biophila live: theatrical release

Last night I attended the theatrical release of Björk’s biophilia live a concert film that documents her most recent album biophilia and tour. For those who are unfamiliar with Björk’s biophilia project, here it is in a nutshell from Björk's website:

‘biophilia live’ is a concert film by nick fenton and peter strickland 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.’ (1)

and this from Björk:

“for me the project is a continuation of volta and whereas volta is more about anthropology, this is kind of without humans and both zooming out like the planets but also zooming in into the atoms and in that way aesthetically sympathising with sound and how sound moves and physics of sound and how notes in a room behave, how they bounce off walls and between objects and its kind of more similar to how planets and microscopic things work.” (2)

From the very beginning, the concert felt like a full and gracious step into Björk's micro world. Operatic and musically expansive in a minimalistic way. Björk, the master of the micro-beat, the collaging of tiny natural and unnatural sounds to form larger rhythmic landscapes, was in full force throughout the biophilia show. Very few acoustic instruments are used during the show. This is a performance that uses technology and electronica in a dichotomous way. On one hand, the application of electronics is very minimalistic. On the other, it is grand--iPads, percussion trigger pads, multiple display screens, and much more, truly uses the best of what is available and invests heavily in its ability to communicate Björk's artistic vision.

Once again, Björk manages to make the artificial sound organic and natural. When acoustic instruments are used, like Manu Delago playing the hang drum, it is often processed and expanded beyond its sound and range. Additionally, this theatrical version affords the opportunity for a fair amount of additional post-production visuals to illustrate Björk's biophilia (and micro) world--tiny sea creatures move about their natural habitat, cosmic phenomena move across the screen in time lapse motion, cells and animations are overlaid so as to share the screen, the moment, alongside the performance. All of this is to say that it worked well--I found none of it disruptive. In most cases it positively challenged my expectations forcing me to craft a new sensibility of the biophilia compositions.

In light of this new sensibility and appreciation of the biophilia tunes, I must admit that it is not my favorite of her recent works. As my musical focus (and Björk's) has shifted since the release of vespertine and the supporting live work around that release, I have slowly trailed off in my focus on her work. That is not to say that Björk has fallen out of favor, not in the slightest. I recently dedicated a show to her work and others interpreting her compositions. I have always kept tabs and dipped into what she was releasing, but I found that most of it resonated less than the glorious vespertine. But my perspective on her work is different than most I track and listen to. I have felt all along that at some point I would catch-up to Björk implying the reality that I have always felt: she was staying one (two or three!) steps ahead of my musical comfort zone at all times. Björk is never complacent and always exploring new musical, anthropological (see Volta, here and here), cosmological and biological territories (biophilia). I am pleased to report that, after watching the movie and being immersed in Björk's biophilia world, I have caught up.

How did this happen? One of the significant moments for me was to watch and listen as Björk performed several older tunes in her catalog. These were not saved for encore numbers which is often the case with some performers. Instead they were carefully placed within the biophilia set list. In particular, tunes like "hidden place" and "isobel" when performed within the musical context of biophilia, and supported musically by the biophilia instrumentation, seemed absolutely part of the biophilia set of music. The fact that they are older songs did not matter and did not stick out in any obvious way. All were musically congruent with Björk's biophilia sonic sensibilities. Hearing these older tunes in this context made me aware that it is and has been one long consistent and progressive artistic arc for Björk. These classic selections were not old artifacts brought into the light to reveal their dusty and alien forms against the hyper-new of biophilia. Quite the opposite. They seemed fresh and related. Born of the same compositional elements that were not obvious until played opposite the newer work. In fact, hearing them in this context helped bridge the gap from vespertine to biophilia. The perfect confluence. Delightfully, it all made sense and fit together—Björk's musical past and present. Not bad for a night's work!

I made a point not to prepare before the movie. What does this mean? No pre-event research, no listening to Björk tracks, or watching any concert clips—I really wanted to go in cold and open-minded to whatever unfolded. I am pleased to say that my plan worked well. I walked out of the theater wanting to re-experience the performance, to watch it all over again. A good thing. In fact, I pre-ordered the dvd this morning. If you have the opportunity to see biophilia live in a theater near you, I encourage you to go and see it. It is slated to be released on DVD/Blu-Ray on November 24.