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Björk’s Cornucopia: From a lighthouse in Iceland to the O2 Arena

FOH engineer John Gale, Southby Productions director Chris Jones and d&b audiotechnik’s Steve Jones about the d&b Soundscape system at the heart of the show and how this project has tested them like no other…

Evolving from an experimental theatrical concept developed in an Icelandic lighthouse into an arena conquering audio-visual feast, Björk’s Cornucopia tour continues to test the boundaries of live performance. Daniel Gumble spoke to FOH engineer John Gale, Southby Productions director Chris Jones and d&b audiotechnik’s Steve Jones about the d&b Soundscape system at the heart of the show and how this project has tested them like no other…

As birdsong swoops and flutters around London’s cavernous O2 Arena there is a sense even before the lights go down that tonight’s show (November 19) is going to provide far from standard arena show fare. The d&b audiotechnik Soundscape system employed by the Icelandic pioneer is already making its presence felt, with many in attendance surveying the scene as if in hope of catching sight of what feels like birds flying overhead and brushing past their ears.

Having been in a state of perpetual evolution for the past 12 months, Björk’s Cornucopia tour has finally arrived in the capital, and by the time she takes to the stage, she has transformed the often grey, characterless hall into a living, breathing space. The stage explodes with vivid splashes of colour, while visual designer Tobias Gremmler’s high definition projections evoke images of nature and reproduction, from fibrous fauna to what looks like bacteria and foetuses. A harp is plucked while flautists dance around the stage. At one point, Björk enters a reverb chamber for a solo vocal session, while later singing to a drummer thumping away at drums submerged to alternating depths in a water tank. It all makes for a breathtaking spectacle. Complementing the hypnotic visuals and the ever enigmatic nature of Björk’s performance is the Soundscape system that sits at the show’s core. In many ways, it is the thread that binds each of the show’s components together, creating a truly immersive experience that plays out around, rather than before, its audience.

Unsurprisingly, Cornucopia has been a long time in the making, and continues to evolve to this day, with tweaks being made and notes being left by Björk for the production team on a near daily basis. To find out about how it was conceived and its ongoing development, PSNEurope managed to pin down Björk’s FOH engineer John Gale, director and co-owner of production company Southby Productions, Chris Jones, and education and application support team chief for d&b audiotechnik Great Britain, Steve Jones…

Origins: From lighthouse to arena
Earlier this year, several months before Cornucopia landed in London, Björk and members of the production team found themselves sealed inside a lighthouse off the coast of Iceland, accessible only during low tide. Once inside, there was no escape for several hours, allowing them to experiment with the Soundscape system without distraction. “Björk likes working with windows so she can see and connect with the world around her,” Steve Jones tells us. “She doesn’t like being in rooms that are closed off, and there are some really big windows in that place with some beautiful views.”

The decision to incorporate such an unconventional location as part of the show’s evolution came after initial sessions were held in London. Following the release of her 2017 Utopia album, Björk embarked on a largely conventional tour – at least from an audio standpoint – in support of the record. But after attending a production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London, she felt compelled to add greater theatrical elements, shedding the trappings of a standard pop/rock concert. The decision to explore new creative avenues for the tour resulted in a lengthy spell of experimentation via numerous venues and locations across the globe.

“When we were touring Utopia she said she’d like to do it in surround sound, or at least have some speakers at the back so she could put some effects in,” Gale explains. “She then saw the Harry Potter show and wanted to reconceive what we were doing as a more theatrical show. So we started talking with the director John Tiffany and some sound designers to discuss different directions, but there was no clear path she wanted to achieve at that point.

“The theatrical concept started to fall by the wayside, but she still wanted a lot of immersive theatrics in the show. I was aware that I needed a sound system that could do 360o, something that would allow me to move objects around the room that wouldn’t just be spot effects, that could actually move from one position to another. I was looking at all the products out there and it just made sense to go with Soundscape because it can deal with time delay properly and could handle everything we wanted to do.”

As for how the initial groundwork was laid for what became Cornucopia, Chris Jones picks up the story.

“11 months ago (December 2018), John got in touch saying Björk was looking at an immersive concept, so he’d been tasked with looking at the options for immersive audio. We hired a venue in central London and set up a mini 360o Soundscape system for John to play with for three days. He brought his multi-tracks along and a show profile. In February 2019, we air freighted a 360o system for her to experiment with in the lighthouse, which could only be reached twice a day for an hour. She fell in love with the system, so it then went into rehearsals at a studio in Iceland called Syrland Studios, and it scaled up again from there to the Backstage Centre in Purfleet, where we put in a 360o system and the show went into full technical production rehearsals. From the Backstage Centre it scaled again to The Shed culture centre in New York, and after a residency there for a month went to Mexico for a month-long residency at a larger venue. And from Mexico it went on to arenas like the O2 in London.”

Evolution theory
While the show may appear to have settled on a final form following its intercontinental development, Gale details that Cornucopia is, and continues to be, subject to change. “It’s actually still evolving,” he states. “It always is with Björk. She likes to experiment. When she was in the lighthouse that’s mainly what she was doing, experimenting with playback tracks to see what could be done. She had a clear idea for some of the tracks, but with these things it can be like a kid in a toy shop at the beginning because you can put everything everywhere. Over the next few months, we refined it and worked out a way we could incorporate all of the live elements of the show.”

One of the key changes to the show since its opening night at The Shed in New York is the adaption from 360o audio to 180o, dependent on the venue.

“When we did New York and Mexico the whole show was 360o, but when we went to the larger arenas for various reasons we used a 180 system, so I had to adapt the show from 360 to 180 for this particular run,” Gale continues. “It’ll probably go back to 360 for future runs, but that was a surprisingly rewarding process. It’s surprising what you can achieve with 180. You can still get a real feeling of depth and sound surrounding you.”

The 180 d&b system used at the O2 was comprised of five main hangs of 12 KSL8/12, two extension hangs of 14 V8/12, two outfill hangs of 16 V8/12. One hang of eight SL-Subs was flown, while the ground sub array featured 20 SL-Subs. Frontfills consisted of 12 Y10Ps and four V7Ps, while the delays consisted of four hangs of six V8s. 68 D80/D20 amplifiers were deployed, along with a processing network of two DS100s and seven DS10s.

According to Steve Jones, the show’s immersive qualities are just as potent in 180 or 360 configurations. “Immersive is a buzz word at the moment across every area of entertainment,” he says. “I’ve been involved in various Soundscape systems in various segments – theatre, rock ‘n’ roll, etc. – and I remember going to one of the first 180o theatre shows we did and being absolutely immersed in the show. Immersive doesn’t necessarily mean sound coming at you from every angle. I see it more as ‘am I immersed in a show, am I in the midst of it, or am I an external person looking in on someone else performing?’

“With the Björk show, 360 is great because you do have sound coming at you from every angle – she pokes and prods you. But with the 180o show, you’re still totally immersed. My connection is not to a loudspeaker, my connection is to an audio performance happening in front of me. I’m so connected to the performance on every sensory level that I’m completely immersed.”

Gale adds: “She goes into a reverb chamber onstage and closes the door as part of the show. I wanted to take the audience with her, so we have mics in the walls, and with the 180o show I’m putting the object on stage where the chamber is, so it sounds like the sound is coming from the chamber. I read a review that said that moment was totally unamplified, which of course isn’t the case. But it’s interesting that the audience member didn’t realise it was an amplified moment just because technology allows you to place things specifically in the right zone.”

‘Can you make the subs sound more optimistic?’
As one would expect from an artist of such creative ambition, Björk’s fingerprints can be found on each and every detail of the show.

“She’s very hands-on,” says Gale. “She spends a lot of time thinking and coming up with ideas. Occasionally, she’d leave us alone for a few days and we’d make some changes, then she’d come and listen and approve them or say she preferred it the way it was. She’s very receptive when we present her with our approach, but she’s also very clear about what she wants to do.

“And the way she hears the show isn’t necessarily how I would initially approach it. Sometimes she wants me to bury her lead vocal amongst lots of backing vocals and it’s hard to know what the lead line is. You sometimes get looks from people thinking maybe she isn’t loud enough, but that’s the way she’s designed it. I’m working to a very clear concept from her. Although I helped design the show, it’s definitely a co- designed thing.”

“I remember being at FOH when Björk was there and it’s interesting to hear the conversations they would have,” Steve Jones elaborates. “You’d think the conversation between an artist and a sound engineer might be along the lines of ‘my vocal sounds a bit muddy’ or ‘the guitar needs more bite’, but some of the conversations at FOH were much more creative.

“She would say things like, ‘the two flutes are in a battle here, how do we represent that from an audio perspective?’ Or, ‘I need these seven flutes to sound more like a rave’. It’s a totally different type of creative story-telling that immersive audio gives, compared to the traditional engineering of a sound system.”

“My favourite is still ‘can you make the subs sound more optimistic?”, Gale smiles.

L-R: Back row: Finnur Ragnarsson – monitors, Niall Lewis – audio crew chief, Chris Drew – audio tech, and Max Liddell – audio tech. Front row: Jake Miller – playback tech, John Gale – FOH, Jack Blenkinsopp – system tech, and Dom Gallagher – audio tech.

Equal to the extraordinary artistry on display within Cornucopia are the practicalities and infrastructure that underpin a show of this kind. From load-in times to the relationship between audio and visual, every facet of the tour is distinct.

“We’ve all worked on arena shows, but purely from a practical point of view, this is quite unique,” says Chris Jones.”Getting in 10 hangs of PA in one day, there’s a lot of unique infrastructure that has to be built. The amount of kit, in terms of speaker cabling, amplifiers, speakers, is about 30 per cent more than a typical show. Ensuring that that is prepped and packaged in a way that can go in very quickly is absolutely essential.

“The audio team has been fantastic and there has been a lot of stuff built just for this tour to make sure everything goes in fast. We’ve had to invest in a lot of dispersion boxes to look after these immersive shows. And we also have to give John, Björk and the creative teams the space to be able to experiment with the system.”

“There’s a lot of inter-department coordination as well between the video and sound departments, so we’re sharing cable trusses and things and making sure we’re on the same page,” Gale elaborates. “We work really closely together daily. The show isn’t entirely Timecode but it relies heavily on it for all departments.

“Björk came to us very early on and said I want all the visuals and the lighting and the sound to marry together, so if the sound was to come from a rear speaker she wanted to explore ways of potentially being able to have lights come from the same vicinity. We had to come up with a concept where we could share the details of the decisions I had made so that the lighting department could take that OSC data and use it in a meaningful way. We’re constantly chatting.”

When asked about the challenges the team has faced, there is a collective laugh at the suggestion of just identifying one. Given Björk’s persistent pursuit of ever more experimental avenues, the tasks faced can be vast and varied.

“As the show developed, we had to go from the DiGiCo SD7 to the Quantum just because everything was expanding,” says Gale. “We suddenly went into 56 channels of playback because I needed discreet objects I could move around, and before you know it you’ve used all the local I/O. So Chris asked me if I’d be happy to move up to a Quantum and it was the right move. It gave us so much more capacity.”

“We’re in a world where it’s not about a single speaker, it’s about how does an object of sound work through a multitude of speakers and how much headroom do I need,” says Steve Jones. “And we’re at the creative mercy of John and Björk’s ideas. Sizing the system and figuring out what size speakers and what dispersion needs to be where, it’s almost not a system engineering job, it’s about trying to understand the creative part of the story that’s being told. Putting the two together in a multitude of differently sized and shaped spaces is fun and games.”

Clearly though, everyone involved relishes the challenge.

“You can never sit back and think ‘that’s done’,” Gale adds. “There’s always some curveball that keeps us on our toes, which is good. There was one moment when she said ‘I want this song to be one BPM faster’. When everything is Timecoded you’re not working to bars and beats, you’re working to Timecode snapshots, and that can mean every department having to make 1,000 edits. And then she’ll listen to it and say it was better as it was before. It’s one of those things you have to go through, and it’s a good thing.”

“From my point of view, looking in from the outside, the thing I don’t think the audience recognises is that she’s not doing back to back shows, it’s usually one show every three days,” Steve Jones continues. “She doesn’t hold back from pushing the creative ideas in her head. All of these things come at a major cost, and the interesting bit from our side is trying to keep up with putting the technology in place that allows her ideas to come to the fore.

“But it’s not a high budget show, and I would guess the audience probably thinks it is, because it is amazing what we pull off on a fairly small budget compared to a lot of other shows. Within that you can pull your hair out one minute thinking about how we’re going to do something she wants to do creatively when there isn’t that much money to pull it off. Somehow everybody manages it.”

With regards to the future of immersive, object-based audio, all three are convinced that technologies such as Soundscape are set to become an increasingly in-demand commodity. Not just in the field of live music and theatre, but also in corporate and domestic applications. As the trio prepare to dash off for a load-in, they share their parting thoughts.

“We’ve noticed not only some artists putting in quote requests for Soundscape production, but also corporate clients wanting to do something different,” says Chris Jones. “Also, we’re doing quite a large d&b install around January where we’re putting in traditional left right hangs and ground subs, but they are conscious of this object-based mixing thing they are hearing about so they want us to put in the required infrastructure so they can have it as a bolt-on when artists request it. It’s gradually getting out there that there’s this exciting option for artists and bands to play with.”

“Artists are constantly looking at how they can get one over on everybody else; how does their show stand out over others,” Steve Jones concludes. “We’ve seen that with the size of video screens, pixel densities, how bright your lights can be and crazy sets.

“To a large extent, the way people view sound hasn’t changed that much over the last 10-15 years, so the introduction of spatial audio does mark a growing trend. It does fundamentally changes the way you put on a show. Some people may be a little bit scared to make the jump, so we’ll probably see slow growth that will pick up pace as more people run with it.

“Artists are starting to realise the sound system can become a canvas on which they can be more creative. It’s not just an engineering tool to make things loud, it’s a fundamental part of the creative process.”