A pixie voice tiptoes down the line — breathless, singsong, studded with r’s rolled so extravagantly they stretch words into strange and baroque shapes. Who else could it belong to but Bjork, the Icelandic high priestess of art pop ?
It’s evening in New York and the singer, 50, is busy marshalling directors Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones and the rest of the creative crew working on her new virtual reality work, Notget, based on the single from her award-winning “heartbreak” album Vulnicura.
The clock is ticking. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to finish it,” she says in that child’s voice so familiar to generations of fans ; she could still be the precocious 11-year-old who made her start singing Icelandic folk songs in Reykjavik. “I just spoke to them today and they’re trying as hard as they can. I think there have been some technical difficulties. That’s the thing when you work with things that nobody has worked with before. Sometimes you have difficulties, hindrances. So fingers crossed.”
Notget will get its world premiere in Digital Bjork, an exhibition celebrating her music, videos and digital art creations, presented by Carriageworks in Sydney’s Redfern next weekend as part of Vivid Sydney. Bjork, who has not visited Australia since the Volta tour in 2008, will also DJ two sold-out shows at the venue.
Digital Bjork is a homage to the queen bee of musical experimentation, with five separate spaces devoted to her sprawling 10-minute music video Black Lake, the Australian premieres of virtual reality works Mouth Mantra and the panoramic 3-D music video Stonemilker, a curated program of some of her more startling video collaborations with the likes of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham (he of the infamous 1999 robot sex music video), and a tribute to Biophilia, her futuristic 2011 multimedia album featuring a motley array of strange musical instruments from gravity harps to Tesla coils.
Over her 24-year career, Bjork has proved to be one of pop music’s true iconoclasts and shapeshifters, pushing boundaries across music, film and video, and collaborating with artists, designers, scientists, instrument makers, writers, app makers and software developers. Now, virtual reality is getting her excited. “To me it is the natural continuity of the music video, this total merge of surround sound and vision,” she says. In December, the virtual reality app for Stonemilker, shot on a desolate beach at Grotta in Reykjavik and featuring an exclusive strings mix of the song, was released for iOS devices. In this she’s leading a revolutionary shift in the music video landscape, with even old-school bands such as U2 jumping into bed with VR collaborators — Apple Music in this case — as musicians seek to create ever more immersive, whole-body listening experiences for fans.
Companies, seeing the commercial potential, are scrambling to create user-friendly headsets, with the Oculus Rift VR headset just one of many consumer models on the market.
Eventually, Bjork says, she would like “to gather all the VR apps together on a Vulnicura album so that people can watch them at home in chronological order. But since most people don’t have headsets, I like doing this in museums and shows to exhibit the videos after they had been made.” She likes the “intimacy of the headphones and the headsets. Music, to me, seems to do best when you are really intimate and private, listening to it one on one, or in a huge place, like a festival or something. VR is obviously going to be amazing for a lot of things — films for sure, and Skype, where you can spend time with your loved ones.”
She loves virtual reality’s “almost Wagnerian theatricality, it’s almost like you’re in the middle of a stage like in a huge opera or something … this is not just touching a screen but more like experiencing the world.” Certainly, the ability to don a headset and step into Bjork’s mad, brilliant landscapes adds a layer of richness to the listening experience : last year, fans were seen spinning, dancing in intense fits of emotion as they sampled a VR version of the plaintive Stonemilker in a London record store. When told that many of them were in tears, she is struck. “Oh wow,” she says softly.
A music critic, witnessing the phenomenon, wrote that as headsets become more commonplace and “more artists follow Bjork’s lead, perhaps this sort of intimate, intense, experience could become commonplace — the music video as something truly immersive, an all-encompassing, focusing experience, rather than one distracted tab on your laptop screen.”
It’s music to the ears of the singer, long an early adopter of new technology, whose video experiments often require bespoke creations, such as the four pairs of specially modified sports cameras director Andrew Thomas Huang came up with to shoot Bjork alone on the beach in Stonemilker, or the special cameras and hi-tech mouth models that London-based director Jesse Kanda invented to film inside her mouth for Mouth Mantra.
“Yes, inside my mouth,” she intones solemnly — and she means it : you’re treated to an excruciatingly dentist’s-eye view of her teeth, tongue and tonsils in all their wet and squirmy glory. She pays tribute to Kanda’s dedication in helping her bring to life “a little therapeutic song about the throat”. Kanda has said that “making this video was as much a terrifying, horrific experience to me as it was a dream come true and pure ecstasy”.
For Bjork, who made her first app in 2011 for Biophilia, there is immense satisfaction in “solving things differently, so it’s been quite pioneering. Obviously it has its ups and downs, and the downs are that you make a lot of mistakes. But the ups are that the rewards are tremendous.”
Her interest in interactive technology was initially sparked through experimenting with touchscreen technology a decade or so ago. “I thought, oh my god, this opens up whole other things — it kind of sent me back to music school, and how I always craved that things would be in 3-D so you could touch it and move it.” Like maths and physics, music is best experienced in 3-D, she believes : it reflects the way she has come up with her songs, always while walking outside.
At Carriageworks, audiences will also experience the immersive soundscape of Black Lake, a monumental music video commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its Bjork retrospective last year. It features Bjork crawling and scrambling through crevasses of black volcanic lava “like a giant lady wandering heartbroken”, and was shown at MoMA in a specially constructed room. Technical issues and lack of space, however, ended up stripping the work of its claustrophobic power, she says.
Bjork is looking forward to seeing it restaged at Carriageworks because of the venue’s much bigger physical dimensions. It will be staged in an 8m x 12m space complete with huge screens and 54 speakers.
“At MoMA — and I’m not complaining for a second — the screens we had were at the opposite end of the rooms so you didn’t get that sort of claustrophobic feeling,” Bjork says.
The museum’s huge, expensive retrospective proved to be a critical flop ; a musical sigh travels down the line when she says she was initially resistant about the idea when approached by curator Klaus Biesenbach because “I thought, well, how can you hang a song on the wall ? But then in the end I gave in, because the curator was very convincing.
“It was very flattering, yes, but I think it’s something that I’m not comfortable with doing myself. I think this exhibition for me in Sydney is probably what I would have done [instead] of the show at MoMA. It is not about me as the icon, the clothes, or about putting me up on a pedestal. It’s about content.”
It’s curious that Bjork has used the most intensely personal album of her career as her platform to experiment with high technology, but then, virtual reality’s intimate qualities make it perfect for capturing the rawness of loss and grief, she believes. Vulnicura (Latin for “cure for wounds”) was written following the breakdown of her marriage in 2013 to performance artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a daughter, Isadora. Its nine tracks were written in chronological order, in what was intended as a very public grieving.
“The album for me was very much about going home. I think it happens to all Icelandic people — a lot of other people too, perhaps — when they get into trouble, they emotionally, at least, return home to heal their wounds. I definitely went back twice to heal them, to make sense of it all. And also I felt that the Icelandic landscape, when it is really barren, it really suits the emotions at this time. You know, there are these tiny plants that grow there, they are very stubborn and when they finally break out of the lava, it is such a feat — they are so courageous. It is this idea of rejuvenation.”
She says Vulnicura, in some ways, represents the closing of a circle. “My last patriotic album was Homogenic in 1997 — from there I did an album called Volta, which is me sort of travelling around the world on a boat and being like a gypsy. And then I did Biophilia, which obviously happened in outer space.” Here, she erupts like a small volcano into a sudden stream-of-consciousness riff about atoms vibrating “like units bumping into each other, not behaving like humans”, before suddenly whipping back to clarity as if a bungee cord has been yanked. “But with Vulnicura, I was kind of trying to go back to Iceland. It is probably the most human album I’ve ever done. It was about returning home after heartbreak and getting healed.”
Did she find some peace ? She is quiet. “Yes, I feel so. When somebody told me three years ago that time heals wounds, I was just shaking my head and laughing. But now I feel I’m a good example of someone for whom that is true.
“I was very aware that I was going through the most difficult thing I had ever gone through in my life, there was an extreme sense of loss. But you know, there are people who lose their children or lose their homes, there are way more extreme cases of loss than mine. I think you get more empathy with people after something like this happens to you.
“It was scary at times, of course — I know of cases, of couples who separate and one or the other doesn’t get over it their whole life — you hear these kind of terror, terror stories …” her voice trails off.
“So I was really determined to work myself through it. The album helped a lot, but also my daughter, especially. To me, it was very important for other family members and children that you are not stuck, that you don’t pass on your problems to the next generation. Of course you can’t do it all, but at least you do your best.”
There is a sense of upbeat energy when she talks about writing songs for her new album, which reunites her with Vulnicura producers Arca and the Haxan Cloak. She said last year that if Vulnicura was an album “about hell … we are doing paradise now. Utopia”.
Or perhaps not quite ; it’s too early to say, she muses. After the last album, she felt a weight lift, she says : “It was like I was free from this heavy feeling and very, very euphoric and happy. But I mean, I am still writing so it’s still hard to say — it could go either way, any direction. So maybe I will talk about it once I finish it.”
Digital Bjork runs at Sydney’s Carriageworks from June 3 to 18.