We speak to serpentwithfeet, Bergur Thorisson, the Viibra flute septet, and more on building the Icelandic artist’s avant-garde universe
To celebrate Björk hitting the cover of Dazed, the Icelandic genius has taken over Dazed Digital and Dazed Beauty, inviting you into the world of Cornucopia, the experimental theatre show that Björk has brought to London this November.
It was billed as Björk’s “most elaborate staged concert to date”. Based on the music from her 2017 album Utopia, the Cornucopia residency at New York’s The Shed is perhaps the closest you’ll get to stepping inside the Icelandic musician’s idiosyncratic inner-world, complete with hyperreal elements, bespoke instruments, and avant-garde costumes, all motifs that have come to define the artist’s lore over the years.
Back in May, Björk described the live show as about “females supporting each other”, and it’s through this distinctly matriarchal framework that Cornucopia, which is now touring the UK and Ireland, thrives. The show is set across three yonic constructs made of fleshy, pink surfaces, and enveloped in a wall of spaghetti-like curtains that, paired with digital projections of flowers and fauna, create a fuzzy, dream-like shield between the artist and her audience.
Surrounding her is Viibra, an all-woman flute septet made up solely of Icelandic musicians, who double as Björk’s backup dancers. Occasionally, they step inside a custom-made reverb chamber, a cylindrical booth on the side of the stage that’s meant to evoke the sound of singing alone on a quiet, rural walk.
Collaboration has always been a key part of Björk’s vision, and Cornucopia pulls together artists from across all creative disciplines, including the Hamrahlid Choir from Iceland; Viibra, an all-woman flute septet; Reykjavik-based musical director, Bergur Thorisson; Manu Delago, a London-based percussionist; Shane Myrbeck, the architect behind the husk-like reverb chamber; and the experimental gospel artist, serpentwithfeet.
Yet despite her various alliances with musicians, producers, visual artists, fashion designers, filmmakers, and inventors, Cornucopia is one coherent, personal vision, characterised by a world where humanity finds balance with nature. If Cornucopia is intended as a primordial, Edenic world, then Björk is its Gaia.
Below, we speak to the artists who worked with Björk to make Cornucopia happen.
How did you get started working with Björk?
serpentwithfeet, musician: She released the album Utopia, which had “Blissing Me” on it, and asked me to do a remix. Obviously, I was honoured. It’s my favourite song from the album. I wanted this song to feel like our conversations. So often we’ve talked together about boys, and we drink coffee, or go out for lunch together. I wanted the remix to feel as easy as our friendship has been.
Bergur Thorisson, musical director: I actually just got a phone call like, ‘Hey, are you available to work with Björk tomorrow?’ and I’m like ‘Wow, sure, I can probably move stuff around’.
She came to me back in 2016 and she said that she wanted some flutes. I said, ‘Sure, how many flutes do you want?’ and she said, ‘Can we get 12 Icelandic girls (who are) professional flute players?’ There are 300,000 (girls) that live here, so that’s a pretty tough one, but I managed to find 12 for the album, and we did a bunch of rehearsals in a cabin. It was a really beautiful experience and she made the most beautiful music for the flute players and we rehearsed and recorded it. We called them ‘Flute Fridays’ and we’d go to the bakery to pick up some baked goods. Later, we did a bit of experimenting with fewer flute players and it turned out seven was the perfect number for tour.
Manu Delago, percussionist: That goes about nine years back now. She saw me on YouTube then and contacted me. I recorded for her album Biophilia, then on Vulnicura, and I’ve been playing drums and percussion in her band ever since.
How did Björk approach you for Cornucopia?
serpentwithfeet: She told me she was going to be doing that show at The Shed a year before it happened. She asked me if I’d be open to it, and I’m like, ‘Whatever it is, just count me in, I will not be busy’. It came around, and she suggested doing “Blissing Me”. I was honoured, flattered, and terrified, because it’s someone I’ve been such an admirer of since I was a child. To not only be able to perform it at this new venue for nine nights, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around.
Manu Delago: It grew out of her Utopia tour, so it was a natural step. It’s an extended live version of Utopia, but it’s by far the most visual and choreographed show. Before, I was wearing normal clothes and now, I’m wearing designer suits. It’s like a whole other world with the choreographer, the set designer, and the director.
Shane Myrbeck, architect: It started with a funny email from Derek, her manager. He said she wanted an acoustic room to sing in without traditional stage applications. He described it as a reworked acoustic chamber. And from the moment I got that email I thought, ‘This is amazing’, because it’s pretty far-out. The whole idea of touring with another room as a set piece is unprecedented.
“The whole idea of touring with another room as a set piece is unprecedented” – Shane Myrbeck
How did she describe the reverb chamber?
Shane Myrbeck: In the old recording studios, before they had any digital effects processing or anything, a lot of these old recording studios world actually have these chambers in the basements. There would just be these stone rooms in the basements. It’s actually the most analog and acoustic form of reverb.
That was kind of our precedent and I just thought that the idea of taking that to the stage was really lovely. Imagine getting an email like that, of course you’re immediately like, ‘yes, of course it’s possible’.
Can you tell me about the 50-man Hamrahlid Choir?
Bergur Thorisson: I used to be in that choir actually, and Björk too. It’s a legendary choir that’s been going on for 50 years, with the same conductor. She’s this amazing, now-old woman who’s kind of like Björk. She has this power over people and you instantly just know she knows what she’s doing. I had experience working with the choir so it was kind of smooth sailing. But, of course, we were taking 50 kids on tour.
When I took the choir to New York, we only had a month’s notice. We had to buy the flights and they had three days to decide if they were going to go or not. Of course, it’s not ideal in so many ways but what happens when everything is so last minute is that everyone is on their toes and that’s when the real magic happens.
The shows started in May, which is when many members in school had their exams. We thought, ‘Wow, we’re probably gonna get like ten of them to say yes’, but then almost every single person in the choir made arrangements. They were doing their exams in the embassy in New York, and because of the time difference, they had to show up in the middle of the night and were studying between shows. It was just beautiful to see how much they really wanted to do it and they had so much fun and you know that.
serpentwithfeet: The most salient point is that she had her choir director, her former teacher, bring her choir. I think that's really powerful, to include something from her past in her present. I think that is a very feminine thing, to constantly be thinking about inclusion, and constantly making space for all of your different selves at once. That's something women have had to do and men forget to do. I just really enjoyed seeing that dynamic.
Can you tell me about the instruments you developed for the show?
Manu Delago: It started in the bathtub, basically. The instrument I play is called a calabash, which is sort of a gourd from Mali, but we developed it so I’m not only playing one, I’m playing five of these calabashes, and I’m playing them in a tank of water so they are floating on water, basically playing all of these beats and percussion sounds in the water, and there is a lot of water splashing.
I presented it to her with me at home in my bathtub. I mean, I was outside the bathtub, but the instruments were inside. I was filming it with my iPhone. Obviously, the idea needed more space, it’s not something you can easily do at home.
The next step was finding something in the rehearsal space to create something similar. I think we used some IKEA storage boxes – you know, the plastic ones? We filled them with water and then the set designer developed a specific water tank to fit into the overall Cornucopia design.
Viibra: In the fall of 2018, four of us were involved in a project centered around the circle flute. The idea behind this circular instrument, which consists of four interconnected C-flutes, is to create an acoustic space for the audience within the circle. We told Björk about the instrument and she showed great interest in including it in Cornucopia. After bringing it to a rehearsal there was no turning back, it fitted perfectly for the song “Body Memory”. Björk stands in the circle while we perform the song, and thus becomes its audience as well as performer, obviously. We love the fact that in the show, the flute comes flying from above before we start playing “Body Memory”, and we feel very interconnected while playing it.
Do you have any funny anecdotes?
serpentwithfeet: We just had a lot of fun. We both laughed and giggled doing these songs. That to me, was the funny thing. It wasn’t a fake performance, but an extension of our friendship. It was a lot of fun to speak about boys to a room of 1,200 people every night.
Bergur Thorisson: She started talking about, you know, ‘We’re going to have a choreographer and have them dance’, and I’m like, ‘You know we already found seven Icelandic flute players that are ready to go on tour, that are all female – and now you want them to learn the music by heart and dance at the same time?’
We sat down with the flute players and told them they had to dance, and they were like ‘Okay, we can memorise the music, but the steps can’t be that complicated.’ What they’re doing right now is a full flat dance routine. It’s not easy, and doing that while playing and memorising all the music is absolutely insane.
Viibra: Despite the fact that we have a lot of experience as classical flutists, touring within a setting like this is new to us all. It has been a bit hilarious observing us becoming ‘used’ to sharing the stage with an iconic pop star like Björk, dancing – something that none of us has a previous professional experience in – while playing like there is no tomorrow. A funny highlight for us was receiving compliments about our dancing from Childish Gambino.
Did anything go wrong?
Viibra: When we were to play an outdoor concert in Rome and ended up waiting ready in costumes for an hour with the flutes outside in a thunderstorm and pouring rain. In the end, the Italian army declared it unsafe to proceed with the concert due to the storm, but fortunately the concert was rescheduled a month later and was held under calm weather conditions.
Shane Myrbeck: I remember at the opening night, her performance was so elaborate. It was almost a dress rehearsal. But when she walked up the stairs to the stage you could see that she paused for a bit. And afterwards, at the after party we were talking to her and she said: ‘I got on stage and I realised I couldn’t walk up the stairs.’ The dress was so contraining. I thought of everything! I calibrated all of the projection mapping, I had these crazy 30-foot electronic base cannons, the water procussion, the reverb chamber – and I never thought to try on the dress. I figured that of all the things that would go wrong, it wouldn’t be the dress.
Can you describe your experience on Cornucopia?
serpentwithfeet: It was electric. Being backstage, and doing my shimmy-shake before I go on to get ready was always electric; seeing her start the show and listening to people scream when she does their favourite songs. I particularly love “Hidden Place”, that was a song that really struck me as a kid, so to hear this new arrangement for choir at the show, I was just floored.
What’s Björk like to work with?
serpentwithfeet: She’s really great at giving space for people to be the best version of themselves. I think an artist of her size, an artist who has done such legendary work as she has, could flex a certain way, and could ask their collaborators to be less dynamic, or to follow this specific rubric. She never made me feel that way, there was no prescribed path for me, she gave me lots of room to do what I wanted to do. It's really humbling, and terrifying.
Again, this is somebody who I’ve admired, giving me space. It really set a mark for me that at that level, you don't have to be rude and you don't have to be territorial, or paranoid. She could’ve been like, ‘Who’s this new guy performing at my event? I need to know exactly what he's doing.’ And I'm like, ‘I’m sticking by your side while I’m doing this song’. But she gave me room and options. It was so generous of her. This experience is embossed in my memory forever.
“She never made me feel that way, there was no prescribed path for me, she gave me lots of room to do what I wanted to do. It's really humbling, and terrifying— – serpentwithfeet
Viibra: She’s a unique and warm person. She has an incredible ability to get the best out of everyone she works with, she’s amazingly creative and she provides a safe space for her collaborators to be creative within.
Manu Delago: When the group got bigger, she got a bit closer with her immediate surroundings, like James (Merry) and her daughter. But when everyone wants a piece of you, you get more and more introverted, and seek your privacy in a way.
Shane Myrbeck: She does have her hands in everything. The fear would be that person would be very controlling, but she was just amazingly collaborative! It was just such a joy to discover. She was very willing to hear ideas and to be swayed when you can make a good case.