Music review: Björk’s Cornucopia, Perth Festival

The strange sense of Björk's ‘live absence’ (as opposed to her digital presence onscreen) made for a disappointing experience.

Dear Björk

I’ve been a devoted fan ever since I watched The Sugarcubes’ music videos back in the 1980s on MTV. When you embarked on your solo career I continued to follow you through the 90s and into the new millennium.

Your first four mature albums – Debut, Post, Homogenic and Vespertine – were each more wondrous than the last, as were the videos that accompanied the singles. As for your performance and soundtrack for Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark: I can still remember sitting in the cinema in devastated silence long after the film had ended.

I have to admit that you lost me for a while when you released Medúlla, followed by Volta and Biophilia. I also had trouble getting on board the Nisshin Maru with you and Matthew Barney for Drawing Restraint #9.

However, you won me back with your post-Barney breakup album Vulnicura, and its follow-up Utopia’s transcendent embrace of love and nature in all their forms. More recently Fossora seemed like an expansion of that vision, while also including some of your most personal tracks yet.

So it was with great expectations that I attended your much heralded and critically hailed visual and musical extravaganza, Cornucopia.

I found myself sitting about halfway back in the huge, 5000-seat pavilion. As a result I could barely see you in the distance over the heads of the rows of audience members sitting in front of me.

In any case you were totally dwarfed and often completely obscured by the digital art projected onto the curtain of ropes in front of the stage as well as the screens on either side and behind you. As for the video content itself, this was impressive for a while, but eventually became a bit like watching a series of screen savers interspersed with clips from your music videos, and which hardly included any live coverage of you or your fellow musicians.

I’m sure the designer costumes and masks worn by you all were marvellous, but I couldn’t really see them either. And while the choreographed antics of the female flute septet in their winged fairy costumes provided some visual and comic relief, there was otherwise little to engage me in terms of what I could see onstage. As for the blinding lights that were blasted into the audience at regular intervals, these had two young fans sitting beside me cowering and covering their eyes.

Photo: Santiago Felipe.

This visual onslaught was reinforced by a tsunami of incoherent and indiscriminate waves of sound; a friend later remarked that all of this made her feel a bit seasick. The effect was exacerbated by the occasionally out-of-synch video clips.

As for the music: I was more than happy with the setlist, predominantly drawn from Utopia and supplemented by some additions from Fossora, as well as some interesting new arrangements of some of my favourite hits from your back catalogue like ‘Isobel’, ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Pagan Poetry’.

I also appreciated the instrumentation and musicianship – especially from the flautists, the harpist, the drummer/percussionist (mostly using an electronic drumkit, but with some occasional intriguing additions), and the 18-voice choir who opened and closed the concert, as well as augmenting what was for me a stand-out central performance of ‘Body Memory’ from Utopia (the video art for this was also amazing, with what looked like hordes of dancers appearing at the base of the screens and then slowly floating upwards like souls towards the gates of Heaven).

However, the strange sense of your ‘live absence’ (as opposed to your digital presence onscreen) was reinforced by your frequent disappearances inside your specially designed reverb chamber cocoon, as well as the fact that neither you nor the musicians interacted with us throughout the show, apart from the four-word ‘Thank you for tonight’ you gave us in parting. You didn’t even bother to return for the encore, which was valiantly performed by the choir without you, in what must be the most abrupt ending to any live gig I’ve ever attended.

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As for the video of Greta Thunberg delivering a variation on her now-all-too-familiar speech about climate change, projected across the rope curtains just before that encore: the whoops and cheers from the audience in response made me feel like I was at an eco-revivalist tent rally of the culture-knowledge class faithful blindly signalling their collective virtue and worshipping their celebrity saint – all the while blithely ignoring the obvious contradiction between your fantasy of saving the planet by becoming one with nature and the massive use of sound, lighting and audiovisual technology involved in your Cornucopia travelling show. I wanted less of all that, and more of what makes you special: your astounding voice, your glorious music (without all those layers of reverb) and your pagan poetry.

I remain as ever,

Your devoted but brutally honest fan,


Björk: Cornucopia
Langley Park, Perth
3, 6, 9 and 12 March
Exclusive to Perth Festival

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.