Informed Sources

Informed Sources Web Home

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Coolest Science Teacher Ever!

Popular music and science are not exactly a horse-and-carriage combination. When they meet, the alliance is most often remarked upon as a curiosity.

The Swedish band Meshuggah has become known as practitioners of “math metal” based on a repertoire standing on complex structures and demanding polyrhythmic precision.

Montreal's DBC released a literate concept album called Universe in 1989, exploring the scientific concepts behind the Big Bang theory through a suite of songs bearing titles like “The Genesis Explosion” and “Primordium.”

Pat Metheny with the Orchestrion. Had Terry Gilliam's Brazil had a concert scene...

From a performance perspective, the application of scientific mechanical theories was at the very heart of Pat Metheney's Orchestrion project, in which the guitarist constructed a stage-sized mechanical apparatus based on the principles of early 1800's music machines.

But the unification of music and science – and the desire to express wonder over the theories that govern our day-to-day existence – is at the very heart of Bjork's Biophilia.

Bjork's idea of rock.

Bjork is currently in the midst of a series of shows in New York, some at the conventional Roseland Ballroom in Mahattan. But the most intriguing of the performances are the ones being staged in Queens at the New York Hall of Science. There, the Icelandic artist is not only singing but bringing with her an educational series that is installed in the museum. Her goal is to not only present a series of evening concerts but to inspire children to explore the world around them, from the microscopic to the galactic, through a series of interactive workshops linking music and science. Her desire to use her celebrity to implement change at a fundamental level flies in the face of the activities of all too many entertainers.

I had the opportunity to attend Bjork's concert at the Hall of Science on February 12, and the unique setting was immediately apparent: this was the first time I've ever walked by Titan/Gemini and Atlas/Mercury rocket assemblies on my way into a concert venue. And what a venue it is. Originally constructed for the New York World's Fair in 1964, the Great Hall is an intimate, undulating room with walls of concrete and blue glass rising stories above the floor. The room was designed to evoke a sense of deep space, and it was a stunning setting for Bjork's in-the-round performance before an audience that was both seated and standing.

The performance area within the towering Great Hall.

As one might expect at a Bjork concert, traditional rock instrumentation was in short supply. The singer was supported by harps, percussion, pipe organ, celeste, electronics, and the sonically and visually stunning Graduale Nobili. The latter is a choir consisting of 24 young women from Iceland whose vocals and physical deployment in ever changing configurations provided colorful visual accents that complemented the eight large screens above the small stage.

Bjork herself is a wonder on stage, swaying to her material's complex rhythms which seem to resonate within her as solidly as most of us gravitate to traditional rock 4/4 time signatures. Although illness had forced her to cancel the February 9 Hall of Science concert, her voice on this night was in full flight, easily sweeping from the guttural to the heavenly.

Beginning the night with the restrained intro to the Biophilia track “Thunderbolt,” Bjork's pensive opening was shattered by searing synth pulse, more aggressive than the studio version and given additional life via the large hanging Tesla coil that unleashed bolts expressing the energy visually. “Moon” was made more hypnotic as the screens repeatedly displayed a progression of shadow across the lunar surface timed to the music. The majestic highlight of the night may well have been a dramatic redesign of the song “Isobel” (initially released in 1995) which soared on waves of intricately arranged choral voices. 

The gravity harp, designed by MIT's Andy Cavatorta. As each cylinder rotates, strings of varying length are plucked by mounted picks as the armatures swing back and forth.

Solstice” - the final song of the set – brought the evening's most ethereal moments, Bjork accompanied by the four swinging arms of the gravity harp, a delicate ending appropriate in light of the title. Following a frenetic two-song encore - initiated by Bjork requesting that the seated audience join the standing crowd - came the only traditional song of the night: a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by all for a surprised member of the choir.

Bjork, resplendent in red hair and inflatible dress, confirms the Tesla coil (center left) is operational.

A number of the songs from Biophilia were introduced during the concert by the voice of famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. If such a presence calls to mind science as somber and staid scienctic analysis, Bjork was happy to shatter that perception. This was a night of vibrant expression, and of communicating the fundamental thrill of science and all the aspects of the cosmos that, in Bjork's words, “whirl around me, and make me wonder.”

1 comment:

Frank Moriarty said...

Additional comment from Frank:

At this show I was sitting with guitarist/singer Palmyra Delran and my former bandmate in Bunnydrums, singer David Goerk. After the powerful encore, I said to him, "Imagine her singing with Killing Joke..." He exclaimed, "I was just thinking the same exact thing!" Bjork's voice on prime KJ material like "War Dance" or "Requiem" with its harrowing synth tone would sound absolutely fantastic! Ah well...