Wall Street Journal

Bells, Whistles, Chimes and Charm

Björk’s new album, "Biophilia" (One Little Indian), is referred to as the "app album" because of its associated multimedia components for the iPad. Download the 10-app Biophilia App Suite and you become a participant in the singer’s new work. You can soar across the solar system while experiencing the music, tap the screen and change the song, or enjoy related essays, among other activities. David Attenborough provides narration.

But without these other components—after all, there might still be a few people out there without an iPad—can we still savor the music of "Biophilia" ?

The answer is a qualified yes. For one, it’s by Björk, one of the most fascinating musicians of our time. It continues her exploration into new ways of making rock and pop. And it has the intelligence and charm of many of her previous works. While it may fall short of her 2001 album, "Vespertine," her best thus far, it is in line with more recent recordings like "Medúlla," her 2004 voices-only disc, and "Volta," her 2007 release that married electronica and brass.

"Biophilia" is built in large part on instruments Björk and her team invented, including a bronze keyboard that’s a cross between a celesta and a gamelan, a digital pipe organ, a Tesla coil that replicates rumbling bass, and a series of 30-foot-tall sound-producing pendulums. It’s likely she could have produced most of the same tones on synthesizers, but for Björk, the journey into what’s possible is the wellspring of inspiration. Here, she intends to interpret the sounds of natural phenomena.

The answer is a qualified yes. For one, it’s by Björk, one of the most fascinating musicians of our time. It continues her exploration into new ways of making rock and pop. And it has the intelligence and charm of many of her previous works. While it may fall short of her 2001 album, "Vespertine," her best thus far, it is in line with more recent recordings like "Medúlla," her 2004 voices-only disc, and "Volta," her 2007 release that married electronica and brass.

"Biophilia" is built in large part on instruments Björk and her team invented, including a bronze keyboard that’s a cross between a celesta and a gamelan, a digital pipe organ, a Tesla coil that replicates rumbling bass, and a series of 30-foot-tall sound-producing pendulums. It’s likely she could have produced most of the same tones on synthesizers, but for Björk, the journey into what’s possible is the wellspring of inspiration. Here, she intends to interpret the sounds of natural phenomena.

At times, the music is a bit too precious and the songs are anchored, rather than liberated, by the experimental arrangements. I’ve long felt Björk’s prowess as a composer was undermined by the heady backdrops she employs. One app proves this point by stripping down the "Biophilia" songs to piano-only instrumentals, letting us hear what jazz musicians like Dave Douglas, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Greg Osby and others who have covered her compositions know well : Björk writes intriguing tunes.

As she pointed out during a meeting this summer in the Meatpacking District here, Björk, who is now 45, had been crafting "Biophilia" for two years before the iPad was released.

"It was only last year that we met with the app people," she said. "We were focused on synchronizing. I didn’t want the apps to take over the music. The connection between the app and the songs is more important than the app. It can be an amazing app, but if it doesn’t have anything to do with the song, no."

Chiming instruments create an underpinning sensation of childlike curiosity for some of the songs. On "Crystalline," her voice floats above gongs, bells and electronic beats before an explosion of percussion. Subtle electronic beats and a harp played by Zeena Parkins are the foundation for "Moon," while in "Hollow" overdubbed voices and a pipe organ provide the accompaniment. A chorus of voices and a brass section seem to announce liftoff to a journey on the lovely "Cosmogony," in which Björk considers the formation of the universe.

"Mutual Core" is one of the more earthbound "Biophilia" compositions. It was inspired by a family decision : Björk and her partner, the artist Matthew Barney, split their time between New York and her native Iceland, and had to decide where their daughter, Ísadóra, would go to school. "For me, the emotional is not this thing that lives in this corner over there and the reality is over there," Björk said. "Mutual love is the most personal to me." Ultimately they decided Ísadóra would attend schools in both countries.

Björk and her team built a touch screen that allowed her to capture her musical ideas—though she knows musical notation, she prefers not to use it. It’s a technology, she soon realized, that allows others to write music as well. Earlier this year, during a residency at the Manchester International Festival in the U.K., she and her colleagues conducted workshops for children using iPads that allowed them to experiment with facsimiles of musical instruments. The children left the workshop with a song they’d written stored in a USB flash drive. When we spoke, Björk said she was seeking to launch a similar project in the U.S.

"It was about building bridges," she said, not only of the workshop but the process that resulted in "Biophilia." "Between classical song structure and MIDI information, between cutting-edge technology and the acoustic world. It’s idiosyncratic, but it’s music you can experience. You can mold it. You can play it with your fingers."

JIM FUSILLI

publié dans Wall Street Journal - 12.10.2011

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