Synopsis: ‘biophilia live’ is a concert film directed by peter strickland and nick fenton and produced by jacqui edenbrow that captures the human element of björk’s multi-disciplinary multimedia project: biophilia. recorded live at björk’s show at london’s alexandra palace in 2013, the film features björk and her band performing every song on ‘biophilia’ and more using a broad variety of instruments – some digital, some traditional, and some completely unclassifiable. the film has already been hailed as “a captivating record of an artist in full command of her idiosyncratic powers” (variety) and “an imaginative stand-alone artwork” (hollywood reporter) and is a vital piece of the grand mosaic that is ‘biophilia.’
eyelights: Björk’s eccentricity. the quirky visual presentation.
eyesores: the inaccessibility of much of the music.
On October 5, 2011, Björk released her most ambitious album yet: ‘Biophilia‘. Incorporating some of the basic principles of nature (such as gravity, electricity, …etc.) in her lyrics and compositions, her ground-breaking concept album required the creation of new instruments to express her ideas.
‘Biophilia’ was critically-acclaimed internationally and its impact is felt to this day.
In support of her masterwork’s release, Björk took the music on the road starting with a 7-day residency at the Campfield Market Hall in Manchester, England on June 27, 2011 and ending in Berlin, Germany on September 7, 2013. She performed 70 shows during that extended world tour.
‘Biophilia Live’ was recorded as the penultimate show, on September 3, 2013 at Alexandra Place in London, England. (It was initially supposed to be the final performance of the tour, but an additional one was announced the night before for Saturday, September 7 at the 2013 Berlin Festival.)
For this “final” performance, Björk brought out her big guns: although she had managed to tour with the aid of a Tesla coil, a pipe organ and other unconventional instruments, she was able to have the one-and-only sharpsichord transported to this concert – as she had done for the Manchester engagements.
The stage set-up was also to her specifications: an in-the-round format was adopted, featuring standing areas around it (so that concertgoers could move around to see all the instruments) and seating at the back. Eight flat screens hung above Björk, the choir, the app player and the percussionist.
The 97-minute concert film was first unleashed upon the world on April 26, 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It was later released in limited engagements in cinemas around the world before landing on home video on November 4, 2014 in a blu-ray and 2CD package.
Naturally, I was quite eager to see the show. Having been impressed with ‘Biophilia’ (albeit more from an intellectual standpoint, as it’s not easily accessible music), I was very curious to see how it would translate to the stage. Being a big fan of Björk, I had no doubt that it would be unforgettable.
And it was.
The programme started with an intro by David Attenborough, welcoming audiences to ‘Biophilia’. This same intro was used on the ‘Biophilia’ app and that opened each show on the tour. For the programme, it was backed by atmospheric pulses and the choir, and enhanced by images from nature.
Then the cameras took us to the stage, where Björk awaited wearing a massive red afro wig, a tumorous skin-coloured dress and purple glitter platforms. She was quite the sight, even in this low-level lighting and immersed in the visuals that would be merged with the concert performance.
Perhaps that was the intention.
Whatever the case may be, Björk’s eccentricity was immediately made apparent. It would further be confirmed in her dancing, which would range from light pixie prances to childlike bobblehead bopping to rhythmic spasms to outright spaz attacks. She is refreshingly not Katy Perry or Beyoncé.
The Icelandic Female Choir, a group of some two dozen young women, functioned as a sort of counter-balance, positioning themselves about the stage in various configurations from song to song, creating a kind of comfortable structure to support Björk’s carefree and somewhat random behaviour.
The choir contributed tremendously not just by their physical presence, but also in the context of the songs themselves, to which they participated throughout the show – in fact, songs were adapted to include them as well as the instruments that were initially used only in ‘Biophilia’.
The most remarkable adaptation of Björk’s classics was “Possibly Maybe”, which had the Tesla coils firing up midway, drawing cheers from the crowd. “One Day” was also quite good and “Hidden Place” was absolutely gorgeous, enhanced as it was by the remarkable shots of starfish and other sea life.
These visual inserts were part of the programme’s charm. From start to finish, shots of nature, space, microbiology, volcanoes/lava and underwater lifeforms blended with the show to create a unique experience. It was so deftly rendered that I could have sworn that large mushroom were growing on stage.
One of the most interesting visuals was no doubt culled from the many apps she had designed for the album, and consisted of multi-coloured circles with spokes jutting from center. A ball ran around the circles and made plinking music when it comes in contact with the spokes, changing pitch as it changed levels.
On stage, aside for the sight of Björk and the dances and rudimentary staging of the choir, the instruments were the most notable part of the show: the sight of the organ’s keys moving automatically, and the pendulum harp in action were amazing to see. The hang (a wok-like drum) gave a magical quality to “Virus”.
The songs, unfortunately, weren’t as enjoyable as they could be – at least to the average audience. With ‘Biophilia’, gone are the alternative pop hooks that made Björk famous. Instead, she delved in textures, simple harmonies, nuances beyond the grasp of most listeners, including myself.
There are exceptions to that rule, naturally, as in “Crystalline”, which has an insane drum part at the end, or “Náttúra”, which was a noisy, chaotic piece that had the choir dancing like insane cultists, and the political “Declare Independence” which was nearly industrial, blistering with electricity.
Otherwise the atmosphere that the songs created was lovely – especially on blu-ray, in its raw form, uncompressed. One simply can’t forget the fact that Björk’s vocals are unlike anyone else’s; they hold no punches and are larger than life. Just as she is. One can’t help but appreciate her power and talent.
…even if the songs don’t grab us in a traditional fashion.
1. Óskasteinan (intro): 7.5
2. Thunderbolt: 8.0
3. Moon: 8.0
4. Crystalline: 8.25
5. Hollow: 6.75
6. Dark Matter: 7.25
7. Hidden Place: 8.25
8. Virus: 8.0
9. Possibly Maybe: 8.25
10. Mouth’s Cradle: 7.5
11. Isobel: 8.25
12. Sonnets/Unrealities: 7.25
13. Mutual Core: 8.5
14. Cosmogony: 8.0
15. Solstice: 8.0
16. One Day: 7.25
17. Náttúra: 7.75
19. Sacrifice: 8.0
20. Bat Sounds (end credits): 7.0
Björk rarely addressed the audience during the concert, and when she did, she kept it at a minimum. She thanked the audience for the evening at the 73-minute mark, before returning for her encore, introduced the band after “One Day”, and the sharpsichord and its inventor during the final encore, “Sacrifice”.
Otherwise, she was in her own little world.
And what a world it is. One could begrudge Björk for living in a different reality than our own, for not being grounded in the way that most of us are. But she has the ability to create new worlds and provides us with the tools to explore them with her. If anything, Björk is the ultimate creator and adventurer.
‘Biophilia Live’ is a tribute to her ability to bridge worlds. Who knows what she will explore next, and how, but I look forward to getting a glimpse through her eyes and ears. Björk is one of the most vibrant and fascinating artists in generations – she may not change the world, but thanks to her we experience it anew.
Date of viewing: Jan 31, 2015