The festival that promises nothing but original work continues to draw an impressive list of international a-list artists, inspired by the concept. Maybe it’s the creative freedom that they are entrusted with that beckons these already world famous names to step out of their comfort zones and broaden their artistic horizons?
Bjork seems a perfect candidate for the festival. She has worked with cutting edge producers on her memorable music videos, starred in the Palme d’Or winning Lars Von Trier film ‘Dancer In The Dark’, and continues to deeply consider the fashion and design elements of each album that she has produced. Her place within the festival brings with it the promise of multimedia creativity and performance art, which will transform this experience into something more than just a series of gigs to launch a forthcoming album.
The Museum of Science and Industry’s Campfield Market Hall will be Bjorks’ for the next three weeks. It’s a vast space, built over 130 years ago, containing ornate cast iron columns and a glazed roof. The entire hall has been blacked out with a square stage in the centre, dotted around are curious contraptions that are waiting to come to life.
Bjork arrives with her army of female singers, all dressed in deep blue and gold gowns. She wears a large, fluffy ginger hairpiece, which makes her look startled and innocent. The spotlights catch her glittered tights, giving the effect that her legs are electrically charged, as she timidly floats around the stage and gently leans towards the audience, as if speaking to a small child. Her voice is nothing short of incredible. Her trademark, unpredictably enunciated lyrics flow endlessly over the choirs powerful, soaring harmonies. Despite her current appearance and intimidatingly beautiful voice, she comes across as being incredibly personable, thanking the crowd for turning up, and expressing concern that everything will go according to plan. The only glitch of the night is at the very start and is quickly forgotten.
A percussionist sits in one corner and a keyboard player in another, with a third corner occupied by a metal music box mechanism; the drum of which is the size of a large dustbin, with the sound produced launched from it’s spectacular silver gramophone horns. Screens hang like a halo above the square stage, leaning forward so the projections are viewable from inside as well as out.
Biophilia, the title of Bjork’s forthcoming album, refers to the bond between human beings and other life. The screens largely show organic 3D computer animations, both in vector graphics and finely rendered, of D.N.A strands, cells, and views of the earth (inside and out). A Tesla coil arp is lowered from the ceiling for the first tune. The lightening bolts within the cage are triggered by electronic sounds with solid forks of pure white light, crackling in time to the music.
The choir of girls shuffle around the stage between songs, remaining motionless but emotional for the slower tunes, and dancing energetically during the heavier drum and bass segments. At a point where large pendulums block my view, I observe the illuminated faces of the crowd that stand within a few feet of the woman herself. She sings with almost no accompaniment and their expressions are of total delight as they watch, transfixed by her voice and kooky mannerisms, as if being sung to personally.
New single ‘Crystalline’ begins with a xylophone and layered vocals, building momentum while the beats and electronic snaps imply sharp, jagged edges, reminiscent of Manchester based duo Lamb. Older hits from her previous six albums, such as ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Isobel’ have been worked into the new setup. The highlight for me comes after the encore, with a stripped down version of ‘One Day’ from her first album ‘Debut’. The percussionist plays what looks like two large woks that have been welded together to create a clam shape, with a wire going into it and holes pierced in the top. He taps around the shell to produce different notes and tones with his thumbs and fingers, while she sings impressively as ever. After the first ripple of loud applause dies down, a lady shouts “That was amazing!” and the rest of the crowd are quick to agree with even more enthusiastic applause.
Bjork’s albums have increasingly become less accessible to a wider audience since ‘Debut’ was released in 1993, but in so doing has increased her credibility as a unique act. Her gradual transformation into a performance artist and conceptual songwriter may slightly disappoint fans of The Sugarcubes and ‘Play Dead’ (like myself). Her undeniable vocal talents seem to be naturally leading her to explore her voice, lyrics and accompanying contemporary orchestration, ahead of any indie riffs or pop beats of old.
Whatever your preference, there’s no denying that this show is nothing short of spectacular. Each incarnation of Bjork was present. You can add this to the expanding list of impressive and truly original Manchester International Festival moments, which will no doubt enhance its reputation. When the crowd spontaneously erupts into a huge, second wave of un-prompted applause between songs, you know you’re witnessing something special.