Björk at the Campfield Market Hall Manchester International Festival
“This is an amazing show, a mix of electronic technical instruments, and old fashioned acoustic ones. Some have only been created in the last twelve months. The acoustic instruments are very quiet, and we are playing in the round so there are some difficulties.” In just forty five words mixing veteran Dave Bracey sums up everything you need to know about Björk’s latest musical offering Biophilia. Of all the stars in the musical firmament, Björk is one of the most enigmatic but surely one of the brightest: Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker described her thus, “Whatever is Nordic in Björk’s music is filtered through her own creative personality, which is all devouring by nature, taking in dance music, avant-garde electronic music, twentieth century composition, contemporary R&B, jazz, hip hop, and almost everything else under the winter sun”* Notwithstanding an old leaky Victorian fruit market for a venue, Bracey had a job on his hands when he accepted the post of sound engineer for the world premier of Björk’s new concept album.
“When I first visited in May it was used for storage for the Manchester Science Museum and was lively to say the least, but we have had a lot of drape masking hung and it is now quite dry. Listening to near field monitors at rehearsals in Iceland doesn’t tell you very much; until you get a PA into a building like this you don’t know quite how hard it will be to capture a tiny pipe organ. Then you have an artist on stage in very close proximity to eight subwoofers at her feet, and twelve points of PA immediately above.”
Wigwam provides the PA, as they have done since Björk first appeared in the UK as a member of the Sugar Cubes. The system is all d&b audiotechnik; Finnur Ragnarsson on monitors has M4 wedges all around stage, the PA is Q-Series; each side of the square central stage sports a stereo hang of Q1 with a Q10 at the bottom pointing almost vertically down and barely two metres above head height; at each corner a Q7; the eight B2 subwoofers are laid flat around the stage perimeter. “She’s a big fan of sub low and while the inherently cardioid J subwoofer may have been a valid cabinet for the venue, the choice of B2s is deliberate to give her that feel on stage. I am a big fan of the B2.”
Bracey has the system delineated into four flown zones and likewise with the subwoofers, “I have it all matrix’d at the desk including the subs, so for example I can close the closest sub to the pipe organ when it’s in use. I haven’t had to do that too much, but I’ve constructed it this way so I have that flexibility; there is a lot of gain on many of those microphones.” Bracey selected a remarkable array of microphones to capture the exotic instrumentation, from Shertlers for the Pendulum Harps, one of the most sensitive contact mics available to a pair of SM57s for the Sharpsichord, “you can’t do a show without a 57 somewhere.”
Bracey and Ragnarsson work very hard in an acutely delicate acoustic environment; Björk’s own signature vocals, a twenty four voice girl choir, the assembled created instruments, all vie with the power of electronic drums and keyboards and “the occasional knee buckling bass,” as Jonathan Brown of The Independent** so aptly phrased it. Maybe it should have been called Bio feel ya?
*'Listen to this' Alex Ross cptr 8 p.139 ** The Independent 4th July