What do you do when you’re working on something so huge and all-encompassing that your closest friends can’t wrap their heads around it and, as a result, you completely lose sight of yourself ?
If you’re Björk, you put a wig on it. A giant, frizzy orange wig.
Three years ago, the Icelandic pop auteur began working on Biophilia, a multi-faceted project that includes her eighth studio album, accompanying iPad apps for each of its 10 tracks, a documentary film, a range of homemade instruments and a series of live residencies that will tour science museums over the next three years.
“I’ve never worked as much on a project thinking as little about myself,” she explains over the phone from New York, where she lives part-time. “All the way until one month before everything was ready I couldn’t even picture myself in it.”
At its core, Biophilia is about teaching kids musicology by making it physical. Through touchscreen technology, she connects scales, chords and time signatures with elements in nature like lightning, tides and dark matter. She copiously researched scientific concepts for each song, a process that involved attending 100 lectures at a National Geographic conference and having her DNA sequenced to learn about her deep ancestry.
Using bespoke software, Björk began songwriting in 2008 with Lemur touchscreens and game controllers, composing beats, bass lines and rhythms analogous to patterns in nature. When Apple released the iPad last year, she had a eureka moment and convened some of the world’s best app developers in Iceland. Biophilia soon morphed into a suite of apps.
“The apps are about visualizing the songs. So you close your eyes to listen and then you can see what you hear,” she continues. “It’s almost like those clichéd acid trips in movies where you can see sound drops vibrate. It didn’t really fit to have human-scale things in that world.”
Enter the otherworldly orange wig Björk is wearing on the Biophilia album sleeve. Partly inspired by British surrealist Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, the coppery mane was also a cheeky way for Björk to embody her experience as the frustrated music teacher who elicited mystified reactions when explaining Biophilia’s lofty concepts to collaborators.
“This project was slowly turning me into an airhead – a character that I’m usually not that into, someone who’s got her head in the clouds,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t until they saw the apps that they went, ‘Okay, now I get it ! You fly three circles around the galaxy and then you play with the lightning ? Okaaaaay.”
The app for lead single Crystalline, for example, is about song structure. Users steer a hovering crystal through a series of coloured tunnels that represent verse, chorus, middle eight and instrumental break, rearranging the sections as they see fit. In the Moon app, you can spin pearls to write a melody in the song’s unusual 17/8 time signature, which is based on lunar phases.
The more time you spend with Biophilia’s music and apps, the more you realize what a natural step the project is for an artist whose visceral lyrics and meandering melodies often chart a kind of emotional cartography inextricably bound to nature. Though her rhythms are increasingly irregular compared to the 4/4 thump of Debut, the 1993 solo album that turned Björk into an unlikely international pop star, her songs remain fixated on Icelandic landscapes.
That artistic concern became statistical fact last year when, for tax purposes, she had to write down where she wrote every song she’s ever written. “Funnily enough, I remembered most of it,” she says. “It was really shocking to see that 80 per cent were written in Iceland.”
Biophilia goes from dark, burbling atonal atmospherics to blistering noise and processional majesty through a combination of choral, brass and pipe-organ arrangements. Its more unique instruments are receiving a lot of attention, but she insists they were mostly practical. For example, she couldn’t afford a gamelan orchestra, so she gutted her old celeste and had a cymbal maker affix brass notes.
“You can just put it in a flight case and travel the world with it,” she says.
She admits, though, that the pendulum that makes a plucked harp sound based on gravitational counterpoints was harder to pull off. Top musical minds at MIT toiled for months to build it before the first Biophilia concerts. And the Tesla coil ? “It’s really theatrical, and you know, the kids love it.”
After her first residency at the Manchester International Festival in June, she was inundated with offers from museums around the world. Aside from concerts, the residencies include educational workshops for kids that vary depending on an institution’s mandate. For example, she hopes to set up in a natural history museum in New York and at a technology museum in Tokyo.
She can’t afford to run the workshops on her own, and so prospective partners must come up with the budget if they want Biophilia. She’s received attractive offers from Montreal, but no Canadian dates have been confirmed.
Björk’s educational zeal of late was born of boredom with traditional musicology’s historical bent. When composer Karlheinz Stockhausen died in 2007, she published a tribute in The Guardian lauding the German provocateur as an optimist who forged ahead by blending electronics and acoustics in a way that “celebrated the sound of sound.” The same could be said of Biophilia’s technophile spirit.
“He was the most hopeful of figures : the 21st century was going to be great,” she wrote. “The classical teachers in my school, meanwhile, kept moaning about the good old days of music, changing the masses of music pupils into slave performers and putting to sleep any creative thought or the will to make new things.”
As a teenager, Björk devoured Stockhausen’s “spicy” lectures in print and admits that on some level his ideas probably informed this project. When she interviewed Stockhausen for Dazed & Confused in 1996, she confessed that she was easily distracted. She feared she wouldn’t have time to do it all and asked if he felt the same. At 45, does she still feel this way ?
“I’m at a different place now than I was then,” she recalls. “My best music moments were experienced at 5:30 am on a dance floor in some cellar when some DJ would put two wrong things together that aren’t meant to belong.”
Today, laptops and iPads have channeled her attention, and her “best music moments” are more low-key but no less tipsy : at home cooking with friends or at bars DJing her own iPod parties.
“It’s really rare now that I would find a DJ I wouldn’t get bored with in an hour,” she says. “Maybe it’s also the fact that I don’t as often stay up till 6.”
She also sings differently. After her 2007 tour, she lost her voice and discovered a candida nodule in her throat. Through a combination of dietary changes and vocal exercises, she stretched it out so she can sing as she does now for 10 to 20 more years if she keeps up the routine.
“I was really punk, anti-technique – always,” she says. “When you’re 20 you can do those piercing high notes. I can’t do them now, but maybe I also don’t like them that much any more. I prefer [to sing] darker sometimes.”
Coincidentally, a big killer of candida is copper, Biophilia’s defining element. If her 2001 Vespertine album sounded clean, celestial and silvery, she calls Biophilia its dirty, frustrated and coppery sibling.
Of course, copper also figures big in the wig. “When I read what kills candida is copper, I thought, ‘Wow ! Okay, there is a whole thread through the project. So let’s make a copper cloud !’”