Björk’s seventh full-length album Biophilia, a multimedia project pairing ten songs with corresponding iPad apps, is her most conceptually complex. Track titles read like captions in a textbook—“Moon,” “Thunderbolt,” “Virus,” the first single, “Crystalline” — but each piece is filtered through Björk’s personal connection to, and reading of, nature and Musicology. The album title, inspired by a reading of Oliver Sachs’ Musicophilia two years ago, suggests these personal strands. “I enjoyed the book,” Björk says. “Because I’m not really good in English, I said, ‘oh wow, [Biophilia] could be a title for the project,’ but ‘Bio’ thinking ‘Nature.’ Later somebody told me it means ‘love of life.’ I was more thinking ‘nature-like’ or ‘morphing into nature.’ My bad sense of English thought it was feeling up nature or something—Bio-feeling-up.”
In the spirit of an unmediated natural experience, Biophilia suggests a mingling of science and emotion. “[The song] ‘DNA’ is about rhythm, but I also wanted it to be about the emotional,” Björk says. “That was just as important, to prove science nerds wrong, to unite the scientific and the emotional. So I did try to have each song as emotionally different as possible. ‘Moon’ is very melancholic and about rebirth and the lunar cycles but it’s also just about the math of a full moon.” She tried to make Biophilia “weave seamlessly into science and a natural element, and musicology.” She explains, “Our times seem to be so much about redefining where we are physical and where we’re not. For me, it is really exciting to take the cutting edge technology and take it as far as it can get virtually, use it to describe/control the musicology or the behavior of raw natural elements, and then plug it with a sound source which is the most acoustic one there is—like gamelan and pipe organ. So you get the extremes: very virtual and very physical. In that way you shift the physicality.” But Björk’s scientific/musical exploration, playful both musically and lyrically, isn’t all analytical seriousness. “There’s a very particular sense of humor going on in [the song] ‘Virus.’ I purposely wrote this very sweet-sounding pop song about a love affair with the virus—so it’s not like a femme fatale, it’s like a virus fatale. It’s sort of a love song. That song is mostly about generated music. The gamelan-celeste plays the role of the virus, and then it just kind of comes, and the virus wins.”
From the opening harp-backed solo vocals and choir harmonizing of “Moon,” to the explosive dance climax “Mutual Core” and quiet “Solstice” that ends the album with an optimistic “it got dark / it’s getting light again,” Biophilia is a stripped-down, intimate collection with a smaller contributing cast than usual: Spanish loop collagist Pablo Díaz-Reixa (El Guincho) created beats for “Virus” and beats and bass programming for “Moon.” London production duo, 16bit, programmed beats for “Crystalline” and “Mutual Core” (with Björk and her regular collaborator Matthew Herbert, who also contributed to “Hollow”). Downtown New York jazz/rock/experimental mainstay Zeena Parkins played harp on “Moon” and pendulum on “Solstice.” So, no, she’s not alone, but Björk scaled back from the production-oriented Volta, focusing on crisp, unprocessed voice accompanied by pristine, spare arrangements that also include organ, brass, and a variety of invented instruments including a custom-built digitally controlled pipe organ, a gamelan-celeste hybrid (the gamelesta), a Tesla coil bass, and what, at one point, had become a series of thirty-eight thirty-foot tall aluminum pendulums (used to harnesses the planet’s gravitational pull to create musical patterns). Björk revised that idea after it became cumbersome, the opposite of its original intention of effortlessness. “It was Spinal Tap reverse,” she says. “We [now have] four pendulums that are each a few notes. You can hang them either in the ceiling or on a branch or something. They’re about two meters tall and made of wood. They look more like they could be your friends.” Fittingly, the music feels private, a quiet performance of electronic music around a campfire, even with the presence of a twenty-four-woman Icelandic choir on a few tracks.
Central to connecting the conceptual and the practical—and keeping the results clean and spacious—was the computer/music software that programmer Damian Taylor started playing around with in 2008 after the 2007 Volta tour. “Because of the way we programmed with Damian, I could write patterns based on algorithms in nature and that would be the song. It didn’t really need much more.” The project, which Björk refers to as a return to “punk DIY ideals,” arose from her excitement using touch screens while on that Volta tour. “I didn’t want to just show off again on stage and make flashy noises,” she said. “I wanted to dig deep and write with it. I could immediately see the potential in the touch screen: I wanted to be the frustrated music teacher and do semi-educational things with these screens and write a song about ten different natural elements. You can have crystals growing and that’s a song; we can have the moon doing its full moon and small moon and that could be a song.” She continues, “People from the rock and roll world have felt for years that electronic music had no soul, but now electronic music can not only have soul but have all the shapes in the world. It was [considered to be] a bit like house music, like LEGOS, but now we can go further and program something like the migration of swallows and that can be the choir section. There are more patterns than you know.”
After the ongoing financial crisis left a number of abandoned spaces in Reykjavik, Björk first envisioned the album as a “Music House” in Iceland. “I thought maybe I should do a Music House where I can make use of these empty buildings,” she explains. “Each song could be a room: Here’s the crystal room and here’s the lightning room and here’s the water-drop moon room, and the staircase could be like little notes, like scales. I was like, I just have to suggest an exchange, we could set up the museum in a house and they could get to keep what we made.”
But then the need to maintain the project’s multimedia aspects, even on a smaller scale, led to the creation of a Biophilia app suite: the ten apps have a scientific and musicological aspect that meet via the technology of the app (in addition to songs themselves and the lyrics). The app for “Dark Matter,” for example, is a sort of ”Simon Says” to learn scales with; “Mutual Core” features two hemispheres with rock strata emerging. The user attempts to fit them together, creating different chords in the process. (This plays with tectonic plates in nature and chords in music.) For ”Crystalline,” the user travels down different tunnels, each representing a section of the song. The user makes their way through the song like a maze, building a different version of the track, trying to find the chorus while bursting out of the tunnels into a nebula. (This pairs crystal structures in nature with structure and spatial environments in music.) The complete app suite includes essays by Nikki Dibben, a guided tour and introduction by Icelandic author Sjón Sigurdsson, and narration by David Attenborough. The apps were created by an international team of computer programmers. Tying into the project’s utopian and DIY roots, these programmers, people who usually view each other as competitors, ended up working together for free, and will split the profits of the project 50/50. “I was like ‘yah, it’s like the punk days,” Björk enthuses.
Björk plans to instruct children how to use (and create with) Biophilia, possibly shifting Musicology in the process. She’ll gather scientists and musicians to offer a series of intensive classes in various cities, countering the music classes she attended from the age of five to fifteen “After fifteen, I rebelled and became a punk, or whatever,” she laughs. “[As a kid] I felt it was really weird that music schools behaved like a conveyor belt to make performers for those symphony orchestras. If you were really good and practiced your violin for a few hours a day for ten years you might be invited to this VIP elite club. For me music was not about that. It is about freedom and expression and individuality and impulsiveness and spontaneity. It wasn’t so Apollonian; it was more Dionysian. Especially for kids: kids draw masterpieces—they’re the best painters ever. I think the same with music. They could totally write amazing music if they just had the right tools. It’s important at that age to set up something, and then maybe afterwards you can go study your violin for 500 hours a week. But at least in the beginning you know about the options.”
It begins with a week of classes during her June 2011 Manchester residency. “We’re teaching kids two songs a day. People from the BBC are working with us and David Attenborough and Natural Science Museums. The first half of the day they will get crystals—they can touch them and play with them and they can use the app and the music teacher will teach them about structure in music and then they can write their own little song and take it home on a USB. Then, after lunch, there will be another song—the one about lightning—and they will learn about electricity and static and energy. That particular song is about arpeggios, so then a music teacher will teach them about arpeggios. They will have the iPads. Each song is an app and they are plugged directly into a pipe organ or a gamelan-celeste or a pendulum or a harp sort of thing. So I was trying to mix together the most exciting of electronics where you can use cutting edge technology to do more impulsive sort of like right brain sort of stuff for kids but then you could plug it with a sort of most famous acoustic instruments that man has made.” She says Manchester is a prototype, a place to get things started. “We’ll have people coming from other cities that we’ll hopefully be traveling to. Hopefully we can expand this educational side.” Instead of a traditional tour, she’d like to set up two or three cities a year. “I’ll have a few months off in between,” she explains. “And then I’m going to tailor-make each city around the building we get. I want to get into buildings where I could stay for a month. So obviously, you can’t go to normal concert venues because that is not meant for that. We’re trying to go to science museums. We’re saying we will teach the kids for free on our days off if you provide the location and you can make something out of it. Bring the crystals and the viruses, the DNA and lightning; some collaborative sort of thing. I think it works best like that.”
Björk jokes that Biophilia is “multitasking as far as [she’s] ever taken it” and remains “A.D.D.” at its core. In that spirit, she sees it as ongoing. “I have a feeling it’s not only going to be ten songs,” she says. “I might make it into a double album or just use this same setup and every three months—or whenever I feel like it—I’ll add another song. The apps, [paired] with the subject matter of nature meeting sound. I mean, you could do 5,000 songs!”
Outside the apps, the classes, and concepts, Biophilia can be experienced as just a record. “I did think as well,” Björk says, “if somebody would hear this album in ten years, buy it in a secondhand store, it would be the same as my other albums. You wouldn’t need the app to appreciate it. This, for me, is a Björk album; it’s not a bunch of generated music, ambient wishy-washy stuff. I guess it is like a private joke or something. I enjoy taking on my own musical taboos. For example when I did, Medulla, it was taboo for me. A capella music: the worst music on earth, let’s tackle that! Then on Volta: oh, the worst music in the world is feminist political music, you know? Then I went there: “Declare Independence”! Now I’m taking on generative music that’s all in pastel colors; it’s kind of superficial. It’s me doing that. It’s like a joke between me and myself, you know? It just seems like a recipe for disaster to do an app song and I enjoy that challenge!”
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