The inimitable musician tells Dazed about her most intricate, theatrical, and collaborative concert series yet
The image of the cornucopia, abundant with fragrant fruits and flowers, conjures a particular sense of comfort. It represents nourishment, cooperation, and fertility – the precise themes at play in Björk’s new concert series, Cornucopia. Premiering on May 9 at The Shed, an innovative new arts venue in Manhattan’s burgeoning Hudson Yards district, Björk’s latest production is her most intricate, theatrical, and collaborative yet. It immerses fans in a sensory techno-acoustic utopia, underscored by a poignant socio-political message about the need for environmental action.
“I personally would like to say that I am trying to carve ways to express the spiritual in the digital,” Björk says. “Is that too much of a cliché? I think there is an enormous need to find a place for the soul in our global landscape… I feel acoustic-ness will go even more intimate, for we crave it and we will find a million different touching points between the two. The more digital we have, the more naked skin and rawness we will want.”
Conceived following the release of 2017’s Utopia, the Cornucopia production was envisioned as Björk’s most ambitious to date. “My albums overall have been written with different venues in mind,” she says. “For example, Biophilia was a music-school-going-to-the-science-museum and Vulnicura was a Greek-tragedy-one-person-VR-opera. As venues go, Utopia was perhaps the most obvious: it’s a place, and a sci-fi tale on top of that, so I knew that it needed a theatrical set design and staging for the songs to be semi-believable. The music on Utopia is an attempt to imagine a soundtrack to a future island, a place of hope.”
Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, who Björk describes as “instinctive, vibrant, and fun”, was brought on to direct the production in January, rounding out a team of global artistic visionaries. From conceiving, creating, and collecting experimental bespoke musical instruments (including long organ pipes and aluphones), to building the software to master Björk’s 360-degree surround-sound vision, the crew worked quickly to bring Cornucopia’s unique concept and visual grandeur to life in time for its spring run.
The location also played an integral part in the show’s utopian conceptualisation: Its temporary home, The Shed, is grand in scale and fluid, with a movable roof and near-infinite ways to customise and build upon the space inside. Björk selected the venue after being inspired by her collaboration with founder Alex Poots at Manchester International Festival in the UK, where she premiered Biophilia in 2011. “(Alex) carries a very enabling attitude towards idiosyncratic ideas, and has a refreshing non-interest in differentiating between high and low arts. This Northern Scotsman seems to understand that either things work or they don’t, and categories of music and the arts don’t work anymore. They need to be broken.”
“I am trying to carve ways to express the spiritual in the digital. Is that too much of a cliché? The more digital we have, the more naked skin and rawness we will want” – Björk
In November 2018, an early announcement for Cornucopia promised a space “where the acoustic and digital will shake hands”, a promise that the event delivers on. A preview of the performance on May 6 drew a diverse crowd of music journalists, drag queens, art professors, and superfans – some in handmade cosplay. The show started 30 minutes late (later in the evening, Björk, in her tinkling whisper, playfully apologised for “fucking up a few times”), but the audience didn’t seem to mind. The venue was submerged in ambiance the moment attendees entered the space, with soothing woodland sound effects enveloping theatregoers and a towering papaya-hued screen promising the wondrous digital projections to come.
To the crowd’s surprise, Iceland’s esteemed Hamrahlid Choir (of which Björk is a former member) kicked off the show, its 50 starry-eyed teenage singers, some dressed in traditional Icelandic garb, setting the mood with a delightful 20-minute medley performance. At one point, the choir abandoned their lines at the front of the theatre and pranced into the audience, filling the chamber with their cherubic warbling and youthful energy. And then, Björk unveiled her utopia, a cyber-garden bathed in pink and dreamy hues.
Poised atop a series of hen-of-the-wood mushroom platforms (created by set designer Chiara Stephenson) and wearing a powder blue, bell-shaped couture dress custom designed by Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing (an “unusual luxury”, Björk notes), the Icelandic musician emerged on-stage as an Abundantia of her own Edenic, collaborative creation. Flanked by all-women flute septet Viibra, harpist Katie Buckley, percussionist Manu Delago, and electronic engineer Bergur Thorisson, she performed electrifying new arrangements of older tracks like “Isobel” and “Venus as a Boy”, as well as songs from Biophilia, Vulnicura, and Utopia, including the live debut of “Future Forever”. Björk’s presence was magnetic as she fluttered, hummingbird-like, around the stage and occasionally into the audience, yet she never positioned herself as greater than the sum of the production’s parts. All components and performers worked in equity and unity.
Nature, music, and technology collided during the 100-minute performance. White lights flashed around the audience like lightning bolts in sync with the thunderous boom of the bass during an early set piece. Sometimes, Björk and her flautists would disappear into a husk-like custom reverb chamber, the echoes of their instruments (in Björk’s case, her vocals) organically amplified. During a surprise duet between Björk and serpentwithfeet for “blissing me”, Delago created stunning audio effects by filling and pouring water from wooden bowls into a translucent tank featuring a submerged microphone. Later, like a troupe of mythic fauns, four Viibra flautists circled Björk, connecting their instruments together in an infinite hoop of music as she sang and danced in the middle. There was even a bassflute duel – perhaps “the world’s first”, Björk quips excitedly.
“Philosophically, as a matriarch, I don’t agree with the idea of the ‘lone genius’, the master. It is easy to work alone. The real challenge is to reach out and communicate in a genuine way” – Björk
Like blooming petals and floral stamen, mesmerising motion visuals created by digital artist Tobias Gremmler unfurled to the beat of the music on a large screen behind the stage, and sometimes projected onto long woven strings hanging in front of the stage. “When creating the video, I was deeply inspired by the music and lyrics of ‘Tabula Rasa’,” Gremmler explains. “The visual transformation of Björk into faun-like flowers and mountainous landscapes embodies the utopian concept of a harmonious coexistence between nature and human based on empathy.” Björk enthusiastically notes the two “could talk in few words with a lot of understanding”.
Outside of traditional audience involvement, the show challenges attendees to engage with the themes at play as the production expands with each song and increasingly futuristic element. “Cornucopia has a proper stage and a catwalk, so it is aiming to entertain; to serve, perhaps, a disillusioned post-climate-changer,” Björk explains. “It is trying to be a dream one can watch from afar, so I guess the relationship between the audience is different. I wanted the whole thing to be extremely digital and extremely acoustic, very DIY. Like, ‘Let’s start again in a new world but also we’ll have solar-powered high-tech gear with us. A sci-fi camping trip’.”
During a pre-encore interlude, a larger-than-life projection of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg appeared on- screen in front of the stage to deliver a scathing diatribe on the political inaction towards climate change. Coupled with a written message that flashed on screen pleading for cooperation in averting planetary destruction, it was a poignant creative gesture that underlined the theme of the evening: harmony.
“I work a lot alone, hiking and writing my melodies, working on lyrics, editing music, working on arrangements, mixing and so on,” Björk says. “So when I work with someone and invite him/her into my ‘house’, I kinda crave it immensely and just go for it. It obviously is also a lot about timing and the right person, but perhaps philosophically, as a matriarch, I don’t agree with the idea of the ‘lone genius’, the master. It is easy to work alone. The real challenge is to reach out and communicate in a genuine way.”
At its heart, Cornucopia feels like an audio-visual thesis on optimistic earthly cooperation. The concert imagines what the world could be like – what civilisation could be like – if mankind worked together to create, rather than destroy, and do so harmoniously and beautifully. As Björk sings in the lyrics to “Notget”, Cornucopia’s closing song: “Now we are the guardians, we’ll keep her safe from death.”
Björk says she plans to present her sci-fi-turned-reality production around the globe. “We might play Mexico City in a tent, for example,” she hints. For now, she’s just “trying to get this one right”. “It can still improve a little,” she says, “we are still doing tweaks. But I am sure at the end of the month, when the New York shows are over, I will have a different point of view. If I know myself right, I’ll probably be desperate to make new music.”
Cornucopia performs at The Shed in New York City between May 9 and June 1