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All Songs Considered Blog
Sat February 4, 2012
Bjork As Music Teacher At The New York Hall Of Science
Originally published on Sat February 4, 2012 10:52 am
Bjork told a journalist recently that she'd always wanted to be a music teacher. And so she was, in her own dazzling style, during the first show of a six-night residency at the New York Hall of Science. A variation on her innovative performance at the Manchester Festival in England last summer, it presented the music from her 2011 LP Biophilia for the first time in the U.S. The album was issued in multiple formats, but it was best appreciated as a cluster of interactive, annotated iPad apps. The Hall of Science concert was something like those apps come to life.
The venue was the museum's Great Hall, originally built for the 1964 World's Fair: a temple-like space with a 100-foot ceiling and wave-like dalle de verre walls built of concrete and blue stained glass. Bjork's ensemble performed in the center of the room, surrounded by the crowd. Programmer/musician Max Weisel, the group's main science geek, employed an array of instruments, including four iPads, a laptop, two keyboards, and something called a Reactable to trigger preset sounds and some very strange instruments — including the massive Tesla coil that spit percussive electricity during the opening song, "Thunderbolt," a scene recalling Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
Drummer Manu Delago and harpist Zeena Parkins also contributed much to the mix. But the music's core was still that most lo-tech of instruments, the human voice. The 20-member Graduale Nobili, an Icelandic young women's choir, were striking in their golden hooded robes; they often encircled the stage, singing multipart harmonies on "Moon" and dancing barefoot like ecstatic ravers during the encore "Nattura."
Bjork, meanwhile, was the sun around which all revolved, moving among her cohorts in a turquoise miniskirt swollen with nautilus-shaped appendages, beneath a huge, rust-colored wig that seemed to progressively oxidize as the show unspooled. (Nicki Minaj could still learn a thing or two about presentation from this pop foremother.) Using little besides a simple microphone, she was a physics class on two legs, sculpting vowels into fanciful shapes, and vividly animating Biophilia's song metaphors, which connect the human heart to the universe beyond. During "Mutual Core," she sang of tectonic plates under a circle of projection screens illustrating the phenomena, and licked her lips after a line about how "the Atlantic ridge drifts" like she could feel that motion tingle beneath her skin.
The Hall of Science shows are part of a residency program that includes a workshop component (previously conducted in Reykjavik) for New York City schoolchildren. For the rest of us, they were a lesson in the scientific art of music, and how limitless it can be. During "Solstice," Bjork sang in duet with a gravity harp, a device that combines computer technology with wood, wires and the simple mechanics of the pendulum. It was the night's most intimate moment, a dialogue between music past, present and future.