Arts: Pop - Strung out on the sublime


Fiona Sturges@FionaSturges
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:25

A VICTORIAN chapel, a sea of candles, a large and expectant-looking crowd. No, not the local primary school's Nativity play, though the atmosphere couldn't have been much more Christmassy if a crib and a donkey had been wheeled out on to the Union Chapel stage. Instead we get Bjork and the Brodsky Quartet, a seemingly unlikely pairing until you take into account the Icelander's trademark eclectism.

Her recorded material has always been littered with orchestral textures - a vestige of her training as a classical musician - and her versatile compositions would probably accommodate a wobble board and a penny whistle, never mind something as conventional as a string quartet.

Tonight, Bjork's songs are stripped bare and, to begin with, the mood is one of uncertainty. During "Unravel" and "All Neon Like", the singer tiptoes around the songs much like she tiptoes around the stage, as if frightened of making too much noise in the consecrated surroundings. During "I've Seen It All", the strings seeming more an accessory than an integral part of the proceedings, and the reception is merely polite.

It is not until "Modern Things" that they start to enjoy themselves and the sound develops into a coherent whole. Looking more like a school dinner lady than a Nineties icon in a pink gingham dress, Bjork finally unleashes the old dynamism, flinging her arms into the air, stamping her bare feet and opening her mouth as wide as possible, as if allowing her repertoire of squeaks and susurrations to come tumbling out at once. Her voice is extraordinary, moving from a choirgirl's clarity to the guttural growl of an articulated lorry revving its engine.

Though Bjork has been performing a handful of these songs for over seven years she still seems to exude a childlike sense of wonder at every note, an almost gauche demeanour that belies the maturity and sophistication of her talents.

The Brodskys seemed determinedly unabashed by her antics, their stiff upper lips even remaining intact when all but the cellist are sent to stand in the corner during a sublime version of "Like Someone In Love".

Indeed, a lot of the evening's credit must go to the string musicians, for it is their generously restrained performance that gives Bjork the space to reach new heights of perfection, their soft textures allowing the abstract melodies to float freely, their indomitable poise making the singer's movements seem, by contrast, all the more oddball.

"I'm not much of a talker," she says, thanking the crowd and weaving the hem of her pink dress in and out of her fingers. True enough. Rather, it is her lyrics that speak volumes about her work. "Sometimes the things I do astound me," she intones in "Like Someone In Love". She's not the only one.

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