Back in September 2007, Björk headlined the Austin City Limits Music Festival (’round these parts, we just call it ACL). She came to support Volta, which was released in May of the same year. Many of my friends were clamoring to go, and may have interpreted my reticence to go as snobbish or elitist (or maybe they thought I was just being a hater). I would’ve loved to have seen Björk — I’ve been a huge fan since I was ten — but knew I wasn’t going to be happy with her show in a festival setting. It would’ve been hot, I would’ve been sweaty, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see her, much less hear her, and there weren’t enough other musical acts I wanted to see that in my mind validated buying a pass. It very well may make me a hater.
All of this is to say that, apart from actually being there, the performances in Björk’s Voltaïc is exactly how I would have wanted to see her. It’s a must-see.
Voltaïc is actually a four-disc set, complete with one DVD of music videos for songs from Volta, one CD comprised of remixed versions of songs from Volta, one live CD, and one live DVD featuring two very different musical performances. This last aspect of the collection will be what I focus on in this post.
The first performance on the DVD is a concert in Reykjavík. The venue is Langholtskirkja Church. She performs several pieces from Medúlla, which features songs primarily arranged in a capella and the voice providing a myriad of surprising instrumental possibilities. She has a mixed choir backing her for songs like “Mouth’s Cradle” and “Who Is It?” and what I wouldn’t give to have been in that ensemble. And when she does perform with more traditional instrumentation, as she does with “The Dull Flame of Desire,” she is backed by an all-female Icelandic brass ensemble. Churches tend to be built for sound, and Langholtskirkja is no exception. The space allows Björk and her various ensembles a larger, deeper, richer sonic resonance for their musical interplay.
The second performance, which is from a show in Paris, is a wild, post-global, post-colonial affair. Fitting for a tour to promote an album that boasts songs like “Earth Intruders” and “Declare Independence,” the set is draped with flags that depict frogs and trees as national emblems. Female members of the backing band are slathered in day-glo war paint and feathers.
It may be easy to theorize these accoutrements as reductionist in their allegiance to primitivism (or as petty theivery to the imagery global pop stars like M.I.A. have popularized), but I hasten to abide by this argument without knowing more about Icelandic folklore. Also, there is a concerted effort made to juxtapose traditional instruments with electronics, thus providing a larger set of possibilities for how popular music can sound and how it can be made. On this stage, a harpsichord and a brass ensemble can co-exist with a Reactable, a Tenori-On, and a tricked-out drum kit. Likewise, the instrumentalists are notably mixed gender (though not mixed race); Jónas Sen plays harpsichord, Chris Corsano of Don Caballero is on drums, Mark Bell and Damian Taylor fiddle with electronics, and Björk’s brass ensemble appear again, suggesting that this new nation will be run by a bunch of pissed-off female warrior punks who have no real use for man’s phallic preoccupation with guitars. It’s a world I’d be fine with.
But both performances put primary importance on the voice, as it’s clearly the instrument Björk values most. Indeed, she is quick to remind, the voice is an instrument, and thus the vocalist is not simply a site of objectification but a portal of subjectivities. You get a sense in these performances, which are at such contrast with one another, how sensitive, durable, and complex Björk’s intonation and phrasing are and just how distinct her voice is. Oh, that voice. If we want to borrow from Roland Barthes and his discussion of the grain of the voice, we might put Björk on one end of the spectrum and, say, Neko Case, on the other. If Case’s voice has no grain, and is perfectly pitched and clear, then perhaps it would be fair to say that Björk’s is all grain — excitingly, exhuberantly, defiantly flawed.
I also appreciate how Björk incorporates stage presence as an extension of her voice, and how the performances capture this as a set of discursive practices than singular entity. Maybe I come up with the word “reverent” because of the venue, but her Reykjavík performance is meditative, quiet, and thoughtful. By contrast, her Paris performance is, to borrow from the title of an earlier tune, “violently happy” (made all the more remarkable for me when I read that she was sick during that particular show).
Likewise, I appreciate how she uses clothing to convey mood and reflect the tone she’s trying to convey in her set list. In the Reykjavík show, we see a slinky, celestial Björk in a form-fitting sequined dress, purple tights, red wedges, and her hair wrapped in braids. Through fashion, Björk suggests that this performance will be self-possessed, intimate, and a bit sensual (amen!). In the Paris concert, however, her costuming is wild and colorful, pairing wide, brightly patterned, ruffly dresses with metallic leggings that allow her to take up maximum space on stage. Notably, her hair is down, waving about her shoulders. Her feet are bare. This is a great physical reflection of her set list, which emphasizes the punkish electronica of Volta, Homogenic, and Post.
And yet. All of this madness, all of this self-containment, all of these contradictions, and all of this joy is organized by one pixieish Icelandic woman who thrives on the beautiful chaos generated from multiple players, multiple instruments, and multiple personas. But she’s the same person who responds to the end of each song with a shy nod or a politely clipped “merci, bien!” Whether in church or going hunting, she’s always Björk.
My friend Susan gets the credit for turning me on (Christ, another pun!) to the Tenori-On. It’s a neat, little hand-held electronic instrument that’s easy to use and lets you create entire soundscapes with just a few inspired clicks of the right switches. And if you add the LED light system at the bottom, it’s kinda like you’re playing a Lite Brite.
This brings me to Victoria Hesketh, who performs under the name Little Boots, a British electronic-based singer-songwriter, whose primary instrument is the Tenori-On. Maybe you also know that Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee serve as her producers. Maybe you heard her single “Stuck on Repeat” (it was one Pitchfork’s Top 100 Singles of 2008).
But I don’t wanna suggest that Little Boots needs the guidance and approval of primarily male producers and music press to get ahead. Like many electro female recording artists at the moment (yes, including Lady Gaga), Little Boots is reconfiguring 80s synth pop. And this new little gadget is helping her do just that. Here she is covering Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor.”
For one, I like how immediate playing the Tenori-On seems. I don’t wanna be condescending and suggest that it’s simple and thus only dummy amateurs can pick it up, but to me there’s something sorta punk about how anybody could poke around on it to create songs and that it isn’t available only to trained instrumentalists and virtuosos.
(As an aside, the Tenori-On, which made its debut at SIGGRAPH in 2005, is still pretty expensive — a new one’ll set you back a grand, a used one’s starting price averages at $500 — so perhaps only art-school, trust-fund punks can afford it for now. Maybe as the instrument becomes more popular and widely-used, the asking price will decrease.)
For another, unlike punk, which tends to rely on three chords, I like how limitless the compositional possibilities are to the Tenori-On. It seems like you could start in one musical direction and then, with a few clicks and pushes, go through several musical tangents and end up somewhere completely unexpected.
I also like that the Tenori-On makes music composition seem accessible and efficient for the user, which is great for female instrumentalists like Little Boots who can be their own backing band, as well as a tremendous opportunity for women and girls to become more comfortable and savvy with technology. Add to that its compact, lightweight design and it seems like easy to transport from bedroom to backpack to bus stop to backseat to gig.
Incidentally, I have an Omnichord. If any ladies wanna jam, let me know.