Björk: Biophilia Live


Bjork Biophilia Live
I recently had my 26th birthday and so have been thinking a lot, as one often does at these times of year. While watching Björk’s new concert film, Biophilia, which means “love of life or living systems”, I suddenly realised that this is an artist who has always been a part of my musical life despite being someone I more respected than actively listened to. But I realised that my parents owned her breakthrough album Début (released in 1993) then I was barely 5 years old and she has been omnipresent over the 20 subsequent years. What triggered this reaction was her voice.

After 20 years, Björk’s ability, as witnessed in the film, to be a challenging, experimental performer, remains astonishing. Ultimately though, it is her unmistakable, powerful vocals that consistently shine through her music, or her accompanying twenty-four female choir, regardless of what experiment she is conducting.

Biophilia really is an experiment, and at its core, a collaboration. Much was made at the time of the album’s release about its incredible technological advances, as Björk commissioned a team of scientists, film-makers and musicians to create the multi-media experience of Biophilia, and all this comes to life in music’s most important form, the live stage. Recorded on the last date of her tour, at Alexandra Palace, London in November 2013, Biophilia captures an incredible experience in music on the theme of “morphing into nature”. The level of detail that has gone into the project is incredible, from Björk’s costume, to the introduction by renowned naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, and the composition of the songs and their accompanying visuals.

“Directed” by Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio) and edited by Nick Fenton (The Selfish Giant, The Double), the film attempts to create an immersive experience for the viewer without them having been at the performance. Attenborough’s aforementioned introduction sets the tone; his (like Björk’s) unmistakable voice set familiarly against images of nature at its greatest, in stunning hi-definition.

Bjork Biophilia Live
Once the performance begins, Strickland and Fenton go to great lengths to superimpose and illustrate the music’s “nature” theme. Thus we are privy to beautiful animations and images that accompany the music, often becoming the music, in a celebration and exploration of the different natural elements around which Björk’s arrangements are themed. So for instance, images of crystals forming in super-speed display in Crystalline, Mutual Core features volcanic rock and tectonic plates shifting, and we see microscopic germs and cells in Virus. All of this runs the risk of mawkishness, but their envelopment in the music’s rhythms and movements and tone make them charming.

Of course, the film wouldn’t stand up if the music itself wasn’t so fascinating. What is startling about her compositions is that they somehow manage to sound startlingly simple when they are in fact hugely complex. The visual aids Strickland and Fenton give us add to this, for instance Moon visibly shows us the harp playing on the song as well as the movements of the lunar cycle, because the song is written in the unconventional 17/8 time signature to mimic that process. We are able to understand this normally challenging music and importantly appreciate and enjoy it as a result.

Part of the Biophilia project was that each song had it’s own downloadable app that served the purpose of teaching the process of music and composition specifically to children. While there’s no explicit mention of the app’s featured in the film, one can easily imagine how this would translate, given that visual aids have the power to teach as well as entertain.

New instruments were invented for this tour, which is visibly the concert’s most incredible achievement. The inventions include a digitally controlled, self-playing organ, a Tesla-coil bass, which produced sound through electric sparks, and perhaps most impressively, large, swinging wooden pendulum-harps that make music from their gravitational pull. It is on album closer Solstice that they make their presence known best in a beautiful melancholic piece, and there’s something quite magical about seeing Björk looking genuinely enthused as she is accompanied by these grand inventions. While it’s not always massively clear what effect some of these instruments have, though they are explored in Channel 4′s accompanying documentary, When Björk met David Attenborough, their mere presence in the music still makes them fascinating in pushing the boundaries of what music can be through this scientific approach.

Ultimately Biophilia is a thrilling experience and not just a conventional concert film. While the action on screen is most interesting when the songs from Biophilia are being performed, fans will still appreciate Björk’s re-imagining of some of her classics, such as Possibly Maybe and the brilliant electro-punk Declare Independence, which sits rather awkwardly now given the artist’s vocal support for Scotland’s Yes campaign while singing to an English audience.

Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the Icelandic enigma, it is hard not to be amazed by her, and this film goes a great way to reminding us of her talent.

Biophilia Live is on limited cinema release from 17th October.


About Author

Adam is a freelance film and music journalist who is also a musician with the groups Post Louis and Spoilers. He graduated from Strathclyde University in English Literature and has worked at both the London and Glasgow Film Festivals and has written programme notes for the Glasgow Film Theatre.

Leave A Reply

four × three =