Made to mingle with electricity

The Australian, 10 janvier 2008

THE voice that comes down the line is unmistakable : girlish, slightly sibilant, and with a catch in it that is all Bjork’s own.

On the phone from Iceland, she’s discussing her country’s long isolation and its 500-year history as a colony of Norway and then Denmark. Colonialism does peculiar things to a nation’s psyche.

"There has always been a lot of mistrust of foreigners here, that they are evil and corrupted," she says. "I guess the Danes didn’t give us a good example, basically just by being colonisers. Any colonisation isn’t a good idea, it doesn’t matter which nationality."

Iceland finally gained independence when it became a republic in 1944, the year, Bjork says, her father was born. People of her generation were curious about the world but felt hamstrung by an attitude that Australians might recognise as cultural cringe.

"Its hard to explain," Bjork says, "but it’s a lack of confidence. When you’re a colony for so long, you feel like a second-class citizen. I am Icelandic, yes, but I was also the one who went out there and mingled my voice with electricity. I collaborated with foreigners and travelled a lot."

It hardly needs reporting that Bjork says she’s one of the more outgoing Icelanders. She first came to international attention 20 years ago, when she fronted the indie band the Sugarcubes, and she rapidly gained prominence with her solo album Debut in 1993. Extreme fashion, an award-winning role in Lars von Trier’s film, Dancer in the Dark and behavioural quirks have kept her in public view. Moreover, her highly individual, intricately textured music has given her credibility in both the fringe and the mainstream and, like Britain’s Radiohead, a more than nodding acquaintance with classical music’s avant-garde.

Bjork is about to make a return visit to Australia : a tour with the Big Day Out bandwagon and, between those dates, a single concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt as part of the Sydney Festival.

"I still can’t quite understand how Bjork is as popular as she is," says festival director Fergus Linehan, "when you get down to how brazen she is, going to the beat of her own drum. If she weren’t such a famous figure, he adds, her music would not be out of place in one of the city’s small chamber-music venues. "It’s quite a phenomenon with her, because of the complexity of her music. She falls into a very different camp."

Linehan has given prominence to rock in the 2008 festival, and Bjork appears in the program brochure alongside the likes of Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame.

Mention of this indirectly leads Bjork into the discussion about colonialism and globalisation. At the State Theatre this week, Wilson and his band replayed the Beach Boys greatest hits : little vignettes of sun-bleached innocence, with all that surfin’, dancin’ and gettin’ around. The songs are particularly, almost myopically, Californian. Does Bjork’s music have a similar genius of place, in the glaciers and volcanos of Iceland ?

"Yes and no," she says. "I think I am a very Icelandic person in every way. But, then again, I think my position as an Icelander was to go out and meet people. I also think that, with globalisation and everything, being from one country and having that particular one sound of whatever your nation represents ... is not true. There’s no such thing any more."

Her music, she continues, is more cosmopolitan in approach. "To be in the moment, to be a 2008 person, it’s more of an international affair, especially sonically. You hear the radio in a taxi, and go to an Indian restaurant and hear Indian music. You’re hearing everything. I think you can still be from where you are, and be truthful about that, but you are still a person of the world."

Certainly, her latest album, Volta, draws from trans-hemispherical sources. The Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, for example, appears on the track Hope, and a Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, accompanies I See Who You Are. As well as contributions from another Sydney Festival alumnus, singer Antony Hegarty, and the American producer-du-jour Timbaland, Volta features a brass band, whose chorales and punchy chords are elemental to the sound-world.

None of these, however, take precedence over Bjork’s voice, which is a universe of its own. She yelps, growls, and leaps sudden, unexpected intervals. The voice is more than a highly expressive instrument, however : Bjork regards it as the source of all her music.

"Every time I start an album, I’m in a place I’ve never been," she says. "I’m blindfolded and a bit lost. And I quite like that feeling. Usually, because I’m a singer, I use my voice as a tool. I will usually walk a lot outside, and sing a lot, and ideas will come to me. The second thing is the emotional state where I’m at. Then I will maybe go out and arrange things, and find collaborators, depending on the emotional state I’m in."

A picture forms of her walking through the snow : intoning, incanting, willing a song into being. "The melodies almost always come first," she continues. "And sometimes it’s a long process. I will let it (the melody) lie there, and if it comes back to me, it’s important. I have a faith in the simplicity of the melody : it stands for something quite ancient and almost shamanic. All the best melodies in the world, no matter what music it is, they have some magical construction inside them. Each constellation of notes stands for different emotional states."

The relationship between the voice and electronics, she says, is critical. In so much electronic music, especially dance music, the voice is subservient to beat : words are made to fit the rhythm. Bjork says her approach is different, in that she forms her melodies first, and the beats are cut to fit. Nevertheless, she counts herself as part of a European tradition of electronic music that includes Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, as opposed to the blues-based, American tradition of rock’n’roll.

"I personally think people like (composers) Philip Glass and Steve Reich are connected to that tradition ... (they have) those rock chords in that repetition. And then you have another side, which is electronic music, which is more a European thing. It has a very different origin to rock music. It’s like two very different music trees."

Karlheinz Stockhausen, she says, was the godfather of the European branch. The German composer, who died last month, was a pioneer of electronic art music. Bjork met him twice and interviewed him for a magazine. His music did not directly influence her own, she says. "A lot of it was 1950s avant-garde that maybe is and maybe isn’t so helpful."

Rather, it was his freewheeling imagination that captured hers. "I think he was very inspirational, mostly through his lectures," she says. "I think he had that effect on a lot of people my age. You read his lectures, and they are so optimistic."

While classical music had its doomsayers, "Stockhausen was the only one who was excited about the 21st century. He said it’s going to be amazing. We might have killed all the animals by then, but we’ll be communicating telepathically, through transmitters or whatever, which we are, I guess."

Bjork’s involvement in the Sydney Festival is, in some ways, a missed opportunity. It could have been an occasion to see her performances alongside, for example, the work of her partner, the video artist Matthew Barney, with whom she made the film, Drawing Restraint 9. Her concerts will not disappoint, according to reports from earlier dates elsewhere.

"I’ve got brass instruments and a lot of electronic instruments," she says of the line-up. "It’s probably my most hooligan, warrior-woman tour. I’ve done tours with symphony orchestras and choirs, inside opera houses, that are very delicate. This is the opposite, an outdoor pagan thing."

It may also be her last tour for a while, as her daughter with Barney, Isadora, is approaching school age. "I didn’t tour for four years before this, so I’ve been enjoying it. My daughter is going to school next autumn, so I’m making the most of it before I have to sit still for a while."

par Matthew Westwood publié dans The Australian