she stepped into the front rows to sing on a stage extension. This seemed to be part of the point: the human being alternately empowered and subsumed by technology.
The sonic cacophony seemed part of the point too, although it sometimes smeared into an unsatisfying muddle: one wished for better-articulated reproductions of Arca’s noise-blast beats, better separation and balance between the delicate and the crushing, and clearer vocals. But Cornucopia is a dystopian tale at heart, albeit a galvanizing one, so the aural struggle was fitting. For all the beauty on display, the production is gloriously angry the way Björk can be at her best, embodying a sort of punk-rock Valkyrian fury. And it’s telling that the show’s takeaway, and final word, comes not from Björk, but from 16-year-old Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, speaking in an unprocessed video message against a backdrop of silence. She said in part:
“We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. The biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it’s the suffering of the many which pays for the luxuries of a few. In the year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend the day with me. … Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis … And if the solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. They have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. But I’m here to tell you that change is coming, whether they like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
It was a poignant passing of the torch from artist to activist, and it put the datastorm complexity of what came earlier into stark, simple, fittingly scary perspective.
“Ísland, farsælda frón” / “Vísur vatnsenda-rósu” / “Sonnets/Unrealities XI” / “Cosmogony” / “Maríukvæði” (sung by Hamrahlid Choir)
“Arisen My Senses”
“Show Me Forgiveness”
“Venus as a Boy”
“Blissing Me” (with serpentwithfeet)