No matter how acclaimed, few artists receive the praise almost by default reserved for Björk. The mononymical Icelandic artistic generalist keeps diversifying her already impressive portfolio, recently by expanding the limits of what she can do on stage. In 2019 she devised her to-date most elaborate and ambitious Cornucopia tour, which was based on her 2017 album Utopia and featured a 50-people choir, flamboyant stage and costume design, gigantic interactive screens, and a surround sound production with a chamber orchestra. The immersive event was directed by the Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, while the customarily over-the-top costumes were delivered by Balmain’s multidisciplinary prodigy Iris van Herpen and their long-term creative director, Olivier Rousteing. It was a spectacular feast for all senses and one of the most praised live productions in recent history.
Knowing Björk’s affinity for continuous change, it is no surprise that her latest effort proves to be somewhat of an antipode to what came before. The Björk Orkestral (initially spelled Orchestral) tour sees the musician joining forces with a slew of local string orchestras to deliver a fully stripped, by most criteria “unplugged” rendition of her songs. Having announced that each performance will feature a local orchestra, it was clear from the beginning this was going to be an exclusive affair, with only 16 dates scheduled globally.
The tour was sadly thwarted in 2020 due to the pandemic but slowly took off at the end of 2021 with four performances in Iceland, all of which featured different musicians and a varied setlist. Always a political activist, Björk donated the proceeds from all shows to Kvennaathvarfið, women’s shelters in Reykyavik and Akureyri, citing the need of Iceland’s women for help in these troubling times.
Now, after a couple of shows in the Knight Concert Hall in Miami in February, the remaining ten dates began with a heartfelt performance at Berlin’s Waldbühne with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on 17 June. Waldbühne, meaning Forest Stage, is a Greek theater replica at the Olympiapark in West Berlin; stashed between hundreds of trees (and thousands of mosquitos), it is quite likely the ideal setting for a Björk show. After all, her performances have always been about the cohesion (or lack thereof) between man and nature.
As is the case with the rest of the Olympia complex, this edifice was built by the Nazis in the 1930s, but thankfully serves a much more benevolent purpose today. With more than 22,000 seats, solid sanitary and culinary infrastructure, and a guarantee of a good stage view no matter where you’re located on-premises, it would be one of Berlin’s best venues, were it not for the said mosquitos.
Björk’s fans, at least in Germany, are either the straightest people alive, dressed in shapeless monochrome, quietly chatting over cigarettes and beer, or people whose dress-up could outdo the diva herself. An LGBTQ-friendly performer, tonight the Icelander has attracted thousands of lads and lasses adorned in mesh, feathers, glitter, capes, latex, neon, and much more. One woman is wearing a hat shaped like a cloud and made of foam. I would have provided photo evidence, but I didn’t have time to ask for her consent, as seating drama ensued the moment I arrived.
Since Waldbühne is an amphitheater, it has benches instead of numbered seats; though Germans are very careful about capacity, hundreds of visitors were left to frantically run around begging for seats because many of the cultured bourgeoisie wouldn’t remove their six-packs to make room for fellow attendees. The security staff, not bothering to hide a spectacular lack of interest in our plight, simply shrugged at our many pleas for assistance. “Just tell them to move”.
As I scuttle to find a seat, resounding applause ricochets off the imposing stone walls, and the conductor, Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason, greets the audience with a 30-strong string orchestra. In the distance behind the stage, a blobby figure waddles toward the entrance, obscured by a massive, amorphous gown and a metallic face shield. Just a typical look for Björk, who quietly swaggers onto the stage, immediately taking off with “Stonemilker”.
The concert itself is an inventive exercise in creativity for all concerned. Focusing predominantly on the already string-friendly songs (meaning electro cult hits such as “Army of Me” and “Violently Happy” had to be left out), both the orchestra and the prima donna faced the challenge of channeling her opus through a new lens. A fantastic singer, known for her shockingly raw soprano vocals and off-kilter prosody, Björk lets herself loose even more than usual throughout the show. An “unplugged” performance gives her the opportunity, arguably also the necessity, to intensely stomp on her syllables and hyperextend her vowels to compensate for the subdued appeal of strings and nothing more.
Behind her, the simplified orchestra does their best to both imbue her hits with a new life and at the same time honor the original arrangements. This mostly works and the results are often beautiful (especially “Hunter”), but there are also times when the orchestra can’t match the complexity of Björk’s musical expression no matter the intensity of double stops (“Isobel” and “Bachelorette” seem lesser due to a lack of momentum). To be fair, the only reason to say this is the peculiar nature of Björk’s music, in which each of the many elements usually plays an important part in the soundscape. This is an acoustic performance by design and taken at face value, it is greatly rewarding.
The first half of the show is mostly reserved for songs off 2015’s Vulnicura, interrupted by “Aurora” and “Come to Me”. A painfully bare rendition of “I’ve Seen It All” is accompanied by screams from the crowd, and a glorious version of “Hunter”, in which the orchestra emulates the haunting electro backdrop, introduces us to the second half of the show, i.e. the hits. “Isobel”, “Hyperballad” and “Jóga” played in succession is an otherworldly way to break hearts; “Hyperballad” especially is well-composed to take over the synth beats of the original. “Quicksand”, the fifth (out of 16) track taken from Vulnicura is unrecognizable without its heavy electro base and is misplaced among Björk’s most bombastic hits. The sighs and gasps are quickly restored with “Bachelorette”, the last song of the main set in which the singer goes at it fully, keeping the delivery thunderous throughout.
Despite some imperfect pacing, the encore flawlessly sticks the landing with a frantic rendition of “Overture” from Selmasongs, and an astonishing reimagining of synth-heavy “Pluto”, the strings rivaling the song’s astounding rhythmic complexity.
Björk has already performed most of these songs with orchestras before, many in similar arrangements, but it’s lovely to hear a careful selection of tunes orchestrated into a complete and purposeful artistic expression. Indeed, Björk always delivers on her promise to explode her body and return brand new; these stripped-down versions of her hits just prove the potency of her work further.