In a Forest Pitch Dark / Glowed the Tiniest Spark

The estimated time to read this post is 8 minutes.

Back to our regularly scheduled posts on Iceland!  I’d planned to do daily updates from Iceland, but our internet connection became spotty, and as you might imagine, I’d rather have no internet than internet that craps out on you at exactly the wrong moment.

So, on with the show.

Click here to skip to Björk.

Wednesday was a slow day to start.  I slithered forth around 11a, with everyone looking at me like I was slightly crazy.  The goal for the day was to obtain our tickets to Iceland Airwaves, and my ticket to see Björk in concert.

Before I get to that, I wanted to mention that our fancy night out the night prior came to around 91,000 kronur, which is about $760.  For eight people including cocktails, a full course, dessert and a few bottles of wine, not bad at all!

We found our wristbands for the festival at the Plaza Hotel, and then set out to find my ticket.  There was a bit of confusion over where to go; an initial email had said one thing, another said to go to the music store Smekkleysa, which made sense, since Björk was a partner there.  It turned out my ticket was waiting for me at the venue, which was pretty much where we started our trek 20 minutes earlier.  We decided to get a tasty lunch instead at Sólon, and then head to the Harpa, where Björk would be performing.  I had lasagna bolognese, a malbec from Chile and another excellent latte.  Everyone at the table shared their pretty (and tasty) pieces of cake with me.

The music festival was an afterthought for me—I was going to see Iceland!—and even once I had my ticket for that, Bjork was another afterthought.  I wasn’t a fan of the Sugarcubes during their heyday (I have all their albums now), and I’m not quite sure how I stumbled across her in the first place.  After my initial interest in college, I’d lost it after she finished promoting the album “Homogenic”.  She was moving more towards an ambient sound, largely based on what she thought was natural, and it kind of bored me. When a friend purchased tickets to see her at Airwaves, I got one myself, mostly writing it off and looking forward to just spending time with my friends.

I was mistaken.

After lunch, we headed to the Harpa, which is a new music hall with a honeycombed glass facade inspired by basalt lava formations.  The Harpa has several floors with a variety of music halls in it, the biggest one being able to hold about 700 people.  We  arrived around 4:30, picked up my ticket and then started poking around.  When Tia arrived around 5, Stephanie and I headed upstairs to meet her on the top floor.  I thought this was a little odd, because the front desk told us Björk was going to be on the second floor, but Tia is adventurous, so I trust her to find excitement, however unintentionally.

Tia was seated among a group of well-dressed people who gave Steph and I funny looks as we went to sit down next to her.  Our seats had names on them (call me “Nikita”), and when we queried about it, we were curtly dismissed by a blonde wraith who sailed past us.  We assumed there would be some pre-show for Björk, and that it would be odd, so this must be it!

An electric violinist started playing while a black-and-white film projected onto a wall next to him of a fit, furry viking-looking guy swimming nude to a thunderous soundtrack.   Is it art?  Not sure, but not bad.  And then…


Space Shepherd

… and we suddenly realized we were at a fashion show, and seated in the front row of the catwalk.  I was dressed DOWN, so I tried to shrink behind Steph a bit as the cameras started clicking after the models coming down the runway.

It was the Spring/Summer 2012 menswear line “Cast by Shadows” by Sruli Recht.  The clothes were in the style of rustic space cult leader: minimalist and austere, but structured.  I kept noticing the footwear, which were like slippers that had big useful parts cut out of them (seems fairly impractical for Iceland), and that the models didn’t seem to be wearing any underwear.  However, I’m pretty sure the only reason I was sweating was due to the klieg lights.  Pretty sure.

After it finished, the mini-viking who had been sitting next to us at the start turned out to be Sruli Recht himself—I was tempted to talk to him about it, but remembered we had bigger fish to fry.  We headed down to find Björk.

Björk’s show didn’t start until 8, but we got in line on the stairs leading to the level the auditorium was on around 5:30p.  We were in the first ten or so people.  Of course, nobody knew which direction the line was supposed to go—we’re all foreigners here, and the Icelandic natives don’t get worked up about standing in line—and so there were people who got behind us (GOOD), and people who instead pooled on the landing above (BAD!), firmly pressing our big red buttons associated with line-cutting.  A couple hours later, they started moving us in, and we found ourselves about to enter shortly after 7pm.

The concert hall was tiny!  Björk’s set, situated in the center of the room, took up most of the space.  There were 20 or so rows of tiered seating on the left with 15 seats in each row, and then standing room everywhere else.  We were no more than 20 feet from the stage, which had a circle of monitors crowning it showing graphics from her latest album, “Biophilia”.  Several strange instruments were arrayed before us: a gamaleste, which is a celeste with bronze tone bars inspired by gamelan music and a gravity harp which you can see in a video below.

She really didn’t seem like a crazed chihuahua / Bride-of-Ronald-McDonald in person; as they say, the video doesn’t do the experience justice.  The gravity harp was in a more compact configuration at our show, but it was just as hauntingly effective.  While being used, the interface to control it was displayed on the monitors overhead, small planets circling a sun.  When the sun changed from one color to the next, the planets that shared the same color dictated the melody on the instrument.

I wish I had pictures from the show, but they were inspecting bags and all cameras were sent off to be checked.  Unfortunately, the couple photos I snagged with my phone were lost in the great iOS5 upgrade of 2011, though Steph managed to get one.

The show was amazing!  The lights went down, and 20 young women approached the stage wearing what appeared to be a cross between a burlap sack and  disco jumpsuits.  Shortly after, a tiny figure wearing one of Macy Gray’s castoff wigs skipped towards the stage in giant clog shoes and a voice out of National Geographic began to intone the connections between humans, music and nature.   As a large cylindrical cage began to descend over our heads, graphics began to come across the screens in front of us.

Björk and her greek chorus began to sing nearly a capella about craving miracles, then paused.  The cage overhead came to life: she was using a TESLA COIL as bass for the first song, Thunderbolt.  It was powerfully effective.

Skip to about :49 seconds to see and hear the effect of the tesla coil.

Björk’s movements are very childlike and full of energy, and suited to her small stature.  I’d say she must be inspired by her young daughter, but really, I just don’t think Björk ever lost her sense of being a child.  Between each song she simply thanked the audience with a “Takk fyrir“, and waited as the documentary narrator explained the next part of our journey.

After having toured around the countryside, listening to her music in her hometown provided new insight.  Björk sang us “Isobel“, one of two songs that ran through my head most of the time I was in Iceland.  For instance, this snippet of the song took on an entirely new dimension as we drove for hours, the only souls around:

in a forest pitch-dark
glowed the tiniest spark
it burst into flame
like me : like me

my name isobel : married to myself
my love isobel : living by herself

when she does it she means to
moth delivers her message
unexplained on your collar
crawling in silence
a simple excuse

na na na na na

I was hoping she’d sing “Jóga“, the closest thing you can get to Iceland without actually going.  Do yourself a favor and watch this in a room with the volume up and the lights down, and experience the chills the Icelandic people felt for a thousand years as they tended to and trekked across their emotional and haunting landscape:

She sang “One Day” from her first solo album, “Debut”, something I listened to countless times.  For the first time, the song made complete sense to me, and I felt like I was being addressed directly by a wisdom that surrounds us all, despite being very difficult to hear at times.

one day : it will happen
one day : it will all come true
one day : when you’re ready
one day : when you’re up to it

the atmosphere will get lighter
and two suns ready to shine just for you
i can feel it!

Her percussionist amazed us with his abilities to draw unexpected sounds from inexplicable instruments, at one point dubstepping solo as though he were a beatbox from the 1980s.  She closed our show with the song “Declare Independence” from the album “Volta”.  The song takes on a whole new meaning after being in post-economic fallout Iceland.  I find it interesting that Björk talks about declaring indepedence—at one point she shouts “protect your language!”—but her success largely stems from singing in English to a non-Icelandic audience, and I wonder how she reconciles that.  The use of English among the Icelandic people is eminently practical, but it must be conflicting to depend on it when singing about being independent.

Björk rocked the house.  If you love music, specifically the the art of making music and the philosophy of instrumentation, you must see this show if it comes your way!

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