Scans : tellthemstories
Gudmundsdottir sits perched on the edge of a wooden armchair in her home recording studio, gazing into the middle distance. The frisky tones of her as-yet-unfinished song "Virus" blast from four speakers behind her, all soaring vocals and shimmering chimes. Usually when a track is playing, she’ll drum on her knees, bop around the room, or stand by the window rhythmically tapping her toes. But right now, on a cloudless New York spring afternoon, Bjork is completely motionless. She’s not thinking about the music.
Her mind is focused on her to-do list, which she has scrawled in green ink and pencil across a whitewashed wall to her left. Thirty-five cryptically worded points - the last reads "Synopsis apps" -mask her new album Biophilia’s grand intentions : to define humanity’s relationship with sound and the universe ; to pioneer a musical format that will smash industry conventions ; and to make good on an ambition that, at the age of 45, she has harboured for more than three decades.
When Bjork was ten, she would argue with the director of what was then the Barnamusikskoli Music School, in Reykjavik, Iceland, where she studied part time. Not short of chutzpah and frustrated by the institution’s classical approach- "all this retro, constant Beethoven and Bach bollocks", as she later described it- Björk often sat in the director’s office lecturing him on how he should run the school. More playing and writing, less history and theory ; more emphasis on developing a personal style, less on training for a symphony orchestra. The school’s director appeared to enjoy their discussions, often calling Bjork out of lessons for a debate, but he stood firm. So she resolved one day to set up her own school, which would champion the expressive, intuitive aspects of music over the historical and academic. Bjork left Barnamusikskoli in 1980 and became sidetracked by stardom : first with the critically lauded post-punk band the Sugarcubes and soon after with a solo career, heralded in 1993 by Debut, an album that went platinum in the US and established her as a global celebrity. She has sold more than 20 million copies of her six studio albums, which have spawned three UK Top Ten singles. And she has won a slew of accolades including four Brit awards, Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize, and a best actress gong from Cannes for her performance as Selma in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. She never built her school – but she didn’t forget about it, either.
Today, the wide, tree-lined street in New York’s Brooklyn Heights that Björk calls home is a hubbub of television cast and crew filming the ABC drama Georgetown. Her 280-square-metre penthouse apartment lies atop a muscular 20s redbrick block on the corner, high above the bustle. "You kind of feel like it’s a country house," Björk says. She is wearing a cadet-grey dress with shiny mauve patches on the shoulder and waist. When the sunlight from the studio windows hits them, they sparkle. The room is airy, with tables for her kit, which includes a keyboard, speakers, computer and a mix of percussion and electronic music controlpads. Björk has spent much time here over the last 36 months working on Biophilia, trying not to feel daunted by the album’s scope.
There was a musicological ambition : she wanted each of the album’s ten songs to emphasise one key idea, such as counterpoint, arpeggios or tempo. And there’s intellectual purpose : each song’s lyrics dwell on a scientific theme that attempts to match its musical concern. In "Crystalline" Björk invokes crystals as a symbol of the track’s structural complexity ; "Virus" is so called because of its multiplying phrases. "I hope to show kids that if you base musicology more on structures in nature it’s actually not that complicated," she says. Although "a bit of a maths nerd" when she was younger, for this album she knew that she would have to learn more about the sciences if she was to unite them convincingly with music.
She worked to self-imposed deadlines, reading books and watching documentaries on everything from astrophysics to cultural theory, focusing on areas where science and sound intersect. One major influence was Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia, an exploration of the relationship between music and neurology, to which the album’s title is a nod. Björk undertook more research for this project than for any of her previous albums. One day she found herself explaining string theory to friends in a bar. "It was actually in a pretty cool way," she says, grinning. "Like I was really good at physics or something."
For all their chewy themes, Björk felt the songs couldn’t stand on their own. "People are getting a lot of music for free by pirating it," she says. "But they are going to double [the amount of] shows because they want a 3D, physical experience." Her instinct, at first, was to provide that experience through a music house, "like a museum". Each room would be designated a different song, and contain interactive exhibits related to the track. The stairs would be working piano keys. In June 2009 she spoke to National Geographic about another way she could add to the album : working together on a 40-minute 3D IMAX movie of Biophilia. She approached her longtime collaborator, French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who agreed to direct. Björk hoped this film and the music house would not only generate revenue, but also educate- finally realising the vision she had described to her teacher, all those years ago. "This project," she says, "is also my music-school project."
But, Bjork says, the movie "was like pushing three elephants uphill" conceptually. The difficulty was that the film was based around her appearing in it. "I kept saying : ’Really sorry, Michel, it cannot be human scale, this is about sound."’ Gondry also became tied up for longer than expected directing his film adaptation of the comicbook The Green Hornet. "You know that Hollywood thing where they kill the life out of things ? They show the movie and count how many people laugh at the 17th minute, and the director has to change that or reshoot something." Björk put the film on hold. Meanwhile, a viable alternative was fast becoming apparent. "We were always thinking about the iPad, iPad, iPad."
She had been tracking rumours about Apple’s tablet device since 2008, becoming convinced of its potential to liberate her writing. She composes outdoors by singing to herself, which has its limitations. "All my songs end up being 83BPM, which is the speed I walk. People I’ve worked with have made fun of me because of it," she says. "I felt stuck, I was writing most of my songs in four/four -verse, chorus, verse, chorus. It’s so I can avoid doing a maths riddle and singing ; for me those worlds are separate." But a portable touchscreen device with the right software could make it possible to compose intricate pieces without sacrificing impulse.
Björk commissioned a suite of music programs for her Lemurs - the touchscreen controllers she used to perform live remixes of tracks during the 2007-08 tour of her previous album, Volta. The experience impressed her. "I can just do this beat here," she says, sliding a blue teacup around in circles on the little table in front of her to demonstrate. "The algorithm of that is really complicated, but waves and curves - these kinds of shapes are natural for us." As soon as the iPad launched in April last year, she bought one, converted her music software for the format and eventually used it to part-record Biophilia. She also began sifting through Apple’s App Store, exploring apps such as Soundrop, a tool that uses lines drawn on the screen to generate music. That June, she had an epiphany. "We were trying to make the film behave like an app, but it wasn’t," she says. "I also kept thinking about the music house - that’s how I wrote these songs. But the house is, like, rooms- like the apps."
She reasoned that, through apps, her audience would have the same interactive and educational experience with the songs that they would have experienced with the house and film. And, like those projects, apps would offer premium, non-piratable value. Björk told Derek Birkett, founder of One Little Indian, the label to which she has been signed since 1987, of her idea. The next day she received an email from Birkett, announcing that he had contacted a selection of the best app developers in the world. "I was just like : ’What ?"’ she recalls. "I wouldn’t just call somebody out of the blue. I’m probably a bit shy. Sometimes that’s really scary when he does something like that, but sometimes I’m really grateful." One recipient of Birkett’s email was element hunter Max Whitby. He makes displays of the periodic table’s constituent parts - all of them. Even the radioactive, quick-to evaporate or highly toxic ones (his bromine samples have to be secured in thick, clear acrylic cubes). Nine years ago he met the American mathematician and writer Theadore Gray, who coincidentally had undertaken a similar task. "We were competing over the same lumps of uranium ore on eBay, in the good old days when it was an interesting place to shop," says Whitby, driving to the west-London headquarters of his software development company Touch Press.
In 2003 Whit by and Gray partnered to make collections for others- from periodic coffee tables to elaborate cabinets - that sell for between £4,500 and £155,000. Last year later they released a photography volume, The Elements : A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. When they learned about the iPad in January last year, they immediately set about turning the book into an app featuring 360° images and deep-level zooms. Suddenly, the building blocks of existence could come to life, in all their variously textured, chromatically complex glory. Apple put The Elements on the App Store for its April 2010 launch and the program, the first of Touch Press’s creations, went on to sell more than 200,000 copies at £7.99 each. The weekend after Birkett sent the email, Whitby and Gray flew to Iceland for a two day-meeting at Bjork’s oceanview house in Reykjavik. There, she played rough versions of Biophilia material and discussed how she wanted to enrich the album technologically. The plan : each track would also have an individual app for iPad and iPhone. In one mode, the music would play straight through accompanied by visuals. But in another, the user would interact with the song in a way that would teach them about its musicological theme - by changing tempo, say, or rearranging the notes. Sometimes these functions would run so deep as to turn an app into a thoroughgoing instrument. Bjork was describing a new musical format : the app album. Whit by and Gray opted to build programs for two tracks, "Hollow" (about lineage and DNA) and "Crystalline" (claustrophobia and inner strength). For the former, they suggested that Bjork got in touch with biomedical animator Drew Berry. For the latter, they introduced her to Wolfram Alpha executive director Luc Barthelet, who led product development on the Sims series, to help turn "Crystalline" into something akin to a game.
By the time of the next developers’ meeting - a three-day affair in October 2010 at a lake side guesthouse in Reykjavik – ideas were more advanced. Whitby, Gray, Berry and Barthelet were there, alongside other tech luminaries with whom Bjork had begun working closely, including Max Weisel, the brain behind the Soundrop app ; Scott Snibbe, whose drawing tools such as Gravilux have collectively sold more than 270,000 copies ; and Sarah Flannery, formerly of EA games. "I remember the meetings with fondness," reflects Whitby. "Something magical can happen when a group of talented people who haven’t known each other before are put together."
Team members were assigned apps and spent the next two days discussing and refining their concepts. They also established that the apps would all be bought and accessed within a master app- the "app box". It would display a series of constellations, each representing a different track. As users move around these star clusters, choosing which app to open, the song "Cosmogony" would play. Far from behaving as business rivals, the developers got on amously. One day, they had a meeting in a hot tub.
In January 2011 the developers decided that they would front the app expenses but you have to have a proportion of dangerous projects as well as safe ones." The apps don’t just allow the user to rearrange the music ; they also provide alternative, accessible ways of writing and playing it. Each will include an animated score, visualised in a creative fashion- perhaps as dots whose relative heights indicate pitch. And a digital music book of Bjork material, out later this year, will make Biophilia’s tracks, and others, available as MIDI information that users can play through their own sound sources. "These apps give you a chance to get into the mind of the composer," says Whit by. "We’re taking some of the flexibility and experience of interacting with the music th at happens in music production, and putting that into an app."
Mid-afternoon sunlight floods Björk’s studio. She has just played her song "Moon" and is now showing off its app : a sequencer based on adjusting the phases of miniature moons. As she sits with her iPad, nothing save a fading star-shaped tattoo behind her right ear betrays her rebellious roots. But she retains her anarcho-punk values, and says that she can square them with working alongside Apple. "A lot of my friends are very anti-Apple and think it’s the evil empire, and all these kinds of things," she says. "But my take on it is that it’s always been really pro-creativity. It’s kind of like English or something – a lot of Icelandic people like my grandparents didn’t know English because it was like putting pollution in your mouth. But some things you just have to overcome - are you going to communicate or are you not going to communicate ?" Last October, Bjork arranged a meeting with Apple at its Cupertino headquarters before work started in earnest on the Biophilia software. "I showed Apple my project and they said that it was something they were really excited about right now - where apps are not just a superficial layer on top of a song." She particularly wanted to ensure that the company would promote Biophilia, given the project’s high costs, and that it would find the right place within the iTunes Store itself. "Basically nobody’s ever done this before, where you have both an app [in the App Store] and a song in iTunes at the same time, and their app department is competitive with their iTunes music department. We were asking them to work together and they were, like : ’No they don’t do that’."
Through two 14-hour days, however, a solution had been proposed : a "super room" page, from which both MP3 and app versions of the album could be bought. Bjork hadn’t been present at industry meetings since she was in the Sugarcubes - Birkett usually speaks for her. "This is the first time ever - I learned this new word - I had to ’pitch’. I wanted the music-makers to have a representative because nobody’s done this before," she says. "Every time you get a new format the business people are so quick, and the artists are a bit naive- they’re Dionysian creatures. If I don’t defend the artistic side, no one will." One of her concerns was that Apple might try to make it look like it had sponsored Biophilia, thereby jeopardising its authenticity, or put a tight schedule on release dates for the apps – an aspect of the music industry that she finds frustrating. "The most exciting thing for a musician is not to have that sort of long- term plan. The model of the record companies is really [like] a dinosaur. You hand over an album and it takes them six months to make a press release, synchronise the CD factories all over the world, and translate the covers," Bjork says. She sticks out her tongue in frustration.
She initially wanted the MP3 files to come out after the apps, but says she is now more flexible after Apple pointed out that, "if John Brown wanted to buy the new Bjork song and doesn’t have an iPad, he can’t, which is a bit elitist." Not all the app release dates are fixed, but she released the "app box", containing Cosmogony and Crystalline, on June 30. More will be released periodically over the coming months. The app model is one she hopes to use long-term. "I have a feeling that for many years I won’t have to tear things up by the roots again. I can [release] songs in my own time and I have an iPad app I can write from," she says. For now, apps will also replace her music videos - she isn’t making any for Biophilia- and in the future she may stop producing physical CDs, to free herself from the production deadlines they involve.
A potential stumbling block for this album was that there are no agreed publishing rates for music in apps, but Björk was able to avoid lengthy negotiations as her record-company contracts expired in 2008. Universal and Warner Music have agreed to distribute and promote Biophilia but Bjork is releasing the apps independently, which entails a risk for the companies should the apps cannibalise music sales. She will continue to work with record companies, "but it will be a different kind of relationship".
It’s fitting that Bjork’s first app album uses technology to address natural themes. Bjork has previous form in bringing together these potentially disparate categories - she speculates that, as a child of divorced parents, she’s predisposed to look for unity in things -but this time it’s writ large. "I’m not Christian, so this album is sort of how I see myself in the universe, and humankind," she says. "I’m embarrassed all the time how big-headed it is." Her expression ofthe album’s ideas (nature, science, technology and music), and her drive to teach others about them, extends also into the new instruments on which she has recorded it.
When Andy Cavatorta falls asleep, he dreams about programming. It’s not very useful -he finds it hard to remember the solutions he comes up with- but it’s better than grinding his teeth, which was how he first responded to a project that keeps him working late in a dusty workroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s building four gravity harps : three-metre-long pendulums with a cylindrical harp on the end. As they swing back and forth, each set of strings rotates, presenting specific notes to the pluckers. Bjork ordered these huge instruments from Cavatorta, 42, having met him last spring while he was finishing his post-graduate work on musical robots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab. She wants to use the gravity harps to play the counterpoint bassline of the track "Solstice", controlled from an iPad. Because the track is about the movement of the planets, and therefore physics, she thought the instruments would be apt.
Initially she commissioned 38 gravity harps, each built to play one note. Cavatorta started work on them last year, but in April Bjork, apologising, said she now wanted fewer. Each harp would have to be able to play any one of the required 11 notes, so Cavatorta sketched up the new cylindrical design and Bjork approved. The set-up would normally take 12 weeks to make ; he had just five. Timing was tight, but the instrument was built to deadline. The gravity harps’ live debut was scheduled for June 30, where Bjork kicked off a three-week Biophilia residency at the Manchester International Festival. The set will then travel around the world by sea for the album’s nine-city tour, spanning three years. Other instruments are being produced elsewhere- a pin-barrel harp is taking shape in Kent, for example, and Bjork has also modified a wooden pipe organ so she can play it with a PlayStation controller. She has also developed a MIDI-controlled celeste-gamelan hybrid. Bjork will also give music lessons to groups of children, using the instruments and her iPad apps – the closest she will have ever come to running a real-life school, so at least in some part, she will fulfil that ambition.
Manchester will offer an 1,800-capacity venue, at which she will perform three nights a week. Bjork thinks that turning a profit on the performances will be a long shot. "We’re lucky if we’re, like, on zero," she says. "But in spirit I would love schoolkids to learn about musicology through this - so in a way I’m thinking of this project as a little bit populist. But I don’t know if that dream comes true." All she can do is get everything polished before Manchester hits and the first apps drop. She’s just remembered that she needs to update the lyrics in "Crystalline"- she wants a line to read : "It’s the sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety." She gets up and walks over to the wall. "Write it on the list, right ?"