July 1, 2011 10:44 pm

Björk, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

The biennial Manchester International Festival advertises itself as the world’s only festival of new work. The claim looks a little threadbare when you scrutinise the line-up – Snoop Dogg, who appears later this month, is unlikely to have made his new album at the behest of the festival’s organisers. But the event that launched this year’s programme, the world premiere of Björk’s Biophilia, was a genuine coup.

Biophilia is a highly ambitious project from one of pop’s most fascinating free spirits. It’s a high-tech version of the ancient idea of the music of the spheres, the belief that planets move around the universe in a mystical cosmic symphony. Björk’s collaborators include computer software designers, interactive artists, musicologists and inventors. Even David Attenborough has been roped in to provide a voice-over.

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The songs will retail as iPhone apps and have been made on specially designed new musical instruments such as a gamelan mated with a celesta, which produces tinkling sounds, and a set of so-called “gravity harps”, which swing on pendulums and are operated by the force of gravity. These instruments ringed the stage for the live show in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Björk was joined by a 24-strong all-woman choir from her native Iceland alongside a virtuoso drummer and an electronics musician. The show opened with Attenborough’s voice-over, talking about “love for nature in all its manifestations”. The songs aimed to bring this wonderment to life. The bespoke instruments tinkled and chimed away prettily and subsonic bass rumbled underneath, while the choir’s harmonies tugged the songs upwards. Björk, resplendent in a vast orange wig that made her look like an Icelandic volcano in peak eruption, sang about meteorology, DNA and the cosmos.

Since emerging with The Sugarcubes in the 1980s, Björk has been fetishised as somehow embodying Iceland’s strange geology, an elfin wanderer in a lunar landscape. Mostly this is nonsense meant to exoticise the singer – but in Biophilia she really does resemble a force of nature. Her voice obeys its own laws, swooping and growling in search of harmonies, singing the line “Earth like a heart” with magnificent rolling “r”s. It is the perfect instrument to make us look anew at nature’s laws.

Biophilia’s songs are some of the best Björk has written for a long time. “Virus” was liquid folk music, the drummer playing handheld drums that sounded like maracas crossed with a bell. “Solstice” was a sweet lullaby, sung in the tender style of a mother explaining day and night to a child.

Yet the show didn’t quite work. Björk seemed unsure whether she was putting on a staging or a normal concert, opening with a suite of Biophilia songs but then deviating into her back catalogue. Ironically, considering the new-agey, Gaian philosophy underpinning Biophilia – “I am part of it,” Björk sang in one moment of rhapsody – the piece’s thematic unity was disrupted by the older material. The confusion was heightened by awkward choreography, the singer wandering around the stage with the choir shuffling behind her.

For all its technical sophistication there was something old-fashioned about the event. Raised in a 1970s commune, Björk is trying to recreate the hippy happenings of that era. I admire the attempt but it needs fine-tuning.

3 stars

Manchester International Festival

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