Bjork at the Civic Opera House


October 16, 2001



What if "Fantasia" were reimagined for the Ecstasy Generation?

That's the question Icelandic alt-rocker Bjork posed at her sold-out show Sunday night at the Civic Opera House.

Though she was not fully successful in providing the answer, you had to admire her ambition as she performed with an orchestra of some four dozen Chicago musicians, an 11-member female Inuit choir from Greenland, multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins and electronic bleep-and-blurp specialists Matmos.

For much of her post-Sugarcubes career, Ms. Gudmundsdottir has complained of being portrayed as a pixie from the frozen north lands instead of a serious, genre-defying musician and vocalist of startling originality. But she actually played to her stereotype through the first of two sets, dancing barefoot with awkward, spritelike moves in front of slides of icebergs and snowscapes while sporting her now-infamous swan dress.

Bjork only really came alive late in the evening during the two encores. Then she teetered on the brink of the orchestra pit and twirled in her second outfit, a red affair involving sparkles and ostrich feathers, while delivering gripping versions of "Human Behavior" and a catchy new ditty called "Our Hands."

At 35, the singer is clearly wrestling with the dilemma of how to segue from her younger, harder-rocking persona into something more mature and "artistic."

As she drew from her new album, "Vespertine," the first set found her veering dangerously close to snoozy new age Muzak and pseudo-avant-garde, mock-classical pretentiousness like the Kronos Quartet.

The second set was stronger, injecting more of her upbeat, dance-oriented material. But it suffered from the lack of a human drummer. With all of those hired musicians, couldn't Bjork spring for a flesh-and-blood backbeat?

In fact, the orchestra and the choir were underused throughout; it was as if someone had handed Bjork these potent musical tools and she wasn't quite sure about what to do with them. However, Parkins was indispensable, hammering away at an electronic harp, plucking a more conventional acoustic model, squeezing an accordion, tinkling a celeste and pumping a harmonium.

Bjork could have performed with Parkins alone and, with the superior acoustics of the opera house, the crowd would have been riveted as she weaved her serpentine vocals through her pagan poetry. And a scaled-back approach certainly could have saved her some dinero on union-scale accompanists.

Opening for Bjork with a set of its own material was the San Francisco duo Matmos. Aided at times by a third conspirator, Andrew Daniel and Martin Schmidt attempted to make Tortoise or Aphex Twin-like instrumental soundscapes out of synthesizer burps, squeaking balloons, the plucked wires of a bird cage, and an electronic sensor that reacted when pressed to the skin.

Video footage of the latter, including said device's collision with a pimple, was magnified and projected onto a giant screen in what must have been a first for this venerated venue.

It was the epitome of electronic charlatanism masquerading as high art. Everyone reading this review could make more interesting music than Matmos by leaning on their car horns, hitting the wrong keys on the computer, or leaving the phone off the hook until the annoying tone kicks in.