I have Björk to thank for my discovery of the voice and music of Antony Hegarty, or as he’s better known, Antony. On the Icelandic singer-composer’s album “Volta,” Björk and Antony sing an extraordinary duet called “Dull Flame of Desire,” one whose repeating harmonic pattern and intense, erotic vocal interplay reminded me, of all things, of ground-bass duets by such 17th-century composers as Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell. Check these out and hear I mean:
Intrigued by my first encounter with Antony, I gave his original music a try — what a great find! Again, if you’d like to hear what I mean, give a listen to an album I would put ahead of any of the last decade for sheer beauty, Antony & The Johnsons’ “The Crying Light”:
For me, Antony falls into the long line of glorious divas of song, including the likes of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Maria Callas and Janis Joplin. I use the term “diva” advisedly, since Antony, who identifies as a transgender man, projects a strong feminine energy when he lifts his soulful, ethereal voice in song. Regardless of how it strikes you, however, Antony’s is one of those “if you haven’t heard it you haven’t lived” voices that come along very rarely.
Based on a 2006 concert collaboration with filmmaker Charles Atlas, who also directed the resulting film, Antony & The Johnsons’ new DVD/CD set “Turning” celebrates the transgender sisterhood in music and image, and in a most gentle and non-didactic fashion. Three element alternate through the film. First, there are concert performances of Antony’s songs, featuring him, a chamber ensemble and the projected images of female models standing on a rotating pedestal. Second, there’s footage of Antony and the entourage as they tour through various European cities. Finally, we see and hear the personal testimony of the models, a diverse group of New Yorkers, each with an individual, often moving story of gender discovery. Good for Antony for not placing the film’s entire focus on himself.
Regardless of one’s interest in this particular subculture, the warmth and and love of the participants’ interactions, nicely dovetailed with Antony’s beautiful music, make for very rewarding viewing. In the meantime, here’s the soundtrack album:
Then we turn to Björk, and her new DVD/CD set, “Biophilia Live.” Actually, this is just the final (?) element of a multi-year multi-media “Biophilia” project, also including CD, concert tour, educational programs and smartphone apps. A musical chameleon, Björk has on the one hand gone back to musical basics with simple, memorable melodies, and on the other hand aimed higher than ever with a concept that rivals Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerke (complete art works) in hugeness of concept. Lyrics of a purpleness that only Björk could get away with — ecstatic paeans to everything from single cells of life to the entire cosmos — are draped but not engulfed in music scored for her solo voice, women’s choir and elemental but powerful instrumentation.
On the original 2011 “Biophilia” CD, I found the music to be interesting in the abstract but cold in actual effect — “cool” in both conventional senses of the word. Fortunately, the “Biophilia Live” film restores a goodly measure of the missing humanity, without diminishing the album’s otherworldly appeal.
Performing in concert in London, Björk comes out dressed in a two-foot-diameter multi-colored fright wig, blue face makeup, and a short, cream-colored dress made of what looks for all the world like vinyl upholstery. By her standards, it’s actually a fairly tasteful get-up. Dancing, prancing, in good voice and enjoying herself royally, Björk is joined onstage by two instrumentalists, one doing keyboards and electronics and the other on percussion, along with a 25-woman Icelandic choir called Graduale Nobili, which provides lush, complex backup harmonies and choreographed movement. Each song, including several from Björk’s earlier albums, was accompanied in the concert hall by psychedelic projected videos; these videos were then intercut with the live concert footage in the resulting film.
If you’re getting the idea of a wild, out-of-this world extravaganza here, then I’ve done my job. But don’t worry, it’s all very approachable, the music really cooks, the audience is having a splendid time, and such is Björk’s charm and smiling enthusiasm that one can’t help but smile back. The on-stage choir was a master-stoke as well, adding warmth and no small measure of physical beauty to the proceedings. Plus, you’ve got to see the really cool custom-made instruments invented for the project, such as the gameleste — sort of a combination Harry Partch and Dr. Seuss. There’s only one Björk, and this is one of the best things she’s done. Check out the soundtrack: