“Are you enjoying Queens?” Björk asked with an exultant squeal during the February 3rd opening of her Biophilia residency at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows. It was a peculiar question during a performance set in an alternate universe of music, technology and primordial emotions, in a room that looked nothing like the neighborhood outside. The museum’s Great Hall is an eerie windowless space with a cathedral-high ceiling and irregularly curved walls that suggest convulsive ripples in time and space.
But the Icelandic singer’s choice of setting was effective and moving, even more immersive than the Biophilia show I saw in Reykjavik last fall. Surrounded by a future-now production of exotic invented instruments (the gravity harp, a gameleste) triggered with iPad sorcery, Björk created a dazzling compact world of heated passions and excited science heightened by the tall black space overhead and an outer ring of darkness that seemed to gently press the in-the-round audience (under 700) against the tiny stage, almost into the show. Björk often sang from inside a circle of gold satin, blue sequins and gleaming blonde hair formed by the Graduale Nobili, her 24-piece Icelandic female choir. It was a shimmering cocoon unto itself.
There have been changes in the production since its October run in Iceland. Bjork’s giant orange wig was less like a day-glo Brillo pad in Queens, closer to a mushroom-like bouffant with streaks of robin’s-egg blue. The huge Tesla coils that spit lighting and beats in “Thunderbolt” came down in a vertical, rather than horizontal, cage. Max Wiesel, who designed the iPad apps for Biophilia, is actually in the band now, running the electronics. (When Björk introduced him, she noted that it was his first live gig ever.)
Björk also dropped two older crowd-pleasers, “Venus as a Boy” and “Isobel,” that were in the Reykjavik set list, along with one Biophilia track, “Sacrifice.” The only songs in the Queens show that also appear on Björk’s 2002 Greatest Hits set were “Hidden Place” and “Pagan Poetry.” There was party time: drummer Manu Delago‘s orgiastic blast of percussion at the end of “Crystalline”; the lunatic joy of the last encore, “Declare Independence.” But this is not, by a long-stretch, a retrospective.
In fact, the evening affirmed the ongoing invention in the spectacle Björk has built around Biophilia. Harpist Zeena Parkins, a longtime Björk collaborator, is a wise addition to the New York run. Parkins’ swoops and plucked rings lent a soft warming light to the music. She also provided spare incisive accompaniment for Björk’s near-alien improvisations in the second half of “Sonnets/Unrealities” from 2001’s Medulla.
The Love in Nature
Biophilia is a record about harmony and turmoil, Björk’s equation of human passions with the glory, peace and violence found in nature. It is also a major commitment. After her six shows in Queens, ending February 18th, Björk moves to New York’s Roseland for four more dates, ending March 2nd. She will continue to tour this production, in residencies like this one, for the next three years. And, as in Reykjavik, education comes with it. The New York Hall of Science is hosting classes in which middle-school students explore the bonds and boundaries of music and science with iPads and local instructors.
In the show, the disembodied gravity of David Attenborough’s pre-recorded narration is a useful guide to the metaphors and themes encoded in each strand of Biophilia. But in every inch of Björk’s extravagantly designed space, her voice is still the most powerful instrument and teaching gift in her reach. Unearthly in its range and force, yet absolutely natural and frank in its ardor and hope, it is the vital human tissue connecting everything else.