Thrall of Sound : An Elemental Conversation With Björk

Filter Magazine n°50, 11 janvier 2013

Those words, by a rather enlightened 18th century monsieur who we know by the nom de guerre Voltaire, got him in a lot of trouble when he decided, unlike so many philosophical windbags, to actually live by them. A couple of hundred years later, they could easily serve as a retroactive manifesto for the entire artistic career of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir—who, while she may not necessarily have suffered a stay in the Bastille, has certainly endured the perpetual burden of lazy misinterpretations and sneering dismissals by the same sort of regressive minds that sought to discredit her French counterpart.

As happens with such monumentally singular personalities as she, Björk has gained sweeping notoriety, often minus the corresponding commercial success. And perhaps to add a few exclamation points to her artistic sentence, she concluded four years of fervent, intensive research and study in 2011 by releasing Biophilia, certainly one of the most passionate, honest and staggering-in-scope musical undertakings since Wagner’s Der ring des nibelungen (or, arguably, Quadrophenia). It was a fiercely openhearted, overwhelmingly visceral and yet deeply intellectual attempt to reckon the natural world—nay, the entire universe—through the comprehension of sound. To say the least, there were no hit singles.
Never one to simply have a towering vision and just stop there, Björk has attracted a wildly disparate collection of geniuses-in-their-own-right to reinterpret some of Biophilia’s most dazzling tracks for a head-spinning remix album called bastards. Electronics wiz Matthew Herbert takes “Mutual Core” into a fantastically ethereal space ; experimental hip-hop duo Death Grips gives “Sacrifice” a wildly spastic beauty ; and Syrian hipster-fave Omar Souleyman goes all Arabic on “Crystalline” and “Thunderbolt.” Even those resplendent goth-revivalists These New Puritans show up for the party. It’s possibly one of the most imperative and continuously striking collection of remixes ever assembled ; yet, the emotional essence of each song is allowed to come shining through the fierce individuality of the treatments.

Always the keen visualist, Björk recruited filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang, recipient of a Slamdance Special Jury Prize for Experimental Short for his eerily beautiful Solipsist, to collaborate on a perception-altering video for “Mutual Core.” It’s included amongst art maven Jeffrey Deitch’s new video series for MOCAtv, a controversial offshoot of the venerated Los Angeles contemporary art museum. The video shows the singer half-buried in sand as the Earth erupts into rather terrifying, amorphous “creatures” all around her. It’s an understatement that you’ve truly and genuinely never seen anything like it.

Not meaning to take anything away from Copernicus, Newton or Galileo, but fathoming our place in this infinite, terrifyingly wondrous universe of ours just seems so much groovier to hear Björk explain it.

Biophilia was a fascinating leap for you. So much of what you had done previously had been about the personal and internal, and yet here was a project that was attempting to take in the scope of the entire universe and time.

Björk : Sometimes I feel like I’m living in this sort of insular world of sound. For me to represent it on album, I knew there was no way to do it unless I could include everything. The world of sound is in the molecules and the galaxies and everything in between. Also because it was [meant to be] educational to kids, it had to start in the beginning.

It does seem that you are at that moment in your life where you would start to think of your place in the world, a search for the meaning of existence.

I wouldn’t say so. I think it’s more about mapping out the audio world and how I’ve felt about the world of sound since I was a kid…walking in the mountains and hearing the wind, and then going to cities that are really loud. And also musicology. I went to music school from the age of five, and now I am at a point where I feel I could represent my take on it, and also the visual version of it.

Did you relate at all to what John Cage had been on about—that every sound in everyday life was a possibility for compositional inspiration ?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of musicians feel this way.

You tend to be very forward-looking, rarely dwelling in the past. Yet a year on from Biophilia you’re releasing this remix record. Is there a reason why you thought it was important to do this ?

There are people who hunt the Internet for everything, and then there are those who go to record shops to find something good. A lot of people from my generation, instead of collecting 30 or 40 remixes online, they would rather just get one CD that has been edited down to 10 or 11 mixes.

So you think there is great value in presenting an intelligent package of your work, rather than having everyone go online and just construct their own versions of it ?

I think it’s all exciting. At the end of the day, it’s about passion for music. I’ve been really blessed with Derek [Birkett] at One Little Indian, who just puts out everything I do. But he comes from the punk generation, where even if something sells five copies, it might be worth releasing. I never felt like my fans should buy absolutely everything.

How were the remixers chosen ? It seems like something of an odd bunch.

Each one has a different story. I would ask people and was really chuffed when they said yes. I was working on beats with Current Value and they wound up being remixes. When I was making Biophilia it was quite elemental, because of the nature element. You’re thinking about crystals and physics…so you turn to those people who make sort of elemental beats.

You have stated that techno is very much the product of nature.

I just think it’s very easy for me to connect the energy of techno to nature, maybe because I’m from Iceland.

Biophilia felt like it was a philosophical projection, like projecting Björk through all the elements of the universe. I felt like I understood you more by listening to it. What did it ultimately mean to you ?

Ultimately, Biophilia was there underneath for me all the time. It was about revealing and sharing how I feel about the world of sound. It became educational…we’ve been taking it around the world and teaching kids. Reykjavík has even put it in the school curriculum for the next three years ! And, so it goes all the way back to me as the kid in Iceland learning musicology, agreeing with some of the things and not agreeing with other things. It was an incredible undertaking ; we all worked our asses off for four years.

Can you enlighten us a bit here ? What should we know about sound ?

Sound moves more similarly to atoms and planets than it does to humans or cars…or even animals. If you shout in a room, and there’s the echo that hits you back, the sound is behaving more like the solar system and space. If you see pictures of sound waves, it’s similar to how atoms work.

Andrew Thomas Huang’s film Doll Face seemed to be about our desperation to cling to our humanity in the face of an ominously increasingly technological world. And I’ve felt that your music has often straddled that tension between our primal humanity and the speed of contemporary technology. Is that what attracted you to him ?

I actually first saw something else by him [Solipsist] that was more elemental. He uses elemental things like sand and clay. Even the color palette is similar to the color palette of strata. And chords in music are also similar to strata.

It seems in the video you’re conveying something about the natural world’s ability to terrorize us.

No, not at all ! It’s like a celebration of nature.

But nature is not necessarily altruistic. It very much does with us what it will ; we are subjected to its brutal whims. Did doing Biophilia help you to understand our relationship with nature ?

I think Biophilia is a suggestion to how we could live with nature. It’s like collaborating with nature in the 21st century. We have to, because it’s an emergency.

Do you think it’s maybe a human pretension to believe that we are that much in control of our existence ? That we can actually “save” the natural world ?

Yeah, totally. The planets are going around in circles and they’re just fine whether we self-destruct or not.

But nature does horrible things to humanity all the time, and we respond by wanting to extend kindness to nature. Nature may not actually want to…sustain us.

But nature is kind to us, too.

Regarding MOCAtv : Jeffrey Deitch has been roundly criticized for bringing a showman’s touch to his directorship of MOCA. And many would likely see MOCAtv as a glaring example of that. But others believe that the curatorial establishment is just stale and territorial and hates anyone trying to shake up the entrenched order. What did you hope to get out of being involved ?

They came to me, so there were a lot of suggestions that didn’t work for me. In the end they wanted to get involved in making the video, and that was the middle ground…to collaborate. It’s sometimes complicated when the visual world contacts me about these sorts of things, because I’m a musician, you know ? I’m confused by that. But I think Jeffrey Deitch has been supportive of the people who have made music videos for me, like Michel Gondry. So I guess in a roundabout way it kind of works.

There is a new set of artistic exigencies these days.

When he was willing to fund the video…well, the world is changing so quickly, we can’t really pay for our videos anymore by selling CDs. And MTV isn’t supporting people like me anymore. But I’m an old punk ; I’ve never, ever done a commercial, never been sponsored by anything…which can be complicated. I feel really strange about bands being sponsored by car companies. But something like MOCAtv, which is definitely the commercial end of the museum world, it does some kind of kooky handshake with the video world.

Is it odd to you to be attracting the attention of museum curators ?

It is funny, yes. I get these offers from museums, they want to promote me.

Everyone wants to bask in your glow ?

I’m flattered. But this is just about supporting the videos. At the end of the day, I’m fine with just being a pop musician.

par Ken Scrudato publié dans Filter Magazine n°50