Following our feature on Björk’s Biophilia project, we talk to her long-time collaborator Peter van der Velde about the stage show.
Peter began working with Björk 11 years ago, when she first became a solo artist. He has been the production manager on many of her world tours and was instrumental in bringing Biophilia to the Manchester International Festival (MIF) in June. Here he talks to M about his role in the UK production and explains how the concept will evolve in each city it hits.
M:How did you get involved in the Biophilia project?
Peter: I’ve been working with Björk for a long time. My first calls about this project came in October 2010, to deal with the pendulum [bespoke instrument] that was being designed and made. They wanted me to look at it to make sure it was transportable.
M: How did Biophilia compare to the other projects you’ve worked on?
P: It’s a different approach altogether. It’s the first time we’re doing residencies instead of a tour. It’s really interesting because there are so many parts that are new, such as the exhibition part, the educational part, dealing with really extraordinary people, all these great minds. It was nice and also a challenge to coordinate something that would be a performance, a show, in a venue with an audience, security, sound, lights, and make it all work. It’s been a real puzzle, but at the same time, great work to make it all happen.
M: Biophilia is a complex artistic project. How did you get under the skin of it?
P: It took me a while to fully get my fingers under what Björk was trying to do and it’s always a challenge to find out what she really has in her head. She always has it really clear in her head but it’s not always easy to get right what she’s thinking. Generally it’s a test-and-trial procedure – throw balls up in the air and see which ones she hits.
We had to deal with physical aspects and parameters. The restrictions of a building, which had nothing in there – it was an old Victorian marketplace. And also this particular venue was not quite right. It was not what Björk wanted for her project, but she did want it to be part of MIF and this was the only real option that would allow something in-situ for five or six weeks. A lot of people thought it was a really cool building, but what we were trying to do was hide it as much as possible and make it sound as good as it could. Next to all the visual aspects, sound is an important part for Björk.
M: Bjork has said there were times when she thought the project would never be completed, and she also said it was hard to find collaborators who got the idea. Did you find it challenging too?
P: Yes, but it wasn’t too bad, to be honest. We roll with the punches and along the way, we always have to be prepared to reshuffle everything, and it keeps you on your toes but it also keeps you very flexible.
I was making sure that everyone was on plan, such as dealing with the pendulum people. What they’ve achieved was really amazing. I still can’t get my head around the brainpower that goes into creating songs by playing with gravity and swings and turns. That’s been a really clever job. But sometimes I was like a policeman, going round and checking in with everyone!
M: I spoke to Henry Dagg about the Sharpsichord, and he said that he almost missed the deadline because he was having problems transporting it. Were there any other close shaves?
P: We had problems with the singing Tesla coil. It’s audio-driven and comes out of the sound desk. The designers thought they were doing us a favour by making it midi-controlled, which was a very last minute thing. They sent a control system out that didn’t work and there was a power issue. It would trip the earth trips! On the last day we managed to fix it.
M: How do you think Biophilia will fare when it is exported all round the world?
P: Wherever we go we need to transport everything by sea container because of the bulk. It’s anticipated that we will have enough time.
M: What about the educational side, have you been involved in that side of things?
P: A little. While we were at MIF they employed some people to put an educational programme together. On the days that the educational parts were there I made sure our crew was prepared to give workshops and explanations about the midi-controlled instruments. With regards to the future projects I am outlining what we need to consider.
M: What forms will the workshops take?
P: It’s going to be interesting. We are dealing with the next residency, which will be in Reykjavik. That part is still very much under discussion. We’ve done it before with around 20 school children that were selected from various schools – not just music schools – so there was a nice mix of kids. They were selected based on the idea that they might have an interest in such a project. That was the start of the educational part but now we’re trying to do it more often and use local input as well.
It is Björk’s desire on this project to make it a unique event in every place we go to. She’s trying to introduce other things. The Sharpischord was a typical British introduction to Biophilia, but it’s not what we are going to tour with. In Iceland she’s probably going to introduce other musicians into the project, and in San Francisco she might introduce another instrument made by some crazy professor, which I don’t know of yet! But I’m prepared!
It feels like we’re just starting. Initially I thought we would develop Biophilia in Manchester, but while we were doing that, Björk kind of pulled the carpet and said “no no no, it has to be unique in each place,” which was really great but at the same time frustrating, because people would ask for things in advance but we would have to see what the venue was, and develop a new show from scratch, to a degree.
M: One last thing then, what’s Björk like to work with?
P: Lovely and challenging!