Björk’s forthcoming Biophilia is an album. It’s also an iPad app suite featuring interactive programs for each of its 10 songs... and a treatise on the natural world that involves everything from immense planets to tiny atoms... and a traveling exhibition that showcases one-of-a-kind instruments including a 10-foot bass-playing pendulum... and it’s also an educational tool that aims to offer a modern take on music education, replacing notation and by-the-book theory with instinct and creativity. Biophilia— due out later this year on One Little Indian/Nonesuch— is many things.
While many are questioning the commercial and artistic validity of albums— or even music itself— in the age of the cloud, Björk is using the wild west environment to her advantage while suggesting a different way forward. The most ambitious aspect of Biophilia is its app suite— 10 separate applications created by programmers including Theo Gray (The Elements : The Visual Exploration), high-school student Max Weisel (Soundrop), and medical animators— that add multiple dimensions to each song.
Every app features an interactive game where users can manipulate the song in different ways while playing. For example, the game for "Virus" shows viruses attacking healthy cells, with the diseased microbes also corresponding with a sound made by a specially converted celeste/gamelan hybrid. And the app for new single "Crystalline" has the user building their own song structure as they tap through multi-colored tunnels.
The apps also feature two types of animated musical notation : one that translates notes on a standard staff and another that’s more like a tricked-out iTunes visualization, with certain shapes and colors representing different instruments and tones. This part of the app corresponds with Björk’s desire to demystify traditional musicology and "to show children that musicology is spatial, physical" and to "reconnect musical education through technology with forms in nature," according to a brief the singer sent to the apps’ developers last summer.
The Biophilia live show is set to be more than what we’ve come to expect from a concert, too. Instead of stopping in for one gig in one city before quickly moving to the next, Björk is planning six-week residencies at nontraditional venues in eight cities over the next three years, starting with a stay at the Manchester International Festival this week. Along with curated exhibitions featuring instrument and app demonstrations, the residencies will have Björk playing Biophilia twice a week, utilizing bespoke instruments— including harps with 10" swinging legs and a programmable celeste— to visually and sonically interpret the songs.
Like many of her previous projects, Biophilia is forward-thinking, earnest, and admirably idyllic. To most of us, albums, concerts, and even musical theory are unchangeable entities. But for Björk, they’re just concepts that are ripe for re-examination.
We met with Björk in her publicist’s Manhattan office on a rainy day in late May. She wore a thematically appropriate technicolor-cosmos top, and a snatch of purple hair streaked across her head. She sat down, emptied a packet of green tea powder into some hot water, and spoke excitedly about the origins and goals of her bold new endeavor.
Pitchfork : I don’t think anyone’s done a multimedia project quite like this before— especially with a unique app for each song— was there a eureka moment when you knew this was the direction you wanted to take ?
Björk : It was never meant to be this huge project, it just grew. On the Volta tour, I got really carried away with these two touch-screen instruments called Lemur and Reactable. Usually I can’t write when I’m on tour, but just looking at these instruments for a year and half, I was like, "Wow, I’d love to write with them." But I didn’t want it to be some surface-y kind of interactive thing— I wanted it to go to the core and write a music program so that we could make songs with them.
So the engineer I work with, Damian Taylor, learned how to write these programs, and then we went to Puerto Rico for several months and basically built the instruments out of sticks and elastic and gaff tape. I basically wrote all the songs on touch screens. I wanted the music and themes of each song to correspond, so the arpeggio in the lightning song, for instance, is in the shape of lightning, and the musicology of the crystal song looks like a crystal.
At first, I thought the project was going to be a house in Iceland where each room was like a song. I was quite excited about the idea because it meant not having to tour as much. I would just be there and people would come to me. It’s sort of a spoiled way of thinking, like, "I’ve done it the other way for so long, now it’s your turn."
Then National Geographic contacted me about getting on their label, which was exciting because, at that point, I was off all of my contracts. I was sort of in the same position that Radiohead was a few years ago. So I was like, "Wow, I want to be label mates with the sharks and lemurs !" We talked about it and I was hanging out in their head offices in Washington, D.C., a lot. The contract thing didn’t happen in the end, but they actually asked me to be a music explorer in residence.
But they said, "We do a lot of 3D movies— maybe this house could become a movie." So I started talking to Michel Gondry and we started writing a script for a 3D movie. I felt a little bit out of my element because suddenly there were like four billion meetings and budgets and everything. I’ve never done that before in my life, and it was suffocating.
After we wrote all the songs we started writing the script. But Michel got forced to go back to edit The Green Hornet for seven months— it was somewhat of a Barton Fink situation. So he couldn’t do our movie anymore. [Note : Gondry is still set to direct the video for "Crystalline".] But at the same time, the iPad came out. And we just got so excited about the first apps for it and thought, "This is exactly what we’ve been doing for two years— maybe the natural home for this project is not a film or a house, but this."
And then my manager said, "Why don’t we just talk to all your favorite app makers ?" And they were all up for it. Last summer, I sent them a really long description of the project song by song. Then they all came to Iceland in October and we were all brainstorming for a few days in this favorite restaurant of mine. They would share advice— Apple was really impressed that we got them to all work on the same project because they’re competitors.
Pitchfork : Did you just pick the developers based on apps you use yourself ?
B : Yeah. Soundrop by Max Weisel was the best one because it really is a musical instrument. It wasn’t just superficial. Max is this 18-year-old prodigy from Arizona. It was really interesting to see these different characters in one room and, since I was off a record contract, I really had no budget. So they were like, "OK, let’s do this for nothing and if there’s profit we share it." We didn’t even think of asking that. They just offered.
Pitchfork : It seems like you’re always looking for new ways of conceptualizing and making music.
B : Yeah, since I was a kid I always wanted to figure out how to make a bass line that was a pendulum— like gravity would control it and then you could make it play different notes.
I went to music school and I guess I was a difficult, know-it-all type of student. But the director of the school— a tipsy guy— would call me out of class and up to his office, and I would just tell him how to run the school. I was probably around 10 years old. I was always complaining that music education was too academic. I didn’t understand this German musicology and classical music. I mean, it’s fantastic that it has obviously done a lot of excellent things. But for a kid in Iceland who doesn’t really have that much of Western civilization, it’s like, "Why should I learn that ?"
Later, when I learned more about history, it became more evident how it is all based on Christian values, like how there are a lot of squares across C, G, and F chords— I’m not saying it’s bad, but I wanted the musicology to be more based on nature. It’s like how kids are told, "If you train many hours a day for 10 years, you might get VIP access to this elite world." But not everybody wants to be a performer in a symphony orchestra, and kids are not encouraged to write songs and find their own style. That age is perfect for making things because you don’t have inhibitions ; if you start developing your own musical language at 10, imagine how great it would be 20 years later.
So, with the songs for this project, I try to address scales, chords, rhythm, different time signatures. A lot of things that are meant to be 3D are going through a revolution with touch screens right now, including music teaching— it’s perfect for all the algorithms.
In each city that we visit for this tour, we are going to have classes for kids where they can try out the instruments and the iPad and write songs and take them home. And they’ll be teachers showing them the basics of musicology and showing them how, for instance, the viruses on the "Virus" app move in similar ways as the music.
Pitchfork : Have you actively avoided learning about traditional ways of reading and writing music throughout your career ?
B : Well, I’ve written arrangements for choirs and strings in the past, but I usually do it with my voice or a keyboard and then I’ll get someone who is good at writing scores to write it out. Or, if I have the luxury of time, I will go in a room and hear the people perform and then change it through what I hear, not on paper. I can read music OK, but you’re right, I probably rebelled a little— music changes into something else when you read it.
For example, I am probably most puritan in that sense with my melodies— I never want to know the range of my voice. It has to be impulsive, and I don’t want to kill the mystery. But, with arrangements, I am less puritan. Especially after Pro Tools, it’s really liberating for someone like me who doesn’t play any instruments ; I can record a lot of stuff and edit it and do a big needlepoint piece of work. It’s maybe similar to someone who wrote music 300 years ago, sitting at home and noodling. The good thing about Pro Tools is you can actually hear what you’re working on, so it doesn’t just become this intellectual idea. But Pro Tools can be dangerous too. It can make things sterile. But that’s with anything in life, you have to keep a balance.
Pitchfork : Along with the high-tech apps, you also created a few physical instruments that can be played in the real world at shows. Was it important to have that tangible aspect to this project ?
B : Yeah, it had to. If you’re going to base a percussion pattern on gravity, you just write in that formula, and maybe a human couldn’t play that. But there’s definitely good things about humans playing instruments. With my projects, I really like the extreme high-tech stuff, but I also like the other end, the acoustic things. So it seems like those meet on an iPad, where you make shapes but the sounds coming out of it are really acoustic. The first beats that we tried for this project were too electronic and isolated, so we ended up having humans playing the beats.
Pitchfork : The Volta tour and album were pretty maximalist undertakings. Did that make you want to do something smaller musically with this album ?
B : When I did Volta, I was very much like, "OK, this is the last time I do something this hooligan." And, especially with that tour being a year and a half, I was looking forward to more sensual and intimate things. Volta was sort of a bit of an anthropology album— feminist, activist, "Free Tibet," 10 brass girls with flags. This goes further into the nature idea, but it’s without the humans.
Pitchfork : People often think of arts and sciences as polar opposites, but it sounds like you’re trying to combat that idea with Biophilia, which merges the two.
B : Yeah, for sure. I definitely have some urge to unite. When I was 18, science, physics, and math were my favorite. I was a bit of a nerd— the only girl with a lot of boys at chess championships. It is common with music people because the algorithms are similar. But, to be honest, I couldn’t solve one math equation right now.
Also, just where Iceland is right now with the economic crisis, we didn’t become industrialized. So we could still make that jump into the 21st century, move to high-tech, green, solar-powered energy. I truly believe that handshake can happen. I don’t think it’s just a utopian dream ; it’s not only possible but it’s something we have to do, or we self-destruct. It’s fun to look at it as an exciting thing.
And it’s just exciting to make instruments, too. I was actually looking at the pendulum this morning and I was like, "Wow, we have to make it solar-powered." But not in a hippie, pretentious way ; I just feel like making things solar-powered and wind-powered should be as easy as using an iPad.