Dazed Björk shows you the future

Dazed & Confused n°200, 4 juillet 2011

The 200th issue of Dazed & Confused is on sale this Thursday 7 July, and the magazine celebrates this publishing milestone by inviting Björk to guest-edit the entire issue and "show us the future". Dazed editor Rod Stanley meets her at her home in New York to find out all about her remarkable new album and "app suite" Biophilia, currently making its performance debut in Manchester. Also in the issue, she presents many of the scientists, designers, programmers, musicologists and artists that inspired and created the project. The cover is exclusively revealed here, from the stunning shoot by artist Sam Falls, and styled by Katy England. Accelerate !
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Björk Selects Graduale Nobili

Reykjavik’s All-Female Choir Receive A Surprise Invite

"The choir arrangements I had done for Biophilia were different to the ones I had done before : Only female voices and a lot of detailed cluster chords . My friend Arni heimer recommended this choir to me. We did four rehearsals before the recording. It was incredibly satisfying to work with the girls and the conductor Jón."

When the 24 members of the icelandic all-female choir, Graduale Nobili, took part in a competition in Wales last year, chances they weren’t expecting what followed. Their conductor, Jón Stefánsonn, received a call from Björk asking if they’d like to contribute to Biophilia. Flabbergasted and excited in equal measure, they agreed.

Formed in Reykjavik in 2000, the majority of Graduale Nobili’s members have been singing since they were kidd, with the age range for the current line-up between 18 and 28. With weekly rehearsals, annual summer concerts and the odd international competition, they’re used to tackling some of the hardest classical pieces. Nothing , however, prepared them for what björk had in store.

Still rehearsing for the Biophilia shows in manchester (and a possible World Tour), two of the Graduale Nobili’s members Ásta Aegisdottir and Gudrún Sigurbergdsdóttir found time for a quick chat. Both remember how gobsmacked they were when they were told about the project. "I mean she’s one of Iceland’s biggest stars. I love her music so it was very exciting to be a part of her work." says Ásta. For Gudrún, there was already a family connection to Björk and her music. "My aunt was in the band that played on her last album [2007’s Volta] so I’ve heard a lot about how she works and it’s awesome.

The choir appear on nine of Biophilia’s tracks. Their route into most of the songs was via recordings Björk made of her own vocals, digitally chopped and layered with auto tune software to create what Ásta refers to as "chaos". More used to reading music from a score, these songs specifically "Cosmogony" relied on their ability to work on instinct. " You have to listen to the song more than read the notes because the rhythm changes." She says. Gudrún agrees, confessing that it was the most demanding thing they’d ever done. "This was more like "listen and learn" than "read and learn". It was the most challenging, but also the more fun.

With some members already singing in choirs since they were six, usually in the same church and around the same close-knit group of people (Gudrún claims they’re more like sisters now), Graduale Nobili are completely in tune with one another. The Biophilia Project tested their ability to work in different ways and to trust their instincts. So, would they want to work with any other globally famous pop stars ? "We would take Beyoncé, I think", laughs Gudrún.

Text : Michael Cragg.

Björk Selects 16Bit

Organ Karaoke Parties With Dubstep’s Dynamic Duo

"My friend Chris Cunningham played me these guys’ music on one drunken night. I feel they have gracefully gathered together the best of UK electronic beats and then added their own. It is interesting for me to work with the next generation that way. The layer of time seems to simplify things and unify the genres. At the end of the day, beats are either good or bad. 16bit are the former."

"When we were opening for Chris Cunningham, he had a go at the stage manager and just told her to fucking turn it up ! That was pretty funny," cackles Jason Morrison with an infectious, hyperkinetic energy that rattles through the monster dubstep tunes he bangs out as one half of mischievous production duo 16bit.

Signed to the dons of UK wobble, Chase & Status ’s MTA Records, and known for dominating the clubs with their brutal , pure bass drops (check out ’"Chainsaw Calligraphy"). 25-year-old Morisson, alongside his 26-year-old musical sparring partner Eddie Jefferys, .might be some of the more surprising· collaborators on Björk’s multimedia epic. But their music has always been tweaked with avant-garde influences and they’ve been known to pull ambient, dub and even beatless musical inspiration into their DJ sets. "Chris Cunningham was the one that introduced Björk to our music. He’s been listening to our stuff for years," Jefferys explains. « We wouldn’t really consider ourselves just dubstep artists, and although some listeners might not have picked up onthe experimental influences, other artists have. And it gives us a freer range to work with more varied musicians. »

Hailing from Hanwell, the sunny side of Ealing in west London, 16bit started working with Björk eight months ago, creating three experimental electronic tracks as an ongoing collaboration. « She freeforms vocals and just sent us a new tune a couple of days ago. She gave us total free reign, so we had fun with it. », says Morrison, who starts laughing at the thought of their recent Stateside rendezvous. « We flew out to her studio in New York, went for dinner at her house, and had an organ karaoke party which was mad. I was pretty wasted so i can’t remember most of it, but I know it was fun."

"If there was anyone that we wanted to produce for, it’s Björk." adds Jefferys, who is hoping the icelandic visionary will repay the favour and feature on their upcoming album slated for a 2012 release. "Out of respect for her ear for finding new artists, and that is the most crazy project we’ve ever worked on. We’re going to be exposed to a lot of new people and anything that comes from that is just a bonus."

Text : Terence Teh

Björk Selects Henry Dagg

Inventor Of The Weird And Wonderful Sharpsichord

"Matthew Herbert sent me a YouTube link of this gentleman. The whole
theme of Biophilia was to make our own MIDI instruments that would be run by touch screens filled with organic shapes from nature. The sharpsichord became the
exception that won me over. Henry put so much work and detail into this
complicated instrument. I was thrilled when he allowed me to run one of
the songs through it."

Dublin-born musician and sound sculptor Henry Dagg is the inventor of the "sharpsichord" - a rotating mechanical instrument comparable
to a giant music box that makes an appearance on Björk’s forthcoming album, Biophilia. He first began making his own electronic instruments as a youth, before graduating to a career as sound engineer at the BBC in an attempt to engender himself in the organisation’s Radiophonic Workshop. In the late 1980s, Dagg quit the BBC to pursue a career as. musician and moved to England. Dazed spoke to him about his most recent and notable project.

DAZED & CONFUSED : Wben did you first arrive at the idea for the sharpsichord ?

HENRY DAGG : In 2006 I was commissioned to create a sound sculpture for the English Folk Dance & Song Society’s gardens, and I designed the pin-barrel harp in honour of the society’s founder Cecil Sharp - hence the name ’sharpsichord’. During his
later days, Sharp made early recordings of folk music using a cylinder phonograph.and the design of the instrument is a sculptural tribute to the recording instrument that Sharp used, inasmuch as the sharpsichord records on a cylinder, too.

How did Björk first approach you to work on Biophilia ?

That’s a wonderful story. News of the instrument had spread via artist friends of mine. Then one day I received an email from Björk, asking if she could write a song on it. Things were slow to start with as she was unaware of the instrument’s limitations - its ’memory limit’. When the cylinder has rotated once, that is your ’memory’ - there isn’t any more and it begins to play from the beginning again. Originally, Björk
had written a song that transcribed into six separate cylinders-worth. When she explained that s he did not have much time to compress the song herself, I helped work on a compromise by playing live parts on its keyboard, which she was very happy with.

Rave you always been interested in music and engineering ?
Yes. From the mid-70s to 1989 I worked as a sound engineer for BBC Belfast. I wanted to join the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose music - such as the Dr Who theme - I had been obsessed with since childhood. It was at that age that I also began playing around with tape manipulation. The driving force behind the project was really to produce a mechanical ’memory’ that was also reprogrammable, which is what sets the sharpsichord apart. Once you look at the jump between my career as a sound engineer to a sound sculptor, it begins to make sense.

Violently Appy

The 21st century is going to be fun. To say this is not the Received view in 2011 would be an understatement - if it’s Not political turmoil or global economic meltdown, take your pick from climate apocalypse, Mayan prophesies of Doom , cancer in your toast or any other number of emergent threats to happiness, sanity and stability. Icelandic pop Maverick Björk is refusing to be cowed by the weight of
expectations we face in this unfolding century, however. The future might not be the shiny utopia of self-lacing Moonboots and flying cars we were once promised, but she is of the mind that evolving technology is about to reunite Humanity with the natural world. Yes, the 21st century is
going to be fun, Björk has decided. She leans forward to take a cup of fresh mint tea in her hands. "This is getting a bit lofty," she says, pausing to bury her nose in the fragrant Steam, then looks round. "Oh, wow ! The roses are really coming along. "

The roses disappear around the corner of a balcony that encompasses the top floor of this apartment block in one of the older and more refined neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. Björk shares this home (and one in Iceland) wit h her partner, the artist Matthew Barney, and their young daughter. "We moved here like a year ago," she says. "We used to have some pretty good parties upstate, but we had to organise buses for people." Björk is now in her mid-40s, but the voice and demeanour are younger. She talks fast and fidgets often . She’s wearing a cute striped and hooded Bernhard Willhelm dress, and black Jeremy Scott Adidas hi-tops with little wings that flick out, in which she skips around the apartment - enormous, uncluttered, and with a few eye-catching curiosities such as a shrunken head in a glass case.

Björk describes her next project Biophilia as ambitious, which is saying something
coming from the person who sang to a global audience of four billion at the 2004 Olympic Games, while her giant dress slowly unfurled to cover everyone in side t he stadium. At one point , Björk runs off to get pen and paper to jot down bullet point s for topics she wants to return to later. "Sorry, trying to give you the whole project . Three years in five minutes ! God, I’ve got like five brains in this project," she laughs, before adding, unforgettably, "My brain is a bit like cheese."

What Björk has been working on for these three years is not just an album but also a terrifically ambitious "app suite", which turns each song into an interactive
experience on the iPad, with a musical game based on something from nature (i .e.
lightning, viruses) , which lets the user manipulate the song while subtly teaching
them about aspects of making music. She has created new software to record it and even new musical instruments to perform it, while working with a jaw-droppingly elite ensemble of computer programmers, musicologists, explorers, animators. Scientists and designers - the A-Team Of the Avant-garde, basically.

These new instruments include a MIDI-controlled organ and "gamelan-celeste",
and four 8ft-high pendulum harps, plucking different notes as they swing back and forth. While MIDI itself is nothing new, simply allowing any enabled instrument to be controlled digitally rather than played directly, Björk can now trigger these new instruments via her iPad, or even game console controller. She laughs that sometimes her friends and her have drinks and set the organ running to MIDI files they’ve downloaded ("The best so far has been Snoop’s ’Drop It Like It ’s Hot ’"), and have "organ karaoke sessions ".

"With these new tools, it’s like this whole world is opening up to us," she enthuses. "On the last tour (2007-8), we were using the Reactable (a futuristic electronic musical instrument) and the Lemurs (touch-screen controllers) for performing music we had already written , but I was like ’This is the future ! How about we set up a system where we can actually write music on these ?’" Her production collaborator Damian Taylor started experimenting with a computer progr am called MaxfMSP ’’I’m so proud of all this," adds Björk. "It was a new idea, which was a reaction to the fact technology’s finally caught up with us !"

Björk explains how she had never conceived of this to be an "app project" - it was meant to be a "musical school", with songs educating people about music by explaining its connection to the natural world. "I thought maybe we could renovate a house in Iceland and make a 3D film, and that would be the project ." Then National Geographic contacted her, after she did a song with Matthew Herbert and Thom Yorke for the Environmental cause in Iceland - the venerable society and magazine was planning a music label, and wanted her to be on it. "I would get to be label-mates with whales and sharks, that’s cool !" she laughs. At this time, Björk was off all contracts, in what she describes as a position of freedom : "sort of what Radiohead were like three or four years ago, when they could just put out their album." She laughs again. "I was like, wow ! I’m off the grid !"

Björk asked visionary French director Michel Gondry (who has directed seven videos for her, from 1993’s "Human Behaviour" to 2007’s "Declare Independence") to make this film, and they drafted a synopsis in which Björk zooms around the universe ("It ’s a bit Carl Sagan"), but Gondry was sucked into the Hollywood vortex of The Green Hornet. "I’ve now got much more respect for people that actually get movies made," Björk observes. "I would go to his meetings and sit there. And they’d look at me like I was out of space."

Back in 2008, Björk was writing music on the Lemur controllers, imagining that she would eventually play this music on something similar ; then the first generation of the iPad launched in April 2010. "I was so excited, you have no idea ! Just seeing that what I was imagining wasn’t insane." Björk’s team contacted someone who re-wrote their early program as an iPad application. "When that happened, we were like ’Maybe all these rooms in this house are just like apps ... "’ Derek Birkett, her manager, emailed what he describes as ten of the best educational app-makers in the world, and asked them if they wanted to be involved in the project.

In June 2010, Björk was on a camping trip in Iceland : "I remember going to some
internet cafe - really, really hungover - and writing out the manifesto : this song about lightning is teaching you about arpeggios, crystals are teaching you about structure, DNA about rhythms, and so on ... and all the app-makers immediately answered back, like ’Wow ! This is excellent !"’

Björk invited the developers to come and meet her in Iceland for what she describes as a "show and tell", but sounds more like a cross between a dinner party and impromptu scientific conference. "One guy brought a spoon with him to the dinner and melted it into his cup. They were doing all these kind of chemistry magic tricks, and talking about dark matter and galaxies over dinner. It was a slightly different crowd."

Does Björk really think we are on the brink of a revolution, about to reunite humans with nature through technology, as she puts it ? "I think now it’s not only that we can do it, it’s also that we have to do it ," she answers. "Solar power, wind power, the way forward is to collaborate with nature - it’s the only way we are going to get to the other end of the 21st century."

Björk loves nature, but is no hippy fantasist. She is probably the only pop star who has not only been invited to the National Geographic Convention, but attended for the whole three days and sat through each lecture. She tells the story of one explorer, who had spent years walking through Africa. "He can’t sleep in houses any more. The offices happen to be near the White House ... so they say, ’He’s coming over, is it ok if he sleeps in your trees ?’ And they’re like, ’Oh him ? Yeah, no problem.’ So he sleeps in the trees of the White House garden, then presents his lecture at National Geographic. It’s these kind of characters." Listening to Biophilia for the first time in Björk’s studio, it’s an exhilaratingly experimental affair that combines thrilling moments of musical abstraction with emotional vocal beauty. It’s a remarkable work , a real statement, although not really something you could envision a middle-aged executive jabbing his finger to and joyfully exclaiming, "That’s the single !"

In a decade defined by the recombination of past genres, attitudes and styles, as
discussed in Simon Reynolds’s recent book Retromania, suddenly the idea that we might have run out of, you know, ideas, seems - at least in this room, at this time - to be absurd. "I think there is always going to be a certain percentage of people being curators and deciding what we take into the future and what we are going to leave behind," considers Björk. "But I mean, I know a bunch of people that are doing things no one has done before !" Björk was a child star in Iceland, releasing a record at 11, before rebelling and playing punk at 14. "I went to music school from five to 15 and was always at the director’s office. I think he thought I was a bit hilarious, and I think he liked a drink. When he was bored he would get me sent up just to have a debate. And I’d be like, ’You should not have your school like this !’" Classical music education is so limiting, she explains.

"Anyway, I complained so much that I had to come up with a solution," she continues. ’’And I always wanted to do my music school, but then this pop thing just happened" - by which Björk means a critically and commercially successful career of over twenty million albums sold - and it was fun, but it wasn’t planned. Sometimes. I laugh at how grand this new project is - But I think all artists my age become tutors."

Inspirational as the project sounds, one has to wonder whether the average music fan has the time or inclination to investigate, say, the subtleties of the Indonesian musical scale. "Yeah, but there’s so many people out there making electronic music, and they’ve been told they’re idiots because they don’t know the difference between C and C sharp, and that’s not fair because there is a lot of musicology to a lot of electronic music. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but connecting these different worlds is something no one has done before. And if some guy making wicked hip hop beats can learn about different time signatures, and figure out there is no big deal doing a hip hop song in 7/4 then that ’s great."

In the past, Björk has discussed the difficulties of reconciling her punk ideology with her ever-growing success, even remaining "hands-off" on things like her website due to being uncomfortable about anything that might seem like putting her "on a pedestal". (It’s now been relaunched in HTML5 and designed by M/M (Paris), and she hints she will use it to release future material.) Now that technology has changed everything, does she feel closer to those original punk ideas ? "Yeah , I think it’s incredible - we are so lucky to live in these times," she answers. "It’s revolutionary. The people left in the music industry are the ones that love music - because you can’t really become a billionaire any more."

That said, artists like her and Radiohead who celebrate the levelling of the playing field were involved in the music industry at a time where you still could make a lot of money. Does she feel she has a responsibility to artists starting out today ? "I do actually, because I’m really lucky that I’m from a generation where you could make money from music," she says. "Now I have a lot of friends who are making music that are from the next generation, and it’s a different landscape out there ... but in a way there are more opportunities. I remember when I did Vespertine (2001), everyone was like ’Oh, computers are going to kill music, and it’s all going to sound rubbish.’ I just thought it was kind of hilarious. Now you can download huge files and do very complicated
things - technology will always solve it. And now we have other riddles to solve."

For the next generationpolitics have returned as a riddle to be solved. Volta was a more political album ; this new one could perhaps be seen to be out of step with the times. Björk hums and looks at the sky. "Well, in a way in the last album I was complaining, and in this album I’m bringing solutions," she says. "I thought I would never ever get involved in politics, because when I was younger you couldn’t get un-cooler than that ! Then I saw how they were planning to change Iceland from an untouched natural spot into something like Frankfurt. People my age and younger didn’t have a voice. "

Björk explains that she gave a concert that "like 30,000 people came to ... 10% of the nation !" but felt that this changed nothing and started workshops with her friend, the author/philosopher Oddny Eir Ævardottir to encourage young businesses. Then the 2008 bank crash happened, almost wiping out the Icelandic economy overnight. "All these economists were like our best mates by then so we were right in the centre of it. And a lot of people in my generation who never cared about politics before were like, ’This is an emergency situation !’ It was kind of amazing, though, because we’re such a small country that we can actually make changes." Some of Björk’s friends even formed a political party called The Best Party, with a stand-up comedian running for mayor. "And he won , much to his surprise ! So now for 11 months all these punks have been running the city !’"

"We started a petition, and before I came here to complete my album, we had a karaoke marathon for five days - it was amazing, the whole nation came ! Ok, not the whole nation. But we got 47,000 signatures, and there are only 350,000 people in Iceland. Then we delivered it to the Prime Minister, that was a moment ! We will see what happens, but at least it raised awareness."

Maybe she was doing half the time on this project, and half on that, she admits. "It was a lot of work, but if you do all that work and don’t follow it up, it’s never going to change anything. It’s been really crazy doing both projects at the same time ... but in a weird way they fed each other. Maybe that’s the reason I started doing a project like this ... "

Despite claiming not to be part of politics, Björk is still making things happen in her own way - whether that’s the skyscraping ambition of her Biophilia project, which has the potential to revolutionise the way a generation thinks about electronic music, or the grassroots activism in Iceland, and her reluctant admission that the two might feed into each other. But with that, Björk’s daughter skips in from school and we bring the interview to a close .. Björk has places to be, and with a theatrical air-kiss and kick of those winged heels .. this avant-garde artist disguised as a pop star disappears out the door to make the 21st century a lot more fun.

Damian Taylor

Björk’s long-term production collaborator and official "geek-in-residence" talks about hacking church organs and breaking all the rules

DAZED & CONFUSED : What differences were there between this project and others of Björk you’ve worked on ?

DAMIAN TAYLOR : It was like returning to the cool roots of engineering. When engineers were called engineers because t hey would build a studio before you started recording in it. It was having to come up with solutions from the ground up. What’s interesting is, because we all of that, it helped her create music entirely different from anything has done before.

What devices have you created ?

When I was first using the Lemur controllers on the last tour, I felt I was only using about three percent of their potential ! These touchscreens could give visual feedback about what the music was doing and, when you see stuff in a simple and intuitive way in front of you you can interact with the music more and more. So, we ended up obliterating the whole mouse-click-keyboard way of writing music and it became a really hands-on process.

Do you still use the Lemur devices or something new ?

Yeah, and I played around - we ended up doing a bunch of stuff with a PlayStation controller - a few songs were written on that.

You’ve created some instrument they can control as well ?

We thought, ’Wouldn’t it be cool if we could use electronic musical systems to control acoustic instruments.’ It was a really amazing moment when we first got to experiment. We went to a couple of churches with this big bar that robotically presses down the key and we plugged our songs into the organs there and - holy shit- this massive noise happened.

Something no human could physically ever play ...

That’s really, really important. We got our arranger to map out one of these things and he was like : "There’s no one who can play that : because you can’t physically put your hands in those positions.’ And we were like, that’s exactly the point... ! In a way it’s a more human version of electronic music. You are bypassing the body’s limitations. It feels like being able to plug directly into your brainstem.

How many other people have experimented in this area ?

I’d love to claim I’m a total genius. But there is a huge underground scene of people who are doing stuff like thiss. Max/MSP, the software language we are using, has been around for 20-plus years in one form or another. I am at best a half-amateur programmer. But I think it was really interesting for Björk to write with this stuff, because you can have a sort of conversation with it. If you are playing a traditional Instrument , you move your hand and this will happen. With this stuff, it is like if I move my hand there, what would happen ?’ And she could react to it in real time.

What do you hope people might take away from the project ?

These songs don’t obey even the traditional system of rhythm and tempo. It is like a gateway into a whole different perception of music. It breaks so many rules, but then it all has her singing on it, which is the key emotional thing - you need that to drive it forwards. In terms of the process I went through on the technical side, I think it is a really important validation of the culture of sharing information that is found on the internet. I spent a year and a half just going on forums and asking questions.

How do you think this project might affect music and culture ?

I hope the fact that she has done all of this gives people courage. And hopefully people will remember that we were working on this for years, and there was a huge cast of people involved. If you want to do something really ambitious, you have to put in the hours. That is the flipside of internet culture - now, we want everything to be instant and accessible. So, I hope we inspire people to roll up their sleeves and keep working. I think that would be a really good result.

Inside Biophilia

Art made of DNA, Crystal Jumpsuits, magnetic liquid sculptures and MIDI powered organs…. Introducing the brains behind Björk’s Biophilia.

Inside Biophilia : Aron Koscho

Creative Sparks With The Tesla Coil Master

BJÖRK : "Early in the project I came across Tesla coils. They seemed to be the core of Biophilia, especially the educational angle : if the natural elements impress a child with their power, then what better than lightning ? I guess the natural elements are the superheroes of Biophilia and a Tesla coil allows you to invite one of them in to your house..."

There are some truly epic pictures of coil experiment s online mind-blowing images of purple electricity enveloping cars and striking humans in cages. But how do they work , and what exactly is their function ? Aron Koscho, a pioneer in Tesla coil production and application, recently built a twin Tesla coil system for Björk’s Biophilia live show. ’’A Tesla coil is a special type of transformer that uses resonant circuit to produce very high voltages. Think of it like shaking a flagpole in the school yard ; you push and pull with the same amount of force but the longer you do it the more the pole moves from side to side."

Having built his first coil when he was 12, Koscho has since started a business in building high voltage equipment and pursued the industrial application of tesla coils through his company. Applied tesla Technology Inc. Proud to have made what he believes is the most reliable and highest quality tesla coil system available today, his ultimate dream is to build the largest tesla coil in the world.

The Mystery and appeal of tesla coils lies in the striking visual beauty of the ever-changing neon electric currents and radical arc shapes that form during experiments. One of the most common questions Koscho gets asked is wether the colour of the electrical current can be manipulated. "It is possible to create some color change near the base of the arc by the use of certain chemical compounds at the breakout point." he says. "Other than that, it is governed by the gases of the atmosphere around the coil. Since air is primarily Nitrogen, we get a purple colour to the arc. if the atmosphere were changed to say, neon, we would get a pink arc."

The coil he built for Björk was a twin Tesla coil system that plays musical notes through it’s 1,5m long electrical arcs. "The System is housed in a large aluminum cage and will be hung above the band. It’s a very cool effect !"

Text : Veronica So.

Inside Biophilia : Drew Berry

Dna Art From The World’s Leading Biomedical Animator

BJÖRK : "Drew is someone who has made scientifically correct animation of DNA ... on this project, he has crossed the line beautifully in to the artistic realm where he has animated gorgeous DNA but added some poetic licence ... he truly has brought magic to our insides, and shows us that we don’t have to look far for the miracle of nature, it is right inside us !"

Armed with two science degrees and a training in the use of advanced microscopes, Drew Berry isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill animator. The creator of the bio-inspired animations on Biophilia spends his days painstakingly poring over scientific papers before putting virtual pen to paper and recreating the vast worlds that exist within our bodies - microbes fighting infections, parasites replicating, proteins dividing ... Dazed called him up to chat double helixes, digital creativity and Icelandic DNA ...

DAZED & CONFUSED : You generally work from scientific papers and journals, but Biophilia is a little different. What was the brief from Björk ?

DREW BERRY : There was one song in particular that she sort of had marked for me, which was about her ancestry, her DNA and her thread of connection with her past. She had some ideas about how she wanted, like, beads on a string, or a long chain that links her with her ancestors, but when I heard the song I took my own interpretation of it.

Did you discover that there is anything unique about Icelandic DNA ?

Well Björk did - she went to National Geographic and they did an analysis of her DNA and found all sorts of connections across Europe. But I didn’t really respond to that because I see a unity of all humans. In fact, of all living things on our planet - every living thing is all tied to DNA - so I skipped that and just wanted to look at a spiritual, ghost-like experience.

Were you a fan of Björk before ?

Oh yeah. I mean, I had a crush on her when she was in The Sugarcubes ! It goes back to being the age of 14, so this project is a total treat. And I’m just having a lot of fun : that’s the main goal for me - just to let loose and have fun and, as Björk described it, ’go Jimi Hendrix on biomedical science’ .

How has your field changed ? Would it be much easier for kids to break into the field now ?

Yeah, it’s changed hugely - your typical standard Mac is basically capable of anything you want it to do. When I started out, the software was extraordinarily expensive ... I mean, I had a $50,000 computer in the early days and $20-30,000 worth of software, and it still took me a year to complete a project ! Do you think this has changed the way science works ? Scientists have always used art - I mean, Galileo used the telescope to look at the moon and then painted watercolours of what it looked like. It’s more that it’s so accessible to everybody now. What I’m doing is really nothing new - it’s just that the technology enables us to look down at what’s happening at a molecular scale. Computer graphics now are so sophisticated. It’s mind-boggling.

text : Chris Hatherill

Inside Biophilia : Matthew Herbert & David Paterson

Two Cutting-Edge Sound Artists Go Head To Head

BJÖRK : "I’ve worked with Matthew Herbert for 13 years now. He’s a real 21st century renaissance man ! David Paterson is an amazing sound effect guy who works for big time movies. he not only provided incredible noises of planets in orbit, but even brought them in rhythm with each other !"

Beat-making polemicist Matthew Herbert and Hollywood sound designer David Paterson are two sound obsessives drafted in by Björk to provide their particular craft to the Biophilia project. We got them together to talk about their different approaches ...

DAVID PATERSON : Björk described the sounds she wanted in a way that left it very open to interpretation. With the track ’Mutual Core’, for example, she described how it was about magnetic attraction - which doesn’t really have a sound that springs to mind.

MATTHEW HERBERT : I think she was looking for a lot of sub bass ; that hum of electricity and magnets and things that you see in movies. Magnetic attraction in real terms - what magnets really sound like when they come together - is actually quite a small noise. The weird thing with sound is we are still very unfamiliar with the basic language of it.

DP : I listened to her lyrics and imagined them as little films - that’s how I would start. When you work on films what you are really looking for is what the emotionality of the moment calls for. One of the problems now is people expect a certain amount of drama. For example, if you’ve ever been in a fight and been punched or punched someone, you know that the sound it makes is not terribly impressive. But if you put a real punch into a film, people would be like, ’What’s that ?’ You are walking this line between what the audience expects and what things actually sound like.

MH : This is the big difference between the ways we both work. You make sounds the way people think they should sound. Whereas at times I feel like it is almost my social mission to try and keep the sounds I use as they actually are. For my next album, One Pig, I recorded a pig birth - the pig didn’t grunt or squeal during labour, but what you hear are some cows in the pen next door. I kept the sound in but if that was a movie it is very unlikely you would see a picture of a pig and hear cow moos ! I think there is a real problem in the world where all our images are Photoshopped and tweaked. Auto-Tune is like an audio version of Photoshop. We are creating an artificial environment or ourselves that doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on out there. From my perspective it is a return to those madly religious, pre-Enlightenment days, creating art that none of us can live up to.

DP : I agree, we’re processing the soul out of our music entirely. That’s what I love about Björk’s stuff - there is so much emotion in her voice that she strikes to keep in. In both the music and film industries, the business has overtaken from the art. She is on the blessed position knowing she can male art, and business will happen anyway.

Text : Tim Burrows

Inside Biophilia : Björgvin Tómasson

Custom-Made Pipe-Organs From Iceland’s Master Craftsman

BJÖRK : "Björgvin is the only organ-maker in Iceland and has already made organs in about 40 churches. When I met him and explained that I needed a pipe organ with MIDI, he was incredibly enthusiastic. He is a true craftsman"

Björgvin Tómasson has been building organs in Iceland for 25 years. Typically they are for use in church, not for international superstars to cart around the globe. And they definitely don’t usually have names like ’Albert’. Here’s how Tómasson’s input in Biophilia came about ...

DAZED & CONFUSED : How did you get involved ?

BJORGVIN TÓMASSON : Björk’s younger sister worked for me as a carpenter in the late 90s so we met through her. Last summer she phoned me from London and asked me if I knew of any organs in Iceland which would be able to connect to MIDI. I knew of no such instrument. The next week Björk came to visit my workshop at Stokkseyri and our meeting ended with her ordering a customised instrument. That is where’ Albert’ began.

And you also invented a completely new instrument ?

We turned an old celeste into a celeste-gamelan hybrid or "gamelest", as Björk would refer to it. I collaborated with the talented cymbal maker Matt Nolan from Bath, England to make it. Björk had asked him to create new bars for the instrument, which would resemble the sound of the traditional gamelan. I connected solenoids to each note for it to work with MIDI and also built a hammer for it.

How did building this organ compare to usual projects ?

Every organ is designed with a location in mind : usually you have the architectural structure church to consider. With this one there were different elements to think about ; for example, it should be easy to transport, but not lose its sound quality or the beauty of the craft. This organ only has 168 pipes, while the biggest organ I have built has 1,500. But this instrument can play music beyond the complexity of most other organs. The instrument may be small, but many hours were spent on its construction.


Inside Biophilia : Sachiko Kodama

Mind-Blowing Sculptures Made From Magnetic Liquid

Permeated by nanoscale particles of iron, ferrofluid is a unique material that looks like a shiny metal but moves like liquid. Forming sleek shapes and patterns when exposed to magnetism, it bristles outwards when placed next to a normal magnet, revealing the struggle between magnetic forces and surface tension. With an electromagnet the effect is even more magical : the fluid rises up out of a puddle like some living creature, crawling up the flux lines along the metal’s edge, rippling and reforming like some alien being.

Harnessing the beautiful potential that lurks within this dark, lustrous medium, Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama began exploring the possibilities with "Protrude, Flow 2001" - a piece which reacts to gallery visitors’ voices to form infinitely complex and ever-changing three-dimensional organic patterns. "I created dynamic movements and organic shapes using black lustrous magnetic fluid," she wrote. "This fluid was placed in parts of the installation to express the desire and passion for life. Unlike machines, this installation reminds us of the energy pulsating in our own body."

Kodama remains inspired by a love of nature instilled during her childhood in Shizuoka, in southern Japan. Drawing on everything from tornadoes to sea urchins, her ferromagnetic forms blend hard-edged technical perfection with natural forms. As she said on the occasion of the Device_art triennial in Zagreb, "the Japanese concept of mitate, relating to mimicking natural phenomena, is a useful method in trying to understand the occurrence of natural shapes" in her work.

Text Chrls Hatherill

Inside Biophilia : Stephen Malinowski

Lsd And The Art Of Musical Notation

BJÖRK : "I ran into Stephen’s animations on YouTube early on in the project. They were so inspiring and seemed to fit seamlessly into the project, so we asked him to collaborate. I had started working on my music book and was trying to bridge the gap between notation and MIDI. I feel Stephen’s work does so in a very elegant way, with a dash of poetic licence.

Californian composer and inventor Stephen Malinowski was charged with the task of generating interactive animated notation for Biophilia, helping to develop an iPad app in the process. It is the latest step in a career long obsession with changing the way we can visualise music, which all started on a mind-bending evening in 1974. He took Dazed back to his drug-induced eureka moment ...

"I had taken LSD and put on Henryk Szeryng’s recording of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin. I got out the score to follow along. The result was that the notation seemed animated, as if it were dancing along with itself. The graceful shapes of the notes and the gestures of the music became a single thing. The progression from note to note seemed like footsteps.

The next thing I remember is the chaconne from the D Minor Sonata. This movement starts slowly, but as it proceeds through the variations, the notes go faster and faster. The note that was currently being played appeared to be a single note head moving only vertically - not horizontally. It reminded me of watching a fishing bob riding up and down on the surface of an ocean of surrounding notes. Then the pattern of notes started jumping wildly. I was amazed to find that my eyes were still able to track the motion. At that point, I put down the score, stopped the recording took off the headphones, and said to a friend who was with me, ’I’m afraid that what I’m doing may be damaging my eyes.’ He said he thought that was unlikely, so I went back to listening and watching. Score-following requires you to not only direct your attention to the correct horizontal position, but to switch from instrument to instrument continuously and quickly, and integrate information from many disparate locations. Soon after. I had the idea of making a new kind of of score that would be easier to follow while under the influence of LSD…"

Text : Tim Burrows.

Inside Biophilia : Andy Cavatorta

Purveyor Of Robotic Musical Instruments To The Stars

BJÖRK : "I went to the MIT lab in January 2009 and again a year later. Andy was the one that seemed the most into combining cutting edge technology with acoustic instruments. It has been a challenging journey to build a pendulum that plucks strings and is run by a gravity algorithm in an iPad, but we got there ! "

Andy Cavatorta was peacefully designing robotic musical instruments one day when Björk and Michel Gondry turned up at the MIT Media Lab, looking for ideas for Biophilia. After demoing his 31-note, electromagnetic harp ("It’s a bit hard to describe"), he found himself part of the team and assigned the task of creating four gravity-driven pendulum harps which
will be played by Björk in her upcoming Manchester residency. Dazed found him hard at work with his team of mechanical engineers in a Brooklyn warehouse.

DAZED & CONFUSED : What would your ultimate instrument be, no budget and no limit ?

ANY CAVATORTA : Oh no, that is a nightmare. Have you seen the Five Obstructions by Lars Von Trier ? The third obstruction he gives is "no limitations". That’s the hardest of all. I’m doing a lot of thinking about music and robotics over the years, and I realised I’m really not that interested in robots. I’m interested in instruments. Because I don’t care what a robot feels, they don’t haveanything to express. But finding new ways for humans to create expression is such fertile territory. I think it ’s an idea that is very much of the moment. I see a lot of people working on this right now. The trouble is, I see very few people pushing really hard to make emotionally expressive instruments. Because it is very hard, as I have discovered.

Do you think people exploring more intuitive ways of making music, using game controllers and all the rest, will become more popular ?

Oh yeah, most definitely. I think we are going to see two levels of that happening. One of them is we are going to see a huge proliferation of controllers that aren’t particularly expressive but are really fun and people love to use. And I think that a small subset of those are going to turn into highly expressive controllers that really allow people to play expressive music. Because the trouble with using a set of buttons is that it is very reductive - compare that to playing a violin. I’m hoping this might be one of these periods in time when a whole bunch of new musical ideas emerge that will become standard, new instruments - horns were basically just huge bugles for a long time, and then all of a sudden there was a process of mutation, in which they started having valves and slides. Hopefully we are in the midst, or on the first edges of one of those periods now.

Text : Rod Stanley.

Inside Biophilia : Max Weisel

Teenage Computer Prodigy Goes To The Moon

BJÖRK : "Max is an 18-year-old programming genius. When I saw his soundrop app, I felt it was
the only app where you could really make your own musical structures. I have seen many children play with the gravity-run Soundrop and create natural rhythms out of something that would be probably impossible to play on a ’normal’ instrument."

March 2010, while recording BiophiliaPuerto Rico, Björk’s friend the Icelandic actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir came to stay. One night she told Björk a theory - that the Moon’s gravitational pull moves spinal fluid, just as it creates the tides in the earth’s. Although not scientifically proven (yet !), the poetic aspect struck a resonance with Björk and the idea became incorporated into the "Moon" app. Max Weisel and my self are co-creative directors with Björk on this app, and one night we sat down on Skype to discuss its development.

MERRY : It’s exactly one year ago that we first approached you to become involved with Biophilia, after Björk fell in love with your Soundrop app. I heard you thought it was a joke at first ?

WEISEL : Haha, I did. Björk’s manager initially just posted a comment on my blog. I thought it was fake so I called up the record label. Then I realised it was real, was ecstatic ! I had just graduated high school and was fascinated with computer music and visualisation, so this seemed like the perfect project for me.

Then hundreds of emails later we finally met for the first ’app team’ meeting in Reykjavik. What are your memories of that ?

Well, it was actually my first time outside of North America. I was in awe with the people I was working with. Scott Snibbe and Theodore Gray had built software I used on a daily basis… And Björk is a huge musical influence. I was handing on the shoulder of giants.

How has the process of collaboration with Björk been ?
Amazing. She has the ability to inject a concept into my head. With most people i’ve worked with, they don’t know what they want - or they are unable to show me. but working with Björk has been a completely different experience. This ability to make something so huge happen… I feel everything’s much more attainable after seeing the things this project has created.

And after this project, what will your next step be - more apps ?

Deep down I’m still holding onto my childhood dream of becoming a rock star. Some day I hope I can merge both my lives and use my programming abilities to inform my music. I’d like to give Applea run for their money and reinvent the user experience, but that’s along way off

So, the next time someone leaves a comment on your blog asking to collaborate, you’d like it to be Steve Jobs ?

Not at all. I want to start mu own company from scratch. Steve built his legacy… it’s his. I want my own !

Inside Biophilia : Stefano Pilati

Keeping It Crystal With The Fashion Visionary

BJÖRK : "I met Stefano through a mutual friend ; she was wearing an irresistable jumpsuit and when I contacted him to try to make one out of real raw crystals, he was not only up for the challenge but spent weeks researching that natural element with fierce enthusiasm ! My new crystal jumpsuit feels like it has gone through millions of years of development in a hidden cave somewhere…"

Stefano Pilati is Yves Saint Laurent ; it’s hard to separate the two. From taking over the helm as creative director in 2004, the Italian designer seamlessly slipped into YSL mode with his effortlessly sleek, tailored approach to woman-meets-masculine dressing. So it seems unfitting that such a designer should be linked to Björk, the indefinable and eclectic Icelandic singer : the pop star who wore a swan to the Oscars. But as the 46-year-old puts the finishing touches to Björk’s stage outfit for her Biophilia stage series, he talks to Dazed about his relationship with the singer and it turns out the two have ore in common than we first thought.

DAZED & CONFUSED : How did the collaboration with Björk come about ?

STEFANO PILATI : It happened naturally. I have long admired her work so the idea to collaborate proceeded organically. It was about the exchange and execution of ideas and inspirations. We worked on several proposals for jumpsuits - she wanted this silhouette specifically, a kind of uniform - so I sent various ideas, and in the end she focused on a shape from S/S 09. Based on this pattern we did research into fabric, colour and embroidery possibilities, taking into account the vision Björk had for the look, which was something very much related to Biophilia, an aesthetic formed around planetary systems, crystal formations, the expansiveness of the universe. It was all done via email and telephone and a series of fittings in New York.

What motivated you and a house like YSL to collaborate with Björk ?

The result is at once symbolic of an idea of Saint Laurent - with the iconography of the jumpsuit - and Björk’s solar system of ideas for Biophilia. Björk’s bold freedom of expression, the interdisciplinary exploration in her creative enterprise, the otherworldliness of her artistic gestures - these aspects fuel a creative collaboration such as this, and give it a uniqueness that extends beyond the boundaries of fashion, music and performance.

Do you ever take inspiration from music ?

Music can certainly inspire, but what is most evident is that it sets a mood, it gives an attitude to the air and it can eventually provide a context, an envelope, for fashion.

Do ideas of science and nature ever inform your work ?

The research I do for the collections is as much about fabric and silhouette and colour as it is about construction and the ’making’ of the garment or accessory. There is a mathematics and science to the artistry of fashion that is essential to its success and impact, and it is what separates true luxury from the high street and fast fashion.

Where do you go to get inspired ?

I dig into my brain and my dreams : I try to be as imaginative as I can to find vehicles through which to express my fashion.

Text Kate Hazell

Inside Biophilia : Roger Hiorns

BJÖRK : " I Saw the London flat that Roger crystallised with copper sulphate - it was incredible !"

When artist Roger Hiorns filled a South London councilfiat with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate in 2008 for the work "Seizure", he transformed it into an eerily beautiful, blue crystal-encrusted cave. Hiorns’s project became a key reference for Björk’s Biophilia and also got the artist a Turner Prize nomination.

Dazed & Confused : Did you know that "Seizure" was an inspiration for Björk’s new album Biophillia ?

Roger Hiorns : No, this is the first I’ve heard of it ! It’s always nice to get reflections on something you have done, but some reflections are better than others. It’s really lovely that Björk responded to my work in this way.

Why did you fill a council flat with copper sulphate ?

It was about social death, in a way, and the failing of social and rationalist ideologies. I also wanted to explore the key ideas behind transcendence. I’m not going down a spiritualist route - I think the origins of transcendence came from a kind of Zarathustran tradition of leaving the body out so the birds could come and pick it. That was how the body became part of the environment and the sky. It was routed in a very physical reality, which perhaps denies a sense of spirituality.

It explores transcendence ?

It ’s a place where the unattainable can be glimpsed. It’s a desire that takes us away from the present, into a place of greater understanding and a place of attunement. I’m trying to understand is secular transcendence. I take great consolation in the fact that the beauty in the world is created by all of us, rather than trapped in a deity.

Text : Karen Orton

Inside Biophilia : Scott Snibbe

Going (Literally) Viral With An Interactive Art Genius

BJÖRK : "One of the first apps I bought was ’Bubble Harp’ by Scott Snibbe -it was very inspiring to see him include both the complex and the simple capabilities of the touch screen. He shared my vision of merging the music and apps, made two of the apps, became the projects manager and will oversee the visuals live, where we will try to make people feel like they are inside the iPad, playing and listening to the apps."

Steering the Biophilia project is Scott Snibbe a digital pioneer whose artwork seeks to conjoin computing and interactivity. "I’ve always been obsessed with making the computer an extension of the human mind, making it interactive using movement, animation and sound," he explains over a crystal-clear Skype connection. As well as working on the design of the mother app itself, and "Virus", Snibbe and his team also developed a third piece called "Thunderbolt". Drawing on the worlds of gaming, fine art and motion technologies, the universe of apps explode the metaphor of the computer interface as an interactive cinema screen. "When you’re making computer software there’s no limit in terms of physicality," he says. "You’re basically working in a field of light with input and output, and the only restriction is your imagination."

With a list of collaborators including alumni from Adobe, Electronic Arts and leading figures from biomedical animation, the goal has been to challenge assumptions about the segregation of art from science. "One way to define Biophilia is a love of nature," explains Snibbe. "More accurately, I think it’s
about the infinity of nature in all its scales, and how music relates to that . People forget that maths is a way of modelling nature, and they overlook the beauty and joy of that. "

Drawing inspiration from Yoko Ono, Sol LeWitt, Jean Arp and John Zorn, the project has a high art feel with a democracy of access. "We wanted the suite to have an intimate feeling even though the subject matter is so wide in its vision. What I always try and communicate is the feeling of what it’s like to be an artist - that pure free-flowing creativity. It’s exactly the sensation you get when you tap into Björk’s world so the whole project has a beautiful gravity at its core.

text : Stephan Whelan.

publié dans Dazed & Confused n°200