REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Two days after the release of "Biophilia," her new multi-platform project, Iceland's foremost sonic auteur Björk took the stage in her hometown of Reykjavík. It was the first time her home crowd has had the "Biophilia" experience, and it was the opening night of the first "Biophilia" residency - she isn't touring per se, but playing residencies at in different cities around the world over the next three years. Suitably for this head-spinning release, the live show is multi-media heavy and as confounding as you'd expect.
The venue, though, is traditional enough. Harpa is Reykjavík's new concert hall and conference centre which, despite Iceland's financial problems, opened in August. Just as "Biophilia" is Björk celebrating a love for the natural world, Harpa breaches the barriers between the natural and the man-made. On Reykjavík's dockside, it overhangs the ocean, with cell-shaped windows giving views across the harbour of the mountains to the north. Hugging the inside of the glass exterior, a staircase glides towards a roof patterned like magnified crystal. Harpa is striking enough, but it's the four halls that will attract performers and promoters. The largest, Eldborg, can accommodate a seated audience of 1,600. The smallest, Kaldalón, can function as a venue, recording studio, conference hall or cinema. Less than two months after its opening, Harpa already feels like a world-class venue.
The worldwide interest in "Biophilia" means the audience isn't Icelandic only. Spotted in the crowd were the bosses of Denmark's SPOT Festival, Hungary's Sziget Festival and Estonia's Tallinn Music Week. David Fricke of "Rolling Stone" was there too.
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In the run-up to the release, Björk had given a few clues of what to expect; she'd said the stage show was going to be like being inside one of the album's apps. Specially invented instruments, heard on "Biophilia," would also be part of the show: 10-feet long pendulums that pluck strings as they swing, musical Tesla coils and a reconfigured celeste fitted with Gamelan bars. Overall, the "Biophilia" concept is five-fold: the album, the apps, a documentary, a website and the live show. The residencies will be accompanied by educational events in each city visited, with children from local schools taught to make music by linking the digital and the organic, say with crystals. The album itself is spread across five editions, from a standard CD to the "Ultimate Edition," which includes the "Biophilia Manual" (a 48-page hardback book), 10 tuning forks (one each for a tone for each album track) in an oak box.
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Thus, the concert is yet another special edition of "Biophilia." Played in the round, Bjork and her female choir occupied a raised dais in the middle of Silfurberg, a hall on Harpa's second floor. A bank of seats was at one end, with stepped platforms on the other three sides. Not being able to project forwards, elements of the PA were arranged around the stage. Even so, the sound desk was at one end of the room. Percussion took up one corner of the stage, while the digital equipment for triggering the new instruments was at another. Otherwise, the edge of the stage was taken up by pipes that looked at though they'd been extracted from an organ, a harpsichord, the bank of pendulums and more mysterious equipment. Twin Tesla coils hung from the ceiling. Screens suspended around the perimeter of the stage showed the imagery accompanying each of the album's songs.
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The whole of the new album was performed, supplemented with older material like "Declare Independence" and "Nátturá". It began with "Thunderbolt" -- electrostatic sparks arcing between the Tesla coils as percussive yet melodic punctuation. Although the visuals were immediately attention-grabbing, the focus soon shifted to Björk herself and the songs. The show, and each "Biophilia" song, was introduced by the recorded voice of British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, bringing a gravity to proceedings.
The activity on the screens lent the evening the feel of a peculiar academic presentation. The dynamic brought by the live setting, the choir and Björk's undeniable presence filled the songs out, bringing them more warmth than their recorded counterparts. "Crystalline" is obviously going to part of her repertoire for years, as is the delicate and affecting "Virus".
In the end though, no matter how special the presentation, no matter how weird the instruments, this was still a concert. Björk moved across and around the stage, breaching the fourth wall. She sang and we applauded. But this is just one part of the "Biophilia" experience, and the next few years will show whether it will be more than the sum of its parts.