For anyone whose familiarity with Björk extends beyond her drubbing at the exfoliated hands of red-carpet fashion police, the title of Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir’s film documenting her 2001 Vespertine tour might seem absurd. For starters, you have the entourage—an Inuit (Eskimo) choir of backing singers, harpist Zeena Parkins and electro-experimental duo Matmos, not to mention a full 56-piece orchestra. And then there’s Björk herself, an entertainer whose public persona has achieved mythic proportions due, in part, to her eccentric personality, unconventional art (both visual and musical), distinctive accent and, of course, the unforgivable sin—a complete lack of regard for celebrity culture.
Referring to anything Björk does as “minuscule” smacks of absurdity and utter contradiction. But even more absurd: once you get over the elaborate stage show and take enough time to delve into the music and explore its creases, the title makes perfect, rational, logical sense. The film is about reinventing the creative process and discovering beauty in nearly imperceptible sonic nuances—unmaking the machine and embellishing its pieces.
“For the first time in my life,” Bjork offers during an early segment of the film, “I became very interested in emotional peaks that were very, very quiet. Because I guess I’m the sort of character that always was fascinated by very volcanic, explosive emotional range and sharp peaks—more is better. Suddenly, the complete opposite became very curious to me.”
While Björk’s 1997 release, Homogenic, offered listeners a stew of churning rhythms and massive beats that hit the chest like an adrenaline shot—2001’s Vespertine essentially fled indoors, creating an introverted paradise in which a host of smaller sounds were magnified to provide the sensation of a vast interior world. Such an artistic deliquescence was probably inevitable for the workaholic Björk, especially since she’d already fleshed out her “extrovert album” (as she likes to call Homogenic). With Vespertine, the time had come to chart another side of her personality, one that had been paved over with countless miles of concrete. What had been buried was, quite simply, Björk’s domesticity.
Minuscule illuminates the challenges Björk encountered while attempting to translate the intimate and raw transparency of her “laptop music” into a live show, one where the micro-beats she and Matmos engineered were not lost on audiences. To address this concern, all of the shows on the Vespertine tour were held in lavish opera houses, which had to be equipped with a multitude of smaller speakers all over the room, in order to broadcast the mix’s subtler components. Incidentally, her historic concert at London’s Royal Opera House on this tour marks the first time a rock artist has ever been permitted to play in that particular venue, a testament to Björk’s success at crafting what she refers to as “a new type of chamber music.”
While the film centers itself around the Vespertine tour, there is surprisingly little performance footage to speak of. In fact, the vast majority of the film is spent behind the scenes, in conversation with various members of the touring entourage and, of course, Björk herself. This interview-heavy approach has the potential to evoke disastrously tedious footage. And it might have on this occasion as well, had the subject been anyone other than Björk, a true artist’s artist.
With eight new Björk DVDs and a four-disc live box set now out on One Little Indian Records, Minuscule will appeal more to longtime fans of Björk’s music, those interested in understanding her recent evolutionary progression as an artist, collaborator and performer. People who merely know her as the “Swan Woman” should pick up the Royal Opera House DVD instead and experience Björk and her Vespertine tour from in front of the curtain. With a comfortable seat and a box of chocolates. (photo by Phil Poynter)