SAN FRANCISCO – You can view utopia as an ideal to strive for, or you can warn of what will happen if people don’t strive for an ideal. May be Utopiathe 2017 album of Bjork, had a similar duality. His gripping concert/theater hybrid “Cornucopia,” based on the album, certainly presented both sides: the hopeful and the ominous warning. After three shows in Los Angeles, the avant-garde Icelandic multi-genre artist brought the production to San Francisco on Saturday for the first of two concerts at the Chase Center.
Directed by Lucrecia Martel and Björk with co-creative director James Merry, and featuring compelling projection design elements by Tobias Gremmler and set design by Chiara Stephenson, “Cornucopia” debuted in 2019. You Can Call It a Concert , of course, with 19 songs— most of Utopiabut a handful with similar climate change-centric themes chosen from her songbook (even non-Björk fans would have no trouble picking which ones; they were the ones who got the thunderous applause on Saturday).
But what made the show unique were the ever-changing, nature-centered projections, the woody arrangements (featuring the 18-member LA Tonality choir, Icelandic flute septet Viibra, harpist and two others) and the spectacle of it all, which included not just Björk’s dresses (one of which looked like a collection of dandelion balls) but the performance. At one point, the percussionist used waterfalls while hitting floating bowls with a mallet. At another, a large metal hoop was lowered from the rafters and revealed to be a flute that required four flautists to play it simultaneously while Björk sang and fidgeted inside.
The images were reminiscent of “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” or “Avatar”. The arrangements and visuals could have adapted quite easily to other art forms; think of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” flower country or Van Gogh’s projection mapping exhibits that are all the rage right now. The vocals and music were pure Björk.
A love for nature ran through the show, starting with birdsong, crashing waves and chirping insects as the audience entered. These sounds woven throughout the night. The choir, which would end up being an important part of the show, added layers of melody to Björk’s often atonal singing and opened the show without it. The members, dressed all in white, performed a piece originally delivered as a speech by climate activist Greta Thunberg at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.
“How dare you? People are hurting. People are dying,” they sang, their voices going from angelic to eerie. It was the only part of the night the screenings didn’t take their eyes off the show Then there was a recorded performance of Björk singing “Family”, about relationships and broken relationships, but in the context of this show it probably had more to do with the world itself. the curtain behind the band turned out to be translucent, with the musicians behind.For much of the show, the curtain (actually a set of curtains) closed back and forth, adding a vaporous texture.
As for projections, imagine the work of Georgia O’Keeffe siphoned through a hallucinogenic mist. During “Utopia“, they looked like dancing tropical flowers or alien centipedes. During the euphoric “Arisen My Senses”, tendrils or roots vibrated all around on the screens. On “Claimstaker”, a nest-like burr of twigs grew to take up all the space from the stage floor to the rafters. There was also a hut in the shape of “Flintstones” at the back of the stage, with an egg-shaped opening and windows, which Björk or another musician would sometimes enter to perform. This also served as a projection surface.
After an atonal “The Gate”, the show grew and intensified with each passing song (minus a respite here or there). “Venus as a Boy”, an older piece, was only sung with the backing of a single flautist. As Björk played bits of the show towards the back of the stage, she performed several songs like “Isobel” on a platform that jutted into the crowd, dancing to the delight of the crowd. Later in the show, the flutists joined her on the platform, as a circular flute hoop descended here. She danced and sang “Body Memory” as they played vivaciously around her.
Some of his rawest and most emphatic vocals came on “Hidden Place,” which was performed largely a cappella with just the choir. For “Blissing Me”, Serpentwithfeet came out to sing the most melodic lines of the night. He was dressed in flowing white attire, like the choir, but it was percussionist Manu Delago who caught the eye with an elaborate setup that included pouring water from bowls and hitting other bowls with mallets for extra hits.
“Mouth’s Cradle” was another highlight. On this old-sounding, cacophonous song, everyone was apparently playing something different – the choir was melodic, Björk on another plane, the percussionist raging on a hand drum, and there may even have been an alarm car at some point. Yet these musical lines intersected several times throughout the song.
The encore began as the show’s first act, with a message delivered by Thunberg; this time personally (as a projection) and more directly to the old people who are ruining the world for the younger ones because of their greed. It was sobering in a way, but luckily this audience had Björk to provide some solace at the end with “Future Forever” and “Notget.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman on Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.