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Lightning in a Movie (and an Album, and an App, and a Concert)

Biophilia Live presents Icelandic singer Björk as an elemental sorceress at the peak of her creative powers.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first novels in Russian, but Lolita draws so much of its life from his masterful manipulation of the English language that he must've had trouble translating it into his native tongue. So it goes with Björk, whose legacy will rest partially on Biophilia—an album/app/concert experience/evolutionary catalyst inspired by the natural rhythms of the planet Earth. (Instead of whatever planet Björk actually comes from.) We fans all have our own Björk origin theories. For example, in the album's making-of documentary, When Björk Met Attenborough, naturalist and BBC broadcaster David Attenborough postulates that the Icelandic singer’s freakish vocal range is vestigial, that it “would have made sense ancestrally.” Point is, whether she's an Ancient One or an alien, Björk is clearly not of this world, and it's her outsider's perspective that transforms concert film Biophilia Live from an exercise in the avant-garde into an act of elemental magic.


Anything that looks like magic, Arthur C. Clarke reminds us, could just as easily be technology too advanced for humans to comprehend. If your experience with Björk's eighth studio album has thus far lacked that kind of magic, it could very well be an issue of insufficient technology. If you originally listened to 2011’s Biophilia as an album and passed on the software, the lack of context might make the music's unconventional instruments (pendulum harps, Tesla coils, a wind-up music-box-like thing called a sharpsichord.) and time signatures (17/8 is a big one—for some reason involving the way crystals form that only really makes sense when a geologist explains it to you while you’re high on psilocybin mushrooms) seem like cold experiments in form. In actuality these artistic choices represent literal forces of nature. For instance, it's one thing to know that the bass line of “Thunderbolt” is generated by a Tesla coil, but it's another thing entirely to see Björk in a thundercloud fright wig wail about “craving miracles” while actual honest-to-god lightning is called into being. The effect is only slightly lessened by the fact that the Tesla coil “player” is just some dude in jeans swiping his hands across, like, seven iPads.

Björk herself is a force of nature, and that's a cliché not taken lightly when she’s accompanied by gravity and thunder. Watching her bobbing her head to the oddball beats and harmonizing with the choirs (yes, plural), you get a sense of how precise each note actually is as it's intricately interwoven in mixed media.

The element absent from the album by itself is synesthesia, the interplay of at least two senses. Biophilia, the app, allows users to transform the music as it plays by manipulating tactile representations—shifting tectonic plates to change the chord combinations in one song, shaping a strand of pearls to form the beat of another, etc.—and Iceland's schoolchildren are using it to learn to play music. Us older Björk fans, however, are used to a more one-sided interaction: She manufactures the insanity and we absorb it. That strategy served us well from Debut to Volta, but more will be required of us from here on out. If you didn't make the pilgrimage to one of the Biophilia tour stops, you owe it to yourself to view what amounts to a masterwork from as many angles as possible via Biophilia Live.

Whether Biophilia is, as the making-of documentary frames it, a celebration of “nature as a rock star” or, more realistically, the basis for a future religion in which the goddess Björk is said to have sung all of creation into existence, Biophilia Live is a great concert film, directed and edited with the same jeweler's precision required for all other parts of the project. Attenborough, in the film's opening sequence, defines “biophilia” as “love for nature in all her manifestations” and at no point during the concert does this sentiment seem ironic or insincere. Seeing footage of the natural phenomena described in the songs interpolated with the spectacle of those crazy instruments and the impassioned performances of every musician involved is about as close as you can get to experiencing the four-dimensional Biophilia app without using a tablet device. And if you already have and enjoy the app, then you'll definitely want to see the film, because I'm pretty sure it's the last step before you transform into one of those 2001: A Space Odyssey bubble babies. Godspeed, you glistening bastard.

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