On Friday night, I had the pleasure of catching the first show in Bjork’s 10-date New York City residency (and the U.S. debut of her new material), and I feel smarter for it. Did you know that the earth’s tectonic plates move at the same rate that your fingernails grow? Who knew!
That was among the curriculum of the Icelandic singer’s jaw-dropping 90-minute set (I literally caught myself gawking numerous times), which, in a genius stroke of appropriateness, was held at the New York Hall of Science, located in one of the buildings built in the borough of Queens for the 1964 World’s Fair. It’s full of biology, chemistry and physics exhibits, and Bjork’s set—performed on a circular stage surrounded by some 300 New Yorkers, including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon—fit right in. Here’s why…
Bjork’s new album, Biophilia, is her most imaginative and ambitious yet, marrying science, music and technology into a hands-on educational experience. Its 10 songs deal in themes of nature and science, and it’s the world’s first “app album”—each song comes with an iPad app loaded with a video visualization of the song, lyrics, the score, an essay and a video game. For example, the “Virus” video shows a virus attacking a clump of cells, and a video game that challenges users to destroy the host cells. Sounds a bit more enriching for nine-year-olds than World of Warcraft, eh? And for all those aspiring Skrillexes out there, the apps even allow users to remix and manipulate the songs. Bjork’s residency includes daytime workshops for children, too; I dressed up in my OshKosh B'Gosh overalls, but was still denied. Bummer.
Bjork’s set Friday was essentially a recreation of the iPad experience, and then some. It was stimulus overload, from the costumes to the videos and, of course, the music. Like she did on The Colbert Report, Bjork wore a wig that looked like tangles of multi-colored yarn and a sequined electric blue dress with nautilus-shaped inflatables attached. She was joined onstage by the 24-member Icelandic young women's choir Graduale Nobili, programmer/musician Max Weisel, drummer Manu Delago and harpist Zeena Parkins, and together they created nothing short of surreal transcendence. Not even two total drunkards who hooted, hollered, clapped out of time and literally fell over on the floor were capable of tainting this show.
The venue was like a cathedral of science—the ceiling of the circular room rose to 100 feet, and eight massive LED screens formed a circle over the stage, playing the app’s videos for each song. As Bjork cooed about DNA strands on “Hollow,” the lyrics came to life onscreen in colorful, twisting threads of code, while on “Dark Matter” we looked deep into space. And—get this—a tesla coil, suspended over the crowd, shot bolts of electricity in rhythm on “Nuttura.”
The sound was surprisingly pristine. The members of the choir—wearing matching gold and purple gowns, and dancing onstage barefoot—sounded angelic; Weisel, the nerdiest of music nerds playing his first live concert ever (and it’s with Bjork? Damn…), tapped four iPads and two keyboards, and controlled a unique instrument created especially for the live shows called a "gravity harp," which combined computers with wood, wires and a pendulum. Most impressive, though, was Bjork’s voice—she gets older, but those pipes sound just the same. She was her most affecting on the non-Biophilia track and personal favorite “Pagan Poetry,” which had Bjork straight roaring.
When it was over, it was evident that one of those special, unforgettable concert moments had just occurred. “It was the kind of concert you can’t stop thinking about for at least 48 hours,” my friend and fellow concertgoer Anna explained to a mutual friend later that night. “Actually, I still have goose bumps.”