I first met Björk in the lobby of the Hotel Borg, a funky Art Deco palace in the center of the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. The Borg opened in 1930, the dream project of a famous wrestler who liked to host swank parties for American military officers and the odd movie star. Eventually, the wrestler died and the hotel fell on hard times. In the early nineteen-eighties, it became the gathering spot for a group of aggressively bohemian teen-agers, who theorized punk-rock anarchy at the hotel bar. One of the gang was Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the daughter of an electrician and a feminist activist. She sang in a band called Kukl, which means “black magic,” and she outraged older Icelanders with her antics. Parents shuddered when the singer bared her midriff on television while visibly pregnant. Now she is thirtyeight, but she still looks as though she could fall in with a group of fashionable delinquents. She walked through the door of the Borg wearing a ladybug cap and white shoes with red pompoms on the toes.
It was a pale, mild morning in early January. The day before, an ice storm had rendered the city impassable, but some shift in the Gulf Stream had warmed the air overnight. We took a taxi into the suburbs, where Björk was working on a new album. She held in her hands a program for the play “The Master and Margarita,” which she had seen the night before. She read Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, on which the play was based, when she was a teenager, and it remains one of her favorite books. “The book is very popular with Icelanders,” she said. “It has a very Nordic feeling to it, even though it is Russian. It ridicules bureaucracy, it has black magic and Arctic magic realism. You could say it is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the Arctic grown-up.” I nodded, and glanced at a snowcapped mountain ridge in the distance. “Of course,” she added, “you have to watch for the Nordic cliché. ‘Hello ! I am a Viking ! My name is Björk !’ A friend of mine says that when record-company executives come to Iceland they ask the bands if they believe in elves, and whoever says yes gets signed up.”
Björk is probably the most famous Icelander since Leif Eriksson, who discovered America a thousand years ago. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served as the country’s President from 1980 to 1996, once compared her to the strong women of the national sagas, like Brynhild and Aud the Deep-Minded. Björk has spent much time abroad in part to escape this monumentalizing attention, which makes her uneasy. Instead, she has ended up with a global sort of fame : as the creator of seven solo albums, involving English, American, Indian, Iranian, Brazilian, Danish, Turkish, and Inuit musicians ; as a sometime actress, who in 2000 won the best-actress prize in Cannes for her performance in “Dancer in the Dark” ; and, more recently, as a denizen of the New York art-world circles frequented by her partner, Matthew Barney. Her appearance, last week, at the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympics, singing an ornate new song called “Oceania,” confirmed her status as the ultimate musical cosmopolitan, acquainted with both Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Wu-Tang Clan. Though she now spends much of her time in New York, she keeps coming back to Iceland, where she lives for several months of the year. The relative simplicity of the place is reassuring to her. Once, she translated a local news headline for my benefit : “TIRE TRACKS IN FOOTBALL FIELD.” A look of pleasure crossed her face as she studied photographic evidence of the catastrophe. “This is so Iceland,” she said.
In my talks with Björk, which began in Reykjavík and continued in New York, London, and Salvador, Brazil she mentioned the “Nordic idea" several times, although she was never too specific about it. Some sort of Nordic idea is plainly at the heart of her new album, “Medúlla,” which Elektra Atlantic Records will release at the end of the month. The moment you try to put this idea into words, however, the glacier of cliché begins to advance. Ásmundur Jónsson, the visionary manager of the Icelandic record label Bad Taste, once said that her earliest solo recordings evoked for him a solitary figure standing in an open space ; but there is nothing inherently northern in that. Whatever is Nordic in Björk’s music is filtered through her own creative personality, which is all-devouring by nature, taking in dance music, avantgarde electronic music, twentieth-century composition, contemporary R. & B., jazz, hip-hop, and almost everything else under the winter sun. Björk has traits both elemental and eclectic : she wants to get to the core of her world, but she also wants to melt it down.
When it becomes known that you have met Björk, people tend to ask, with an insinuating grin, “What’s she like ?” She is expected to be a cyclone of elfin zaniness ; she is, after all, the woman who showed up at the 2001 Academy Awards with what looked to be a swan carcass draped around her body. She does have her zany moments—I won’t soon forget the image of her dancing down a street in Salvador shouting “Bring the noise !”—but it is not the first word that comes to mind. She is warm, watchful, sharp-witted, restless, often serious, seldom solemn, innocent but never naïve, honest and direct in a way that invites confidences, shockingly easy to talk to on almost any subject but herself. Teresa Stratas once said that Lotte Lenya was “an earth sprite, a Lulu, at once vulnerable and strong, soft and hard-edged, child-like and worldweary.” Much the same could be said of Björk, except that she is rather nicer than Lulu—and far from being weary of the world.
Early work on “Medúlla,” whose name describes the inner part of an animal or plant structure and, more appositely, the lower part of the human brain, was done at Greenhouse Studios, which belong to the producer Valgeir Sigurdsson. Valgeir is a mellow, soft-spoken guy in his early thirties ; he has worked with Björk since 1998, when the two collaborated on the soundtrack for “Dancer in the Dark.” The studio is at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburbs of Reykjavík. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary home, which it partly is : Valgeir lives with his family on one side. The main recording console is in a long room with cathedral-style windows and gleaming beech floors. Downstairs is a small performance space, with an adjoining kitchenette. The place is cool, spare, and eerily neat, Valgeir’s T-shirt-and-torn-jeans style notwithstanding. By the time we went upstairs, the midwinter day was already ending. An hour later, a full moon was hanging uncomfortably close. The white-capped mountains glowed in the distance.
Björk sat down to listen to sketches and partly finished versions of the songs that she wanted to put on the album. She wrote many of them at the end of last year, during a trip to Gomera, in the Canary Islands. “I am at the point where I can let it out for other people, hear them through other people’s ears,” she said. “There is a point where you are very secretive, but then you become confident enough that you can hear criticism, and not become discouraged.” I nodded sympathetically, as if I, too, were an Icelandic pop star who has erased boundaries between genres. Björk often uses the second person to close the distance between herself and others.
She’d laid down the initial vocal tracks in a spontaneous rush, standing over the mixing board with a handheld mike—“a big old nineteen-fifties thing,” she said—while electronic mockups of the harmonies and beats played on Valgeir’s computer. “The album is about voices,” she said. “I want to get away from instruments and electronics, which was the world of my last album, ‘Vespertine.’ I want to see what can be done with the entire emotional range of the human voice—a single voice, a chorus, trained voices, pop voices, folk voices, strange voices. Not just melodies but everything else, every noise that a throat makes.” She mentioned as possible collaborators the avant-garde rock vocalist Mike Patton, the Inuit throat-singer Tagaq, the “human beatboxes” Dokaka and Rahzel, and the R. & B. superstar Beyoncé. “The last album was very introverted,” she said. “It was avoiding eye contact. This one is a little more earthy, but, you know, not exactly simple.” She stopped to answer a phone call about school fees for her older child, Sindri, who is of college age.
Björk started playing the tracks and commenting on each. Some were full-fledged four- or five-minute songs, with verses and a chorus ; others were briefer, more atmospheric, more elusive. Most immediately gripping was a song called “Who Is It,” which Björk had started working on during the “Vespertine” sessions. This version began with two minutes or so of vaguely medieval-sounding choral writing, a misty mass of overlapping lines. Then big bass notes began to growl, and in a matter of seconds the song transformed itself before one’s ears into the kind of quirkily ebullient anthem that Björk specialized in earlier in her career : “Who is it that never lets you down ?/Who is it that gave you back your crown ?” I thought of “The Master and Margarita,” of the midnight carnival erupting in a Nordic place. As it was, “Who Is It” was something between a pop song and an Arvo Pärt-like choral meditation. Remixed with a few more heavy beats, it could rule every dance floor in the world.
Not yet satisfied with her creation, Björk sat down at a keyboard and worked out new vocal lines to add to the surge of sound at the beginning of the song. At least half the time I was with Björk, she was hunched over a keyboard or a computer, building her synthesis one microscopic piece at a time. She seldom sits absolutely still, and is constantly crossing or uncrossing her legs, squatting in a chair in various yoga-like positions, or getting up to twirl her compact body this way or that. Yet her gaze stays implacably fixed on whatever is engaging her attention ; her body seems distracted but her mind is not.
At around 6 P.M. the next day, sixteen singers arrived at the studio to record the choral parts that Björk and Valgeir had been working on for several months. In the past, Valgeir told me, they had printed out string and orchestral arrangements directly from the computer, using the Sibelius music-notation program, but in this case they engaged a copyist to produce clean vocal parts. Most of the singers were members of a group called Schola Cantorum, which has appeared on several recordings of the music of the furiously original Icelandic composer Jón Leifs. Björk heard the Leifs recordings and liked the chorus’s crisp, potent sound. In the past, she has worked with professional choruses and also with a group of large-voiced Inuit women, who came along on her “Vespertine” tour. (She found them while on a vacation in Greenland, by putting up ads in a supermarket.) These singers, she hoped, would be classical in technique but flexible in their approach. “I want a little bit of a pagan edge, a bit of Slavic,” she said.
The session was on the late side because most of the singers have day jobs. They congregated in the kitchen, looking nervous but game. Valgeir placed the vocal parts in piles, and the singers picked them up in a shuffling line. If you had walked in off the street, you might have thought that this was a gathering of procrastinating Christmas carollers, not a major-label recording session. Björk offered bowls of chocolate-covered almonds and raisins. Valgeir’s son practiced in-line skating in the hall. After an initial run-through, five Domino’s pizzas arrived, and the singers began devouring them. Valgeir hovered in the background, chatting reverentially about Brian Eno and keeping an eye on the pizza situation. Fifteen minutes later, there was no trace that the pizzas had ever existed.
To convey her ideas to the singers, Björk sang, danced, conducted, gestured, talked, and joked. She is famous for using opulent metaphors when she talks about music. “I say, ‘Like marzipan,’ and they say, ‘Oh, you mean dolcissimo,’” she told me. Since Valgeir was upstairs at the mixing board, Björk also took care of some technical matters, fiddling for a while with a malfunctioning Wurlitzer piano and unplugging some unused headphones that were lying on the floor. She was unfailingly, elaborately polite. In several months of recording, I never heard her raise her voice or deliver anything like a firm command. Criticisms were prefaced with phrases like “the only thing I would say is ...” and “the one thing I’m not so crazy about is....” If one of her collaborators sought specific guidance, she might say, “Whatever hits your fancy. I just like to hear whatever you do with it.”
Yet the songs rapidly began to conform to the images that she advanced when she talked alone. For the Icelandic chorus, most of the parts consisted of wordless vocalise, but Björk wanted something other than the airy mystery that defines “Vespertine.” She asked the singers to apply different syllables to the notes—“hoo” instead of “aah,” for instance—and had to rein them in when they started inventing faux- African mumbo-jumbo. In some cases, she changed the parts on the spot, either to clarify a texture or to make it richer. She got very excited when the basses kicked in with Mephistophelian tones ; she was depending on them to take the place of the big, low electronic beats that had moored so many of her songs in the past. She assigned them to sing along in the middle section of “Where Is the Line,” an aggressive song in which Björk lays down the law for someone who has been abusing her patience. “More of a rock feel,” she said happily. Valgeir looked on with a quizzical smile, scratching the stubble on his face. “We’ve been talking about the choral arrangement for so long,” he said. “It’s such a relief it’s actually happening.”
Later, in the upstairs recording room, I noticed something uncanny about Björk’s voice. The singers were in a circle, with a microphone positioned in front of each. Björk was usually in the center of the circle or on the outside, with no microphone within reach. Yet whenever she was singing or talking her voice was at the center of the sound. You could pick it out in a second from the Icelandic chatter : the dusky timbre, deep in the mezzo-soprano range ; the tremor in it, which occasionally takes on the roughness of a pubescent boy’s voice ; the way it slices through the sonic haze, as if somehow a few extra frequencies in a given range are being twanged to life and sent into action. It carries without effort, like those Mongolian voices which can be heard across the steppe. Somehow, the mere fact of her voice became a creative force, a magnet pulling the music in the right direction.
On the day I was to leave Iceland, Björk decided that I should see something of Reykjavík’s art scene. Jóga, one of her oldest friends, is married to the conceptual artist Jón Gnarr, who was having an opening that afternoon. We drove in another taxi—if Iceland has limousines, Björk does not use them—to an old Lutheran church in the center of town. The show was entitled “INRI,” and it consisted of a series of photographs of G.I. Joe and Ken dolls acting out the Stations of the Cross. The resulting evocation of Christ’s last days was unconventional—only four of the attendees of the Last Supper wear clothes, and the best-dressed one, in khakis and a sweater-vest, is Satan—but if any conservative Christians were scandalized they did not make themselves known. The mood of the piece was whimsical rather than provocative. “Judas looks like a rave kid,” Björk said, giggling approvingly.
In the church, everyone seemed to know Björk, but no one made a fuss over her. I had a hard time telling whether the people who greeted her were relatives, old friends, fans, or simply extroverted strangers. At one point, a blond boy walked up to Björk and said “Hi, Björk !” Björk said “Hi !” in return, whereupon the kid casually sauntered away. Two older teens were dressed in tattered, oddly festooned military-style greatcoats ; they looked like stylish deserters from the final Army of the Tsar. Outside the church, a television reporter was interviewing Gnarr. On a nearby lake, swans made a noise that sounded like an anarchist brass band, or so it seemed in this context.
The snow and ice melted in the weak glare of the sun. I said goodbye to Björk and took a cab to the airport. My incoming flight had landed after dark, and I had seen nothing of the landscape around the city. Now I stared in wonder at the miles of blackish lava, at the volcanic boulders that had dropped from the sky, at the conical peak of Mt. Keilir, in the distance. I had gone from a fashionable modern place into a charcoal sketch of an unfinished world.
For a long time, there was nothing where Iceland now is. The volcanoes of the island began rising from the Atlantic twenty million years ago—a geological pause for breath. The island was undisturbed by what the Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness called “the tyranny of mankind” until about 870 A.D., when Norse and Celtic farmers began to settle it. They brought with them the lore of the Germanic tribes, which became the basis of an oral and written tradition that changed little in the following nine centuries. The stories of gods, heroes, Vikings, and ordinary Icelanders were expounded in rimur, or extended chanted tales. When they are read today, they are uncannily familiar, for they have burrowed their way into modern mythologies of Western culture ; Richard Wagner used them as the principal source of the “Ring of the Nibelung,” and J. R. R. Tolkien put them at the core of “The Lord of the Rings.” Wagner’s Ring of Fire and Tolkien’s Mount Doom come straight out of the Icelandic landscape. No wonder I felt a chill when I saw Mt. Keilir glowering over the plain.
Until the early twentieth century, the Icelanders lived out of sight and mind, more a rumor than a fact. Laxness changed this by winning the Nobel Prize, in 1955, for his book “Independent People,” which tells of a sheepherder named Bjartur, who holds on to his parcel of land in the face of mounting natural and supernatural obstacles. The novel is remarkable for, among other things, its ambiguous relationship with the Nordic idea ; it paints an epic portrait of a hardy, solitary soul, yet it undercuts that mythology with slow-burning deadpan humor and blindsiding blasts of emotion. If Bjartur suffers in isolation, the book suggests, it is because he chose to. Laxness’s mixture of grandeur and irony seems central to the national character.
Modern Icelandic music begins with Jón Leifs, who lived from 1899 to 1968, and whose 1961 work “Hekla” helped bring Björk and her chorus together. While in Reykjavík, I had lunch with Árni Heimir Ingolfsson, a young Harvard-educated musicologist who is writing a biography of Leifs. “He was a tremendously complex personality,” Ingolfsson told me. “To some, he was witty, charming, and sophisticated ; to others a paranoid megalomaniac.” Despite his extreme individuality, Leifs based his music on a close study of Icelandic folk music : his lurching rhythms follow the irregular patterns of the rimur chant, and his craggy melodies imitate a song style called tvisöngur. The composer spent much of his early career studying in Germany, and remained there throughout the Third Reich. Unfortunately, his messianic belief in Icelandic tradition blended all too well with Nazi philosophy, which prized Iceland as an uncontaminated Aryan culture. Yet his roiling dissonances and percussive effects caused some to label him a “degenerate.” The fact that he had married a Jewish German pianist did not help his position. He and his wife escaped to Sweden in 1944.
“Hekla,” which is named after Iceland’s largest active volcano, has been described as the loudest piece of music ever written. It requires nineteen percussionists, who play an extraordinary battery of instruments, including anvils, stones, sirens, bells, ships’ chains, a sort of tree-hammer, shotguns, and cannons. During a break in Björk’s choral recording sessions, I asked one of the Schola Cantorum singers about their recording of “Hekla,” on the BIS label. “That was totally crazy,” he told me. “Leifs knew that a lot of what he wrote couldn’t really be sung, but he wrote it down anyway. Björk is very easy to work with by comparison, although the music is surprisingly similar sometimes.” Björk herself loves Leifs’s music. “I think he almost animated eruptions and lava in sound,” she said. Yet this composer lived out the tragedy of Laxness’s “independent man,” who fails to see that his pride is the source of his suffering. It seemed to me that Björk has been working her entire career to correct this mythology—still to maintain independence, to seek the new and the strange, but also to make compromises when necessary, to live in reality, to accept imperfection.
Björk listens avidly to choral music, which plays a dominant role in Iceland’s music culture. If one in ten inhabitants seems to play in a rock band, one in five sings in a choir. While working on “Medúlla,” Björk was listening to several CDs of choral songs by Reykjavík’s Hamrahlid Choir, which she herself once sang in. It is sombrely beautiful music that sets you on the edge of paralyzing sadness, or, perhaps, pulls you back gently from the brink. Later on, she reconvened the entire Schola Cantorum to record a choral arrangement of Jórunn Viðar’s song “Vökuró” (“Vigil”), a simple, haunting setting of a poem by Jakobína Sigurðardóttir :
Far away wakes the great world,
mad with grim enchantment,
fearful of night and day.
fearless and serene,
smile bright at me.
For decades, Viðar was the only female member of the Icelandic Composers’ Society. She is now eightysix, and her song is the still center of “Medúlla.” It might be one of the most purely beautiful recordings that Björk has made.
Björk, like a lot of her countrymen, had a many-sided family background ; the idea of the nuclear family has never really taken root in Iceland. Her parents divorced when she was two, and she grew up in several households at once. Her mother, whose second marriage was to a rock musician, cultivated a hippie, commune-like atmosphere. Her father, who went on to become the head of the Icelandic electricians’ union, kept a more orderly, conservative household. Björk’s working methods, which combine elaborate preparation with last-minute improvisation, perhaps reflect this divided upbringing. Her most substantial family inheritance might have been from her grandmothers, who could remember the timeless rural world of Laxness’s novels and preserved the romance of the landscape. From them Björk heard Icelandic folk songs, which she calls “old-woman melodies.”
Starting at the age of five, Björk attended the Tónmenntaskóli, a music school in Reykjavík. She took theory and history classes, sang in school choirs, and mastered the flute well enough to play an atonal Finnish concerto whose name she has now forgotten. In 1980, at the age of fifteen, she wrote a piece called “Glora,” which is the only extant recording of her as a flutist (Björk included the track on her 2002 boxed set, “Family Tree”) ; the playing is pristine, the music a little like the beginning of the second part of “The Rite of Spring.” Under the guidance of a teacher named Stefan Edelstein, she explored the more radical corners of the classical repertory, gravitating toward Stockhausen, Messiaen, and John Cage. Stockhausen remains one of Björk’s heroes ; she interviewed the composer in 1996 for the magazine Dazed & Confused, defining him as a man “obsessed with the marriage between mystery and science.” Early on, she made her own attempts at avant-garde experimentation. She made beats from a tape of her grandfather snoring and played drums to the sound of a popcorn machine.
As she headed toward her teen-age years, Björk had shaken off her classical upbringing. She was frustrated by its obsession with the past—“all this retro, constant Beethoven and Bach bollocks,” as she later said in her Stockhausen interview. With her stepfather’s encouragement, she started singing pop songs, and in 1977 she recorded an album of covers that sold respectably well as a novelty item. She formed a selfconsciously “difficult” band with other conservatory alums, then appeared with a succession of riotous punk outfits, the most famous of which was Kukl. (There was a Kukl side project with the enticing name Elgar Sisters.) Kukl signed with Crass, the English anarchist label, which preached a strict anti-bourgeois, anti-commercial code. But Björk was skeptical of punk’s purist ideology : she immediately rebelled against the rebellion.
Björk found fame abruptly, almost accidentally. In 1986, shortly before Reagan and Gorbachev arrived in Reykjavík for their nuclear summit, Björk and her comrades formed a collective organization called Bad Taste, whose manifesto announced, “Bad Taste will use every imaginable and unimaginable method, e.g. inoculation, extermination, tasteless advertisements and announcements, distribution and sale of common junk and excrement.” Principally, this assault took the form of a Bad Taste band, called the Sugarcubes, who aimed to send up the kind of bouncy clichés that passed for Icelandic pop. In time-honored fashion, a song called “Birthday” became a freak hit in England, and within a few months the band was an international phenomenon. The alternately charming and irritating synthetic jangle of the Sugarcubes was really an expression of the sensibility of Einar Örn, a poetic prankster who recently released one of the strangest rap albums in history. Björk, however, emerged as the band’s most riveting personality. The band ran its course after three records.
By 1990, Björk was striking out on her own. That summer, she went on a long bicycle tour of remote parts of Iceland, stopping in tiny village churches and playing for an hour or two on the organ or harmonium. From this adventure emerged “Anchor Song,” which has a meandering melodic purity that is very Björkian. Around this time, she made a record of jazz standards, “Gling-Gló,” which suggests that she could have had a major career as a jazz singer. Most important, she delved into electronic pop, which traced its technique, if not its content, to Stockhausen’s pioneering synthesizer compositions of the early nineteenfifties. She started out listening to Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, then moved on to dance music and rap. She used to take her boom box out into the Icelandic countryside to listen to Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” at proper volume. It remains one of her favorite records ; the voluptuous menace of tracks like “Welcome to the Terrordome”—beats and samples stacked up in a droning roar, like Stockhausen stuck on A-B repeat—echoes through all her work.
In 1992, Björk moved to London, where she could experience electronic music at its most creatively intense. The whomping beats of techno dominated the London and Manchester dance floors, while ambient bleeps and clicks wafted through basements in Sheffield and Bristol. With new digital technologies, electronic artists could cover up the fuzz of synthesizers and manufacture hyperreal, crystalline soundscapes. Björk was especially attracted to Massive Attack, which fused the moody pacing of reggae with the sonic depth of hip-hop. Like disco in the seventies, the new digital music often became a backdrop for powerful female voices like Björk’s, which could burn like candles in a dark room. At this stage, Björk left much of the work to her producers, who included, to name the most significant among dozens, Graham Massey, Nellee Hooper, Tricky, and Mark Bell.
In 1993, Björk made a phenomenal solo entrance, singing “Human Behavior” on the album “Debut.” Over a cheesy, funky timpani riff, which was sampled from the Antônio Carlos Jobim–Quincy Jones soundtrack album “The Adventurers,” she sang, “If you ever get close to a human and human behavior, be ready to get confused.” It was a career-defining move : Björk positioned herself as a figure outside convention—as a member of another species, even—while using the second person to implicate the listener in the conspiracy. The songs on “Debut” and its follow-up, “Post,” show Björk at large in the world, falling in and out of love with Venus-like boys, dancing at druggy parties, circulating through the rough neon glamour of nineties London. Behind the travelogue of the Icelander abroad was a sneakily powerful thesis about technology and music. She had delivered her manifesto in 1992, when she met up with Massey to record the track “Modern Things.” Machines, she sang over a gently burbling electronic stream, have always existed, “waiting in a mountain for the right moment, listening to the irritating noises of dinosaurs and people dabbling outside.... It’s their turn now.” Digital technology, in other words, need not be a sleek, soulless force ; it can embrace nature, teem with life.
Indeed, “Debut” and “Post” lack the cooler-than-thou hauteur of many English electronic records of the period—the languor of Tricky, for example, with whom Björk had a short romance in 1995. From the outset, Björk wanted to bring traditional instruments into the mix ; her first idea was to have a brass band playing over severe electronic beats. In the event, she relied on flute, harp, accordion, and harmonium to echo the world as it was. Talvin Singh supplied Indian string arrangements ; the Brazilian arranger Eumir Deodato emerged from retirement to endow techno stompers like “Hyperballad” with a Nelson Riddle lushness. The intermeshing of acoustic and electronic textures succeeded not only because the production scrupulously avoided the usual clichés but because the songs were stocked with historical cues. Several of them lean on a stately tango rhythm, which supplies a hint of between-the-wars cabaret. The gently rocking chords of “Isobel” are cousins of Gershwin’s chords for “Summertime.”
The smoldering nostalgia of Björk’s musical material is balanced by the urgent optimism of her lyrics, which seem always charged with the sense that the next moment or meeting could transform everything. She always seems to be exclaiming in breathy terms of some visceral but elusive “it” : “I can sense it... . It’s coming up” ; “One day, one day, it will all come true” ; “When she does it, she means to” ; “But it hasn’t happened yet” ; “I’ve seen it all” ; “It’s not up to you.” On a bewitching new song, “Desired Constellation,” she repeatedly lets out a high, falling cry of “How am I going to make it right ?” Her lyrics, which are sometimes composed with the help of the poet Sjón Sigurdsson, are a kind of poetry of possibility. She is unafraid of the darker byways of emotion, but she has no time for free-floating, modernist-style alienation. On “Who Is It,” she sings, in a definitive statement of her emotional philosophy, “I carry my joy on the left, my pain on the right.”
Like the greatest opera singers, Björk combines precision of pitch with intensity of emotion, and any diva will tell you how hard it is to master one without sacrificing the other. If you throw a lot of emotion into your voice, you will easily lose control of the pitch. If you focus on the pitch, you will find it difficult to convey emotion. Something tremendous must be happening in the brain when a singer is able to escape that double bind, and Björk’s new album is like a CAT scan of the process.
“Everyone loves Maria Callas,” Björk told me, “because she doesn’t get locked up in a technique box. She keeps her rrrr”—she gestured toward her chest. “The unity of emotion and word and tone. Especially, the purity of expression. Every genre has these mechanical clichés that get implanted in the voices and start to hide the power of words.” She sang a bit of rock ‘n roll around the words “I don’t know nothing” and made a bit of bel canto from the words “I know everything.” Björk manages to sound as if she knows everything and nothing at once.
In February of this year, Björk went to Salvador, the capital of the Bahia province of Brazil, to watch Matthew Barney create a high-tech, avant-garde float for Carnaval. Salvador’s Carnaval is not as flamboyant as Rio de Janeiro’s ; the emphasis is more on the energy of Brazilian music and dance, especially the African-accented music of the Bahia region. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, leaders of the Tropicália musical revolution of the sixties and seventies, both come from Bahia, and both were in attendance as Barney’s float made its entrance. Barney’s musical consultant was the downtown New York musician Arto Lindsay, who spent his childhood in Brazil. Björk wasn’t directly involved in the float project, but the Nordic idea was manifest in the person of Valgeir, who was in charge of electronic samples.
Björk settled herself apart from the action, renting a house in the old hippie community of Arembepe, about an hour up the coast. She was having a hard time adjusting to the warm weather and had come down with the flu. The other Icelanders had instituted a minor social revolution at the Brazilian house. They released a supposedly bad-mannered dog from its kennel, and the animal now happily roamed free with a tennis ball. They invited the house’s domestic staff—a gardener, a cook, and a cleaning lady—to sit down at the dinner table with them.
Valgeir had set up a makeshift studio in a ten-by-ten-foot spare bedroom. An old air-conditioner rattled ineffectively in the window. When Björk was feeling better, she played me the results of her sessions with Tagaq, the Inuit throatsinger. The Inuit tribes in northern Canada have a long-cherished game in which two female singers sit face to face and make all manner of strange, rapid, breathy noises, in an attempt to make each other smile. Björk fell in love with this kind of vocal horseplay at the time of “Vespertine” ; it recalled the sensuous avant-gardism of Meredith Monk, whom she had long admired. On “Medúlla,” Tagaq’s artful hyperventilations have filled up the middle spaces that, on earlier albums, were occupied by the electronic swirl.
Bahia was threatening to muscle its way into the already crowded sound-world of the record. Björk had been listening in on Lindsay’s rehearsals with a group of Afro-Brazilian drummers, who were to play alongside the float. They came from two Bahian groups, Cortejo Afro and Ilê Aiyê. They played complex, ever-shifting beats with a powerful martial tinge. Björk thought of putting them on “Mouth’s Cradle,” another of the choral-powered songs on the album, in which she sings of “the simplicity of the ghostlike beast, the purity of what he wants.” Later, the drummers were recorded, and they gave the music a rough, grainy texture, a propulsive drive. But they weighed on Björk’s conscience ; they violated the strictly vocal concept that she had set up, and they seemed too obvious a move for a tourist from the north. “I don’t want to be colonial, culinary,” she told me. “My brain says no, but my heart says yes.”
The climactic night of Carnaval arrived. Barney’s creation was to make its appearance in the parade of floats as it moved along the oceanfront of Salvador. Björk ventured out in a small van with various Icelanders and friends of Barney’s. About a mile from the beach, a Brazilian security detail—nine men in charcoal-gray suits, sunglasses, and earpiece headphones—drove up in a second van to supervise the celebrity visitor. Björk wanted to walk the rest of the way through the crowd, but the security people vetoed the idea. They formed a V-shaped wedge in front, and the crowd parted. Björk sang along to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” on the radio and talked again about “The Master and Margarita,” which Johann, her Pilates instructor, had just read. “When I was young,” she said, “I was surrounded by friends who were always having these drunken passionate arguments all around me. I sometimes feel as if I read a lot of important books just by listening to their arguments.”
Brazilian paparazzi had got wind of the approaching convoy ; they swarmed around the van as we disembarked. Indeed, the entire expedition had been arranged with the understanding that if Björk allowed herself to be photographed on this occasion then she would otherwise be left alone. “Robert Altman should make a movie about the paparazzi,” Björk said, registering the tension of the situation. “About this little world of people who lurk in the bushes for five days, hardly sleeping or eating, waiting like hunters for the prey, for Lady Diana or whoever. They hate each other, and they hate the prey. It is all about the moment of the kill. It would be a very interesting movie, yes ?” She said all this without bitterness, as if she were observing a phenomenon that had nothing to do with her, which, indeed, it really didn’t. “Actually, most people here don’t know who I am. They just know that I’m famous for some reason.”
A little later, we were on a balcony high above the street, facing the old lighthouse of Barra. Barney’s float came into view, a huge, dark, fascinating thing. In the lead was a big industrial tractor decorated with tree trunks on which phallic candles had been mounted. It was pulling a long trailer bed with high walls the color of rust, on top of which Arto Lindsay’s musicians and Valgeir were playing. Björk explained that Valgeir was sampling the sounds of wheels crunching over various wood implements, which had great significance in the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion. She began to sing her own version of a candomblé hymn.
Valgeir, dressed in a lab technician’s coat, was hunched over his laptop, wearing much the same bemused expression that he had displayed when pizzas piled up in his kitchen in Reykjavík. Barney was directing the action from the street. Björk waved at them while the paparazzi snapped away and the security men warded off an overzealous journalist who had begun yelling at Björk in frustration. An hour later, Björk managed to shake off all but two of the security people and worked her way into the crowds that were following the floats. For fifteen minutes or so, before the photographers picked up the trail again, she danced along the Avenida Oceanica with a couple of friends. I thought of Bulgakov’s Margarita, flying on her broom above the dead lights of Moscow : “Invisible and free ! Invisible and free !”
In 1998, Björk moved from London back to Reykjavík. It was the beginning of a period of retrenchment, a retreat from the gregarious, promiscuous spirit of “Debut” and “Post.” Her albums of the next few years, “Homogenic” and “Vespertine,” turn progressively inward. Harsh, dark tones enter the music. “The album represented some kind of doomsday,” Björk said of “Homogenic” in an extended interview with Ásmundur Jónsson, the record producer, that appeared with her “Live Box” collection. “Some kind of explosion had to take place, some kind of death.” At the same time, “Homogenic” evoked reassuringly familiar Icelandic landscapes, whether the lush, rolling sound-fields of “Jóga”—written in honor of the woman I met at the art show in Reykjavík—or the volcanic violence of “Pluto,” which seems like Björk’s answer to Leifs’s “Hekla.” By this time, Mark Bell had become Björk’s electronic guru, and he gave the production a gleaming minimalist sheen.
“Vespertine,” released at the end of the long-ago summer of 2001, was a homecoming of a different kind—a swerve toward a more intimate, chamber-music style of performance, without any of the heavy beats that had made her earlier music amenable to clubgoers. Matmos, an electronic duo from San Francisco, wrapped several songs in a mesmerizing sonic filigree, a gentle overlay of murmurs and rustles and clicks. “Vespertine” was Björk’s most ambitious work to date ; it made clear what was already implicit in the previous albums—that she was not simply a singer with great taste in collaborators but a full-fledged composer with a singular command of melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture. The tone of “Vespertine” is set by the first sound you hear : a half-diminished seventh, an intensely Romantic chord that broods at a slant from a main key that never appears. “There lies my passion hidden,” Björk sings, drawing the chord around her like a blanket. The harmonic adventurousness climaxes on the song “An Echo a Stain,” in which a chorus sings a huge, soft, shimmering cluster of tones. In front of this dreamlike backdrop, Björk sings more tantalizing lyric fragments : “I’m sorry you saw that / I’m sorry he did it.” Put this monodrama in a concert setting and it would hold its own against any vocal composition of the past decade.
While intellectual types have celebrated Björk’s recent work—musicologists are lining up to analyze what one scholar plausibly calls her “anti- and hyper-pop”—some longtime fans have voiced discontent. “Vespertine” was not unlike Radiohead’s electronically saturated album “Kid A,” which scandalized the rock world by jettisoning guitars and guitar chords. But Björk managed to avoid the appearance of writing against her audience, of launching a polemic against mainstream popular music. She has an ability to stand apart from the crowd while not holding herself aloof from it. In private, she can wax critical about a lot of the music that’s going on around her, but her catholicity of taste is real and automatic. I didn’t hear anything cynical or calculated, for example, in the way she talked about collaborating with Beyoncé. When I asked what she liked about Beyoncé, she answered, with a slightly disbelieving look, “This is an album about voices, and she’s got the most amazing voice.”
Although Björk disavowed the classical world at an early age, she never entirely detached from it. She has a strong working knowledge of the twentieth-century repertory, and is happy to discuss the pros and cons of Morton Feldman, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Steve Reich. (“Minimalism is my abyss !” she says, meaning that she does not like it.) She has experimented from time to time with a direct pop-classical fusion : one version of her song “Cover Me” incorporates the dance of the shepherds from Messiaen’s “La Nativité du Seigneur.” Her most daring venture was to sing excerpts from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” at the Verbier Festival, in Switzerland, in 1996. She sallied into high atonal Schoenberg at the invitation of the conductor Kent Nagano. “It was an amazing experience for me,” she recalled. “The songs left so much to the imagination of the singer—you know, they were originally written for a cabaret singer or an untrained singer like me. Kent Nagano wanted to make a recording of it, but I really felt like I would be invading the territory of people who sing this for a lifetime.”
“Medúlla,” the new album, performs a typical Björkian maneuver, moving forward and looking backward at once. “Who Is It” and “The Triumph of a Heart” will reassure those who cherish the big-time sensuality of Björk’s early work. Yet, with contrapuntal layerings of choral parts and tricky harmonies throughout, the record is perhaps Björk’s most “classical” and “composed” to date. The short interludes are not so much songs as studies in vocal texture, in the manner of Meredith Monk. But they are crucial to Björk’s conception of the album, forging the links among its huge array of vocal styles, from Inuit throat-singing to African-American beatboxing, with the “old-woman melodies” of Iceland still at the core. I had the sense that “Medúlla” was the realization of something that Björk had first imagined when she was still very young. “Sometimes after a long time you end up back where you started,” she told me while riding in the van in Brazil.
After a while, the impulse to find a place for Björk in the geography of popular, classical, art, folk, Icelandic, or non-Icelandic music seems fussy. What’s most precious in her work is the glimpse that it affords, in flashing moments, of a future world in which the ideologies, teleologies, style wars, and subdivisions that have so defined music in the past hundred years slip away. Music is restored to its original bliss, free both of the fear of pretension that limits popular music and of the fear of vulgarity that limits classical music. The creative artist once more moves along an unbroken continuum, from folk to art and back again. So far, though, this utopia has only one inhabitant.
In April, Björk went to London to oversee the mixing—the final polishing of the recorded sound—of “Medúlla.” She settled into Olympic Studios, in Barnes, a quiet neighborhood south of the Thames. First, Mark Bell came in to co-produce four of the songs, and he worked his ambient magic on them, processing the voices in ways that sometimes rendered them unrecognizable. The mixing itself was handled by another éminence grise of English electronica, Mark (Spike) Stent, who has worked with Björk since the time of “Post.” The control room overlooked a not very glamorous English back garden. Adjoining the studio was a converted greenhouse, which had warmed to a boil on this sunny day. Björk sat on a swivel chair behind a ten-foot-wide mixing console. Two candles were burning in front of six speakers on top of the board.
The songs had rapidly evolved since I had last heard them, in a studio in downtown Manhattan the previous month. The session with Beyoncé had fallen victim to scheduling problems, but the beatbox crew—Rahzel and Dokaka—had reported for duty and heated up the sound. If the Icelandic choral singers and Tagaq demonstrated the voice’s power to imitate nature, the beatboxers showed its power to imitate technology. A “human beatbox” is a hip-hop performer who mimics beats, turntable scratches, and other electronic effects when the equipment itself isn’t available. Rahzel is considered the heavyweight of the art, and provides much of the album’s bass end. Dokaka, a Japanese-born beatboxer, lets loose rapid-fire noises in the middle range. You could also now hear Mike Patton growling incisively beneath the opening line of “Where Is the Line.” “Yeah, now it’s got some balls,” Björk said when Patton’s voice rumbled in.
“Who Is It” emerged as a trouble spot. Björk’s idea of having the grand, brash anthem emerge from a mist of Icelandic choral harmony wasn’t panning out. On its own, the “long version” of the song was phenomenal, but it sat uncomfortably with the music around it. The minor-key radiance of “Vökuró” was sufficient to anchor the album in the Nordic idea. Instead, “Who Is It” wound down with what sounds like tones of a wheezy old organ : it’s actually a sample of Björk’s voice played on a keyboard. The Afro-Brazilian drummers also fell to the wayside, hopefully to see the light of day on one of Björk’s archival collections, although you can still hear a ghost of their rhythms in the beatboxing on “Mouth’s Cradle.” There was even talk of cutting the track “Desired Constellation,” on the ground that its softly chiming electronic production, by the Frenchman Olivier Alary, was too “Vespertine”-like in mood. “It doesn’t fit into the concept,” Björk said. “But you cannot always be locked into the concept. You have to kick your way out of it sometimes.” The fact that everyone who heard it went into a trance swayed Björk toward including it after all.
On “Mouth’s Cradle,” Björk was unhappy with the recorded quality of the Icelandic singers. “The chorus should be more in the middle of the mix, not in the background,” she told Spike. “More earthy, more scruffy.” She drew three diagrams to illustrate what she wanted. The first one was a box with a line straight across the middle. “This is the convention,” she said. “Voices this much, beats this much. Now here”—she drew a second diagram, with a thin band labelled “Björk” at the bottom—“this is ‘Vespertine,’ where I was whispering, not taking up too much space in the mix. Finally”—she made a box with a broad ellipse in the middle—“this is what we want now. The voices taking the place of guitars, drums, et cetera.” Spike studied the diagram with a baffled look. It was cogent in itself, but he seemed unsure how to convert it into sound. “I’m just a little worried,” she added. “I’m not trying to be negative. The one thing I’m not so crazy about ...”
Recordings were mobilized to illustrate her diagram. Björk mentioned Ariel Ramirez’s “Missa Criolla,” an Andean folk-song setting of the Mass, in which the chorus has a raw, penetrating edge. Mark Bell downloaded the music from the Internet, but in that version the chorus sounded tame. Eventually, someone found the original recording at Björk’s flat. This was played and discussed. Björk brought her iBook laptop into the studio in order to play other music files from her MP3 library. A brainteasing whirlwind tour of modern music followed : a track or two from Meredith Monk’s “Dolmen Music” ; the Hamrahlid Choir singing the doleful Christmas carol “Maríukvæði” ; the venerable avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara and the former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt singing pieces by John Cage. The really dizzying moment came when Björk followed thirty seconds of Justin Timberlake singing “Rock Your Body” with thirty seconds of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.”
“It’s very simple,” Björk said. “A little Justin, a little Karlheinz. But not world music. And not pop, and not
avant-garde, and not classical, and not church music. Don’t you see ? Kind of—” She gave out a little roar,
with her hand held out in a stylized, iconic gesture.
“Slavic ?” Spike asked.
“Exactly,” Björk said. “‘Slavic’ is the word. But wi’ a li’l bit of David Beckham.” David Beckham’s allegedly troubled marriage to Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham was all over the English tabloids at the time, and Björk professed to find the story riveting.
“Right,” Spike said, light dawning in his face. “I think I’m getting the vibe. All these things have a really natural sound in the vocal. A single voice in a natural room, like an old hall or a cathedral.”
“No church !” Björk shouted.
“Right, no church,” Spike said. He turned to one of his assistants and said, “Order me a TC6000.” The TC6000, Valgeir told me, is a reverb device that allowed Spike to add spatial effects to the voices without upsetting the balance.
Björk played the entire exchange for laughs, but, as usual, she was driving at something serious and specific. Afterward, she talked more about her “Slavic” idea. “I use words like ‘pagan’ sometimes,” she said. “But these are things I say just to get something across, not because I have a picture in my head. But there is a feeling. A feeling I carry around in me, and that I really want to put at the center of this album. Kind of like folk music, but without any folk attached." She asked me for a precise definition of the word “iconoclastic.” Remembering lessons from Greek Orthodox Sunday school, I said that it was a radical movement within the Church to end the use of icons, any visual representation of Jesus. Björk looked a little disappointed. “O.K.,” she said. “Someone told me it meant not only smashing icons but also forming new ones to take their place. Making your own icons to replace the old.”
There were a few more major changes in the weeks to come. Björk recorded a velvety song called “Submarine,” with Robert Wyatt, in the North of England. She worked out a piano-vocal version of “Oceania,” the Olympic song, with the young New York-based composer Nico Muhly ; then she decided once again to stick with the concept and use electronically tweaked choral voices. There was some last-minute polishing by Mark Bell. But, for the most part, “Medúlla” was complete, and Björk seemed cautiously elated with her work.
On the last night I was in London, Matthew Barney came to the studio. He sat down with headphones to hear what Björk had done. Isadora, their daughter, played with wooden blocks representing the animals of Noah’s Ark. Mark Bell cranked up music on the speakers, to compete against the sound of a hard spring rain drumming on the roof. Björk began dancing slowly around the room with her child in her arms. “The pleasure is all mine,” the composer sang, “to finally let go.”