review: Bjork’s ‘Cornucopia’ live show is an ecstatic paean to nature and flutes
After its preview on Monday (5/6), Bjork's self-described “most elaborately staged concert to date,” "Cornucopia," made its true debut at new Hudson Yards multi-arts space The Shed on Thursday night (5/9). As a symbol of nourishment and abundance, the classical image of the cornucopia promises bounty and plenty; an apt name for this production, which was 100 minutes of a nearly overwhelming array of sounds and images, a true feast for the senses and an ecstatic paean to nature and flutes. The mood was set before the show even began, with birdsong piped into The Shed's The McCourt space while in front of the stage, a curtain of threadlike strands shimmered in blue-green and gold. When the lights went down, two trumpet players standing above the first section of seats heralded the start of the show, and the Hamrahlio Choir filed in. The youth choir would reappear later to accompany Bjork on a few songs, but they opened the evening with a short set of their own. Dressed in traditional garb, they began by standing in two lines across the front of the floor, and for their last song groups stepped forward to march up and down the stairs in the aisles of the space, singing all the while, throwing sound around the room.
A recording of "Family" signaled the start of Bjork's set, and with it the projection of a technicolor psychedelic Bjork-avatar onto the curtains, covered in tendrils of plant life and walking forward as the music swelled. Gradually we began to see the performers behind the layers of curtains - "utopian flute septet" Viibra, percussionist Manu Delgado, electronic musician Bergur Þórisson, and Bjork herself. (They were also periodically joined by Katie Buckley on harp). Set up on a series of interconnected platforms with mushroom-like underbellies, white tables with the organic feel of branches held Manu and Bergur's gear. An enclosed reverb chamber stood on stage left, and a platform extended into the crowd.
When we got our first look at the real Bjork (vs her projected, psychedelic avatar) she was dressed all in white with twin bubbles of insecticile shoulder armor and an elaborate headpiece (designed by frequent collaborator James Merry). Her voice sounded incredible as ever, never flagging throughout the show as if drawn from an infinite wellspring of power and energy, and she punctuated it with little dance moves, leaning into its ever-present force. Throughout the show she would at times retreat into the reverb chamber, sometimes alone, other times with a flutist (or a few) for a different sound experience. Other times she would use the platform to approach the crowd, alone or surrounded by members of Viibra.
Viibra were the true stars of the show next to Bjork. Dressed in fanciful, fae costumes (designed by Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, and Iris Van Herpen) and headpieces, they wielded their flutes like extensions of their bodies, moving organically as a group and separately, sometimes like flowers rippling in the wind, other times like furiously buzzing insects, shaking their instruments above their heads. They were the living embodiment of the show's heavily flora and fauna-inspired imagery and they also provided its overarching sonic inspiration.
serpentwithfeet's guest appearance for "Blissing Me" was an evening highlight, Bjork alongside him grinning with nearly palpable enjoyment while Manu made burbling sounds pouring out bowlfuls of water in two transparent cases, but the moment that sticks with me the most was "Body Memory." The Hamrahlio Choir reappeared, dressed in white, while Bjork stepped forward onto the platform. A circle of metal suspended from the ceiling descended over her; it was actually four interconnected flutes, which members of Viibra played in union. Meanwhile, air was blown out into the crowd, making snow fall onto the choir. (I saw it in piles on the floor later; it was really fine, white confetti. But it looked eerily like snow blowing in the wind.)
In a recent interview, Bjork told the New York Times that Utopia, her 2017 album that provides the backbone of "Cornucopia," is, lyrically, "about proposing to come up with a more compassionate way to interact with nature. Hopefully to start from a female point of view will help." It's an idea she addressed both directly and indirectly throughout the show. There were direct appeals: a segue where a message was projected onto darkened curtains, imploring, "let's imagine a world where nature and technology collaborate." Before the encore, a short video of 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg was shown; she spoke about our responsibility to the earth, and to each other. Aside from those obvious missives, there was the lush, gorgeous plant imagery from Tobias Gremmler, a constant accompaniment to the music. Ecstatic flowers unfurled and bloomed in bursts of light and color, fronds rippled and swayed in a sensual dance, and spores took flight to germinate. During "Venus as a Boy" the projections had us traveling through a warren of vines, roots and branches while Bjork sang alone on-stage and the sound of flutes came from the back of the room.
Bjork spoke only twice during the show, saying, simply, "thanks for tonight" before the encore, when she came back out in a new costume, surrounded by white iridescent leaves. She thanked the crowd one more time before leaving the stage after the evening's final song, "Notget." See the "Cornucopia" setlist below. Pictures from Thursday night are in the gallery above
There are six more "Cornucopia" performances still to come at The Shed, and some tickets have been released. See the upcoming schedule below.
For a little taste of "Cornucopia" without attending one of the performances, Bjork has shared a new video for Utopia track "Tabula Rasa," which uses Tobias Gremmler's visuals from the song in the show. Watch it below.
Setlist: Bjork's "Cornucopia" at The Shed, 5/9/2019 (via)
Ísland, farsælda frón / Vísur vatnsenda-rósu / Sonnets/Unrealities XI / Cosmogony / Maríukvæði (Sung by the Hamrahlio Choir before the show started)
Family (intro, recorded)
Show Me Forgiveness
Arisen My Senses
Venus as a Boy
Blissing Me (with serpentwithfeet)
Pagan Poetry (partial)
Bjork: “Cornucopia” at The Shed 2019 Dates
May 12 at 7 pm
May 16 at 8 pm
May 22 at 7 pm
May 25 at 8 pm
May 28 at 7 pm
June 1 at 8 pm
photos by Santiago Felipe, courtesy of One Little Indian/The Shed