One of the pop world’s most intrepid and unique artists (of either gender), Bjork has fearlessly skipped through genres as diverse as disco-pop and anarcho-punk, big band swing and avant-garde techno, in a career spanning almost thirty years. Her name is synonymous with integrity, otherness and a questing spirit that’s rare in the post-millennial landscape.
The latter quality has inspired her in 2011 to devise probably her most ground-breaking work to date, with Biophilia. More than simply her eighth solo album, this latest venture challenges the divisions between technology and nature, physical and virtual reality, acoustic music and electronica, and between merely receiving Art and interacting with it.
This time around, Bjork’s collaborators were not just string-pluckers and synth boffins, but a crack team of the world’s leading app-builders, whose pioneering knowledge of touchscreen computer science she enlisted to devise apps for each of the ten tracks on Biophilia. Within these, the listener can themselves define the course of the track, by choosing a given instrument’s part, thus effectively playing in Bjork’s band.
Quite apart from thus helping to develop touchscreen technology, and further the links between state-of-the-art computing and music-making, this brain-frazzlingly forward-thinking artist has in the process crafted some of her most imaginative music so far, often evoking an arcane wonder at natural forces through medieval folk-y (though tech-driven) textures, occasionally invaded by jaw-droppingly tough urban breakbeats.
She is also determined to use the project to open music schools equipped with this new app technology. In her spare time, she’s been fighting to secure investment in Iceland’s ailing economy, and to prevent the multinationals from taking over its energy resources. In short, that island’s most beloved daughter is firing on all cylinders.
Many albums take three years to create, but few can have involved as much creative rigour as Biophilia. Was it a point in your career where you felt you had to overhaul every aspect of what your art involves, or did events simply run away with themselves?
It was a time for me when old stuff didn’t work anymore, so I had to take everything off the table except what was still really fertile, and then reconnect them in a different way. So I don’t really look at it as “creative rigour”, more like spring cleaning. And believe it or not, but I had an urge to simplify things!! It started with me wanting to work with the touchscreen, write special programs for them that i could then write songs with.
I wanted to lift electronic music off its connection with 4/4 grids. I felt now that we had touch screens, we could make the grid of a song not 4 on the floor, but as organic as possible. That’s why one song is run by a pendulum, another by the lunar cycle, one has a bassline which is a [bolt of] lightning, and so on. It felt like technology was finally ready and sophisticated enough to communicate with nature. So, after writing 10 different programs for 10 different songs based on 10 different elements from nature, it seemed silly to go through the same routes in the distribution of the music…and the whole thing kinda grew from there…
If there’s an app for each song, and the user can manipulate the song as it plays, presumably you must’ve made music for all eventualities that the listener might choose — it implies almost limitless work at our end! Or does the app do all the work?
With each song, there are certain things you can play with, and certain things you can’t. For example, in ‘Crystalline’ you can change the structure by making up your own order of crystals. But you cannot change anything else. In ‘Thunderbolt’, you can change the bassline. You are like this lightning-playing bass player. But the rest of the song doesn’t change. So each song has a different natural element and a different musical thing you can play with.
You convened some of the leading app designers from around the world in your favorite restaurant in Iceland. Did you feel at that point that maybe you were wandering a bit far from singing/songwriting? Did that kind of collaboration have any similarities with purely musical collaboration?
There were definitely moments when I was asking myself why I was putting so much energy into this, since it wasn’t music. But then again, I have in the past done a lot of things that are not directly about music that can be very energy- and time-consuming. Like touring — living in hotels around the world away from friends and studios — photoshoots, video shoots, interviews, and so on. So it felt like I was kind of using all the energy I usually do all those other things with, and spending it on the apps.
But then again, I really, really wanted to make a music school all my life, and now I have kinda done that, and it will probably travel far online! And as much as I like videos, they are only representations of my music, but the apps — they ARE the songs. They are the direct visualization of the music. So most of the time it definitely felt it was worth all the effort. And it has really been fun working with the app builders.
Yes, it does feel sometimes like I am in a new band or something. The older I get, the less I need other people in the studio; I’m getting bossier and bossier there. So when I do the visual stuff, like photos or videos or apps, it is more collaborative and more like back in The Sugarcubes.
In the app’s visual representation, you’re keen for people to see music in natural images, rather than maths-y note structures — I read one interview where you suggested a choir section could be a migration of swallows. Are you sceptical of conventional musicology?
Well, funnily enough, showing people musical structure through natural elements cuts through the math scare! Visualization helps people to see beyond the academic math thing. When they watch a pendulum swinging back and forth doing an irregular beat, they feel it looks natural instead of the “OMG, this is like 17/8″, or whatever.
Loosely, if you had to sum up what Biophilia is all about, is it really how music (and life) is a marriage of nature and technology?
It is updating the touching point between nature and technology…in short.
It’s sort of similar to Lee “Scratch” Perry using the mixing desk as an instrument on his real-time dub mixes — the app is the new electric guitar! Do you think a lot of music will now be made, basically exploiting or exploring the technology as you’ve initiated it? And is the CD or MP3 version of Biophilia definitive, or is it just a starting point?
Funny you ask, because I have been tempted to do what I’m watching the appbuilders do. They keep saying they want to add updates later. I might do the same thing.
Just say I was a techno-fear-suffering Apple-phobe — would I be destined not to experience Biophilia to the full?
The music totally stands without it. Just like my other albums.
Were you worried that all the mind-blowing ideas behind its creation might eclipse the ten songs themselves?
No. I don’t think these ideas are that mind-blowing. This is how I have felt about music all my life. This is just the first time I am able to show others that. The touchscreen brought it out into the open. It developed the film, brought it out of the closet .
For Biophilia, you also commissioned the production of new physical instruments — the ‘gameleste’, the pendulum bass, etc. Do these creations exist to make sounds that otherwise only exist in your head? Or are they important as they feed into the overall concept?
The sounds of them are not really new — organ, gamelan and harp. But the fact that you can play them with a touchscreen is new. I kept thinking of the music-school idea, I wanted to empower the children. That they would be playing with the natural elements on a touchscreen making music, and then the touchscreen would be plugged into a pipe organ or a gameleste or a pendulum harp. And the kids would be running it!
I read that you’d named the album Biophilia instinctively, without realising that it meant “love of life”, but that you’re happy to go along with that notion. What were you originally thinking of?
I fell for Oliver Sacks’s book, Musicophilia, and thought Biophilia would mean empathy with nature, or nature-like. Then when I found out a couple of months ago that is not what it meant, it was too late to change it.
You recently premiered the music in a three-week residency at the Manchester International Festival, and you’ve said you’ll be carry over the idea to another seven cities in the next three years or so. Are you looking to find a different angle on touring too?
Definitely. I’ve been touring more than half of my life. I have watched my friends who work in the theatre, and thought, ‘What a great idea!’ It is kinda crazy to be a little jetlagged in every single concert. I feel I can give so much more this way.