Nature, technology and music: these are the strands that form a sort of triple helix behind Biophilia, the project launched in 2011 by the Icelandic singer Björk. Released as a series of apps for iPhone and iPad, as an album, and performed around the globe as a live show for the past two years, Biophilia is a meditation on nature, from the universally huge to the quantumly tiny. Much has been made of its multimedia, multi-platform nature, and it’s certainly true that Björk’s media have a message: as this show got under way, David Attenborough’s recorded preamble proclaimed that we are “on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovations.” Mercifully those innovations did not on this occasion include camera phones; the audience had been asked to put them away and enjoy the show “now, not later”. Now that’s what I call progress.
In the context of a live performance, though, the subtleties of these intertwined threads began to unravel. Before many of the songs, Attenborough would intone a little mantra (“Hollow – the enemy – rhythm”), but these were often rendered inaudible by shouts and whoops from the crowd. The animations and videos shown on screens surrounding the in-the-round stage were fun – spacey stuff, earthy stuff, fishy stuff, mushroomy stuff, animated strands of genetic stuff – but feeble compared with the spectacular visuals of, say, Gorillaz. As a themed multimedia performance, it didn’t really hang together. Which leaves the music.
It was mostly exquisite. Just two players supported Björk: a percussionist on a host of instruments, including an array of hang drums; and a keyboardist/laptopist/ technologist. Between them they made quite a noise, from delicate to gut-rumbling. But the real coup was the presence of a 24-strong all-female Icelandic choir dressed in shiny robes. It must, to say the least, be challenging to sing complex, often arrhythmic music in a show lasting more than two hours without sheet music or a conductor while dressed like a citizen of the planet Zhyzquil. And yet their cascading, swelling harmonies sounded glorious.
Björk herself wore a weird bulgy dress and a wig seemingly made from candy floss. She sang beautifully, with exceptional power and clarity, and was charming and strange, as always. “Crystalline” was, well, crystalline; “Dark Matter” was near-abstract and haunting; “Isobel”, one of several tracks from earlier in her career reworked for the show, had the crowd jiggling along.
It was absorbing and occasionally compelling, a powerful blend of the digital and the organic. This was the show’s final performance and it was being filmed for later release (perhaps by then it will be streamed directly into people’s brains), which made it necessary for three songs to have retakes: irksome. But all was forgiven at the end when Björk said something I doubt I will ever hear again from a performer on stage: “This one’s for the Faroe Islands and Greenland – come on!” Then everyone went bonkers to the exhilarating throw-off-the-shackles-of-Danish-tyranny beat of “Declare Independence”.