Before Björk was Björk, she was a young girl from Iceland who would sing on long walks down wooded paths and in new rooms she’d discover in churches and houses. Four decades later, she’s one of the most renowned artists in the world. When she sings today, things are a bit different: There are thousands of people in the audience now, and her voice is amplified by speakers instead of reverberation.
So before her latest tour, Björk reached out to the architecture and design firm Arup–known for the building the concrete shells of the Sydney Opera House, among other high-profile projects–to re-create the same sensation of her early years singing in churches and empty rooms. The firm would eventually design a special room for the star’s current tour–one where, after putting down her mic, she could walk in and sing like she was inside an empty chapel, even during a crowded live performance. (Yes, there are mics inside this room, too, but shhh. Let’s not spoil the magic.)
Björk first described her childhood to Arup’s acoustic designer Shane Myrbeck over a Skype call–from the intimate experiences discovering her own voice, to what it was like to sing next inside one of Iceland’s famous singing sculptures.
“She wanted to capture those moments live on stage,” says Myrbeck. “That became the design brief.” Björk mused that she wanted three to five rooms to sing inside on stage–or maybe the entire set might be an architectural installation. In the end, they chose just one: An octagonal room with a tall domed roof, inspired by the natural resonance of cathedrals. Sound bounces left to right, but also works its way above her head where it can create the sensation of resonance.
The cathedral-like design itself wasn’t immediately obvious to Arup’s team, but Björk had planted the approach subliminally during their Skype. “It was a lot of the language she was using. She was using words like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘private contemplative moment,'” Myrbeck recounts. “As you’re in the throes of design, you end up with a project vocabulary for things. This became the ‘chamber’ or ‘chapel’ pretty quickly based upon those conversations.”
Resonance is the result of a space’s geometric volume. In other words, it’s all that empty space that makes it sound like a voice is . . . echoing through an empty space. It’s not an easy effect to naturally re-create on stage, but Arup knew there was precedent for tiny spaces that sounded big. There were the stone rooms Björk had visited in Iceland–but there were also old recording studios, like Capital Studios in Los Angeles.
“Before the tech existed to create reverb in digital processing, they had these reverb chambers in the basement,” Myrbeck says. “They’d send the [music tracks] to the basement and record that reverb.”
Using advanced sound modeling software, Arup modeled possible designs for Björk’s onstage room, so the firm could virtually test how different building materials would affect the sound, from concrete and glass to various composites. Because Björk regularly tours, the room had to be built out of practical materials that could be disassembled, moved, and reassembled easily, which took stone materials out of the running. Eventually, they landed on a mix of glass, plywood, and a fiber-reinforced composite plaster; onstage, projection-mapped light shows are cast onto its facade.
To test each potential design, Björk gave the team at Arup a clean audio track of herself singing, along with a version of that same track with reverb, as it appears on her album. Arup engineers ran the track through the system again and again, trying to duplicate her album sound through this simulated space. Eventually, they even set up a live, digital model in London that Björk could test before it was built.
Björk is currently performing through June 1 at New York’s Hudson Yards for her Cornucopia tour. She sings a few songs completely inside the chamber, while both her and her instrumentalists float inside and out now and again through the show. While this small cathedral was created with so much advanced technology, it’s ultimately just what Björk ordered: A quiet place to sing like she’s all alone.