By Sian Haestier
After a mostly dry if not completely mud-free Glastonbury, festival fever continues this week with the launch of the third Manchester International Festival, which opened yesterday. Over the next sixteen days the city will host events including Damon Albarn’s “English Opera” Doctor Dee, which like Bjork’s Biophilia has been developed with MIF, as well as touring shows like Snoop Dogg’s “ Doggystyle”. The festival has built a reputation for helping artists realize large scale projects they’ve wanted to make for a while, and with Bjork they’ve succeeded in creating an experience that feels very personal and emotionally accessible, yet intellectually all there. While she admitted the preview we went to on Monday night was their first show, “so we’re all a bit nervous, but it feels good to have you here,” everyone there was aware it was more than just a bit special. To say we felt lucky to be barely a metre away from an artist who so consistently brings so much beauty and innovation to music would be an understatement.
It’s a self-explanatory name for a project investigating the “structures in music, and structures in nature – and where they are similar.” As well, it’s a fascinating premise to use developing technologies and specially-conceived instruments to explore those similarities and their creative potential. 1800 people fitted into Manchester’s Campfield Market Hall for the unveiling of Biophilia, yet it never felt overcrowded, or like a gig at all really. In the centre of the room was the square stage, and suspended above it what looked like a giant digital zoetrope, where visuals of DNA strands, viruses and trees played to accompany the new songs. Bjork and the all-female choir moved to face a different quarter of the audience with each song, giving everyone a good view in rotation. I stuck to my position in the front row near the pendulum harps, partly so I’d be able to see how they worked when they swung into action, the movement of a plucked string turning the machinery. This show inspires curiosity as much as anything else.
Musically, the new songs are and aren’t a break with previous beats and strings based offerings. In prodding around in the micro and the macro of the physical world – the molecules and notes, and the archetypes – Biophilia is in line with the Bjork we know as a musician and humanitarian, and at the same time it’s a big departure, visionary in its plan for incorporating apps and educational strands into the scheduled album, tour and planned documentary. “ Crystalline”, which we heard for the first time this week, was one of the most successful songs of the show, xylophone sounds mimicking the expanding growth formation of crystals, punctuated by syncopated beats and building to end in a traumatic drum n bass finale.
The choir, getting into their role, swarmed sometimes like a directionless, freeform mass of plankton and at other times like a perfectly genetically programmed system of self-replicating cells. Amongst the theatricality of the Biophilia live show, the visuals seemed at times too literal in their lyrical interpretation, highlighting a suspicion that with such a busy agenda perhaps the album’s lyrics would be the part to suffer, but we’ll have to wait until we hear the album in full before we make a call on that one.
Half an hour of all-new material in, and we got a more familiar tune. That the song was “ Hidden Place” was even better, and it was then that the project as a whole made more sense. The parts of her back catalogue that got the Biophilia treatment weren’t exactly added to by their re-contextualization, it was more that something already there, lying dormant, was allowed to come through, enriched by the familiar lyrics being sung by a talented choir (the refrain of “It’s Not Up To You”) or being played on the bespoke instruments. To see more of these instruments in action would be engaging, as the show relies heavily on the choir, both as musicians and performers – which they’re very good at integrating, as asteroids or blood cells, when they work as small units within the whole, crossing to sing with another sub-group at times.
For the first song of the encore, a heartwarmingly a.m. radio version of “ One Day” from Debut (1993), performed on what looked like three upturned spaceships (played a bit like a cajon), was sung by a solitary Bjork, resplendent in a gold tapestry dress with copper breastplate and huge hairdo to match, like a nun wearing an electric blue habit slightly styled by Leigh Bowery. It seemed to bring the evening full circle with it’s lyrics about volcanoes and airplanes overhead, and like a subtle promise, drew a physical response from each of us. By the time of “ Declare Independence” (from 1997’s Volta), twenty-four female singers had become dancers, breaking into a mini stage-rave. “ Raise your flag,” Bjork sang. “ Higher, higher” first the choir, then almost the entire audience chanted back, enjoying losing themselves in the music, in the mass, until the abrasive beat ended, the pendulum harps ground to a halt and the performers left the stage for the last time. An expertly staged show that will get better as the run goes on. Bjork’s new project Biophilia premiered last night in Manchester. We went to the preview on Monday. Exploring the links between music, nature and technology, the live show features an Icelandic female choir, Tessla coils, a pin barrel harp and giant pendulums. If you’ve got tickets, you’ve got a lot to look forward to.
Setlist 01. Thunderbolt 02. Moon 03. Crystalline 04. Hollow 05. Dark matter 06. Hidden place 07. Mouth’s cradle 08. Isobel 09. Virus 10. Its not up to you 11. Sacrifice 12. Sonnets/Unrealities 13. Mutual core 14. Where is the line 15. All is full of love 16. Cosmogony 17. Solstice 18. One day 19. Declare independence