Björk : Biophilia – review Manchester international festival, 3 juillet 2011

In the Victorian era, scientific endeavour often doubled as performance art. New inventions and recently harnessed natural processes were routinely demonstrated to audiences. Even autopsies were public events. Björk is the sort of polymath who might have felt right at home back then.

Set in the round inside a former Victorian market hall, the Icelandic singer’s latest project – Biophilia – feels less like a traditional gig, and more of a demonstration of whizz-bang musicological ideas. "Thunderbolt" – the first of eight arresting new songs she plays tonight – is punctuated by the crackling trumps of a Tesla coil, its gloriously menacing synth sounds playing off against Björk’s otherworldly vocals.

Locked in a cage, it looks like the sort of thing that reanimated Frankenstein’s monster. Indeed, Björk herself is sporting the kind of kinky afro that suggests she’s been licking sockets. Lest we forget, this high-concept artist was laying eggs on red carpets back when Lady Gaga was still at convent school. She is no stranger to innovation. Recently, Björk’s contract with One Little Indian (her label since the early 90s) ended, and Björk very nearly signed a deal with National Geographic in order to count sharks and lemurs as labelmates.

Just next to the Tesla coil is a "sharpsichord", another specially built, Heath Robinsonesque structure that weds a pin barrel organ to two enormous, flower-like ear trumpets, the kind of thing the Victrola dog used to sit next to. In the far corner, meanwhile, is Biophilia’s "gameleste" – a celesta rebuilt with brass to mimic the sounds of the south-east Asian gamelan.

The presence of the 21st century can be felt tonight as well, thanks to the iPad that Björk plays on "Dark Matter". Musical director Matt Robertson, meanwhile, orchestrates digitals and unleashes penetrating sub-bass, while eight giant flat-screen TVs play out themed visual accompaniments to each track. In one, hyperreal sea creatures consume the body of a dead seal ; in another, we zoom in past platelets and white blood cells to watch the entwining dance of some rather bling chains of DNA. Three years in the making, Biophilia itself will be released in the autumn as a series of apps, each with multiple levels of engagement combining art, science, gaming and – yes – music. The new titles tend to be short and factual : "Hollow", "Virus". Mostly avoiding traditional beats and structures, Björk’s latest songs lean more towards the forbidding end of her spectrum, with atonal systems music to the fore on the stark "Moon". If Volta was Björk’s version of a mainstream world-dance album, Biophilia provides relatively few opportunities for the casual Gudmundsdottir neophyte. Chief among these is the lovely "Crystalline", a single (of sorts) with a recognisable chorus and melody. Throughout, Björk’s voice plays off against the 25-strong Icelandic female vocal choir, dressed in electric blue and gold tonight.

If this heady symposium of life sciences, ethnomusicology and Apple-branded geekery all seems rather forbidding, comfort is at hand. The soothing tones of David Attenborough provide a preamble tonight ; his disembodied voice periodically pops back to introduce the new tracks, raising a Pavlovian feeling of cosiness every time. Getting Attenborough to intone things such as "Cosmogony… music of the spheres… equilibrium," is a fabulous coup that is never quite equalled as the show goes on.

Perhaps unfairly, you are expecting something spectacular near the end that will top caged lightning and the voice of God. But two hours pass in which the weird science gradually takes a back seat to the music. Every so often, as with the jazz’n’bass breakdown at the end of "Crystalline" or a rousing, tribal take on "Where Is the Line", Biophilia’s unveiling threatens to tip over into a rave in a lab, but never quite does. There are old songs here – a superb "Isobel", an enchanting "All Is Full of Love" – rearranged for the new instruments. Four giant computer-interfaced pendulums swing and create sounds towards the end, on songs such as the geologically themed "Mutual Core".

Biophilia, then, feels like the logical nesting place for a number of bees that have been buzzing around in Björk’s headdresses for some time. As long ago as 2001, she and Californian experimentalists Matmos were generating live rhythms sampled from the human body. The interplay of machine-generated sounds and the natural power of the human voice has always been a constant in her work, explored extensively on 2004’s Medúlla.

As with everything Björk produces, Biophilia is a ritual dance between the head-scratchingly abstruse and the heart-warmingly simple. "Virus" finds a fatal disease attacking cells, but Björk characterises the process as being akin to being loved too much. Played out as avant-garde multi-platform shock and awe, her songs, at the cellular level, are ultimately concerned with love, generosity and wonderment.

par Kitty Empire publié dans