One of the highlights of 2012 so far was our trip to New York to see Björk at the Roseland Ballroom on March 2.
I’ve been listening to Björk for years, as a sort of guilty pleasure that not many understand. Bjork has been on my stereo a lot more in the last couple of years as I’ve explored my electro side more seriously. Any Björk fan knows she’s an acquired taste, but a genius nonetheless. It’s just a matter of how far you want to buy into the experience – and I do mean that on a monetary level as well as a psychological one.
When Björk’s latest recording was released in October 2011, there were “four physical versions of the Biophilia album—on CD, vinyl, and two custom-made editions— which included the Biophilia Manual, which presents the music on two CDs in a 48-page cloth-bound, thread-sewn hardback book, and the Ultimate Edition, which includes the Manual along with 10 tuning forks, each representing the tone of a track on the album.”*
The Ultimate Edition was priced at just over $800 US, clearly meant for the diehard fan, which I must admit was a bit insane in my opinion. But we know someone must have purchased these. Is the music industry dead? Hardly.
“The Biophilia Manual presents the music of Biophilia in a 48-page, full-color, hardbound, cloth-covered, and thread-sewn book, tipped on lenticular panel to the front cover, with foil-blocked spine and back cover; the music, on CD—including a second disc of live performances from Manchester—is housed in black uncoated board wallets. The Manual is being made to order and fabricated only once.”*
The two-disc version was substantially less – something like $80. Still, that’s pretty steep. I love Björk, but I guess when it comes down to it, I just want the music. I opted for the singe disc version, which included hi-res download. Price: $12.
*Nonesuch label web site.
Björk’s Biophilia concept reaches beyond music and the album format into interactive iPhone/iPad applications and an educational curriculum that combines music theory and science. Part of the Biophilia tour includes residencies at schools and outreach to teachers.
On first listen, I can’t say Biophilia immediately struck me as Björk’s best work. It’s vocally stunning as always, but I am still not sure about it. On repeated listens it continues to grow on me, which is often the case with more edgy experimental work. And maybe that is a reflection of its organiz nature. It is very clear that the songs were generated from a different creative process, and Björk talks about this on her web site, during interviews and in her promo material.
Regardless of my opinion of the new album, when the Biophilia tour was announced I knew it was a unique opportunity, and one of the few concerts that I would go out of my way to attend. We didn’t get tickets right away, so by the time we ordered them, the $1000 VIP seats were gone – not that they would have been an option for us. Even the next tier down – between $100-200 – were sold out, and though that’s pretty pricy I would have considered it… for Björk. Ticketmaster gave us the best available seats, which at $75 amounted to standing room for the Roseland Ballroom. We were never there before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The point was we were going, and it was Björk!
We didn’t want to be pressed for time right before a concert, so we booked a hotel for a couple of nights so we could arrive, enjoy the city and then take our time getting to the concert. This was very wise. When we arrived at the Roseland Ballroom Friday night at 6:30 pm, ticket holders were already lined up around the block. And that’s a large NY block, not what we’re used to in Bloomsburg. Doors opened at 7pm, and we were in by probably 7:30, with nowhere to sit.
The running gag here at home is that Björk is “the other woman” and there are few mistresses that would warrant a three-hour drive, two-night stay in New York, and several hours of standing.
Figuring it was best to get the merchandise out of the way first, I got the $75(!) hardcover program because it had some good info about the stage setup and instruments being used. Against my better judgement, I bought the extremely overpriced – thin – obligatory Björk t-shirt. I need to remember to skip those next time.
It was at least another hour until Björk went on, but we were entertained by ambient generative music from a MIDI-operated pipe organ. The stage was set up in the round, and at first we considered standing near what could be considered the “front”. Later we opted to take advantage of a raised platform to give Audra a better viewing angle. This worked out OK, placing us also right above the digital audio/video mixing desks. So the geek in me was pretty happy.
In addition to the pipe organ, there were stations for the Gameleste (a combination of celest/gamelan), Gravity Harps, Sharpsichord and stations for programmer Matt Robertson (laptop, iPads, synth, Reactable) and percussionist Manu Delago (electro-acoustic drums, Hang drum, xylosynth). Also in attendance were Choir Graduale Nobili – 24 women from Iceland.
More about Björk’s instruments:
Sir David Attenbourough did the narration (prerecorded) through the evening, and with the first song – Thunderbolt – everything went crazy as a car-sized Tesla Coil descended from the ceiling, less than 30 feet from us.
The rest of the evening was an aural and visual onslaught, impossible to convey here. Each song had a video/visualization timed perfectly, playing overhead on the many projection screens. Photos were not allowed (which didn’t stop some people of course), but Björk has posted some professional images.
Here’s the set list (pulled from Bjork.com)
01. thunderbolt 02. moon 03. crystalline 04. hollow 05. dark matter 06. hidden place 07. mouth’s cradle 08. virus 09. generous palmstroke 10. sacrifice 11. sonnets / unrealities 12. where is the line 13. mutual core 14. cosmogony 15. solstice
Encores included: possibly maybe náttúra declare independence
Björk didn’t sing many of my favorite songs from past albums, but I knew she would be showcasing the new album. I was OK with that. I know artists get tired of the same material. Björk was in full voice, and any fears of her not being able to carry this material – even at the end of the tour in NY – were unfounded. She must really take care of herself. The sonic challenge of keeping the choir mixed well with 24 live microphones on stage was impressive, and it was pulled off very well. In fact, given the open nature of the floor plan, I was concerned about how it would all sound. Most of the sound was fine, if a bit heavy on the sub-bass at times. The encore pieces had to be approaching pain threshold though, particularly “Declare Independence” – I have to say I was glad it was over by that point.
I don’t know how much control Björk can assert over volume levels, though she seems to have a lot of creative control otherwise. The technical aspects of this tour were considerable, and the seamless execution was admirable. It just goes to show what can be done when technology is harnessed well, and that takes great people and artists who understand each other.
The Hang drum was a highlight for me, though I have seen them before. We could see the Gravity Harps from a distance, but it wasn’t until I saw a video online afterward that I figured out how it worked. The Reactable has been around a while. One of Björk’s previous tours used a larger version.
Exhausted, we found the closest Russian restaurant and had a great meal. Our ears did not get a break from the live entertainment, but it was all a good time – except for hailing a cab in the pouring rain back to the hotel.
The following day, I purchased a used 20” Chinese gong at Olde Good Things, an antique dealer near our hotel. I came across the gong in the basement, without a stand, where it looked like it had been tied up for years. After a bit of haggling, we landed on a fair price (with a special discount for PA residents). As I checked out, the clerk asked me what type of music I was into. I described my blues/roots side, and my electronic side. She didn’t know exactly what electronic music meant,
“Oh, so you are working with fake sounds.”
Fake sounds?! Is any sound fake? Not any more than any color is fake, or any taste.
I cautioned the attribution of “fake” to electronic music and explained what I might do with the gong is sample it (a real sound?) and then manipulate it in various ways. Maybe she meant naturally occurring? But then, even a violin is not naturally occurring because violins do not grow on trees or can be mined from the ground.
I wondered what Björk would have thought of the “fake” comment. I just laughed inside, knowing that there is no such thing as a “fake” sound. Synthesized, or not occurring in nature… sure. But fake? Wow, that’s the perception of electronic music even still? Even now with our 64-bit hoopla processing and super-fine digital hoosiwhatsits?
Once we got out of NY, we were off to the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University to see the Harry Partch collection of instruments there. According to the web site harrypartch.com, no reservations were needed and it appeared to be open to the public. They even provide very detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to get to the studio. We got to the door to the studio, only to be stopped by a student. We were very disappointed to find out that the collection isn’t open to the public. The web site was very misleading and made it sound like people could visit.
Dean Drummond, the curator, was not available and no one else could authorize access. All we wanted to do was look around for a few minutes since we were already there – not even take any pictures. But it was a no go. We sent Dean an email and took some time out for lunch.
Just as we were about to leave town, Dean got back to me via email and explained the collection is not a museum, and apologized that there was no chance to see anything unless there was a performance being held.
Dean has since updated the web site to reflect their practices so other people don’t make the same mistake. It’s really discouraging when academia takes the roll of “protecting” something from the very people who want to study it. I understand that these items must be preserved. It’s just particularly frustrating when we’re talking about something so obscure and rare as Harry Partch… how many people in their right mind would go out of their way for this stuff? Not many. And you’d think we’d be welcome as fellow artists and in appreciation of the musical legacy Partch left behind. All we wanted to do was look! So I also found myself wondering what Björk would have thought about this.
Indeed, Björk is an expensive mistress, but I came away from my triste very inspired to continue on my path of musical experimentation knowing that there are people out there who *do* appreciate all sorts of music. Maybe I’m a long way off from $800 box sets, and $1000 concert seats, but I am still part of the universe of *real* sound that people are making with (and without) technology.