Björk: Listen, learn and create

Björk on Biophilia

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 23 Sep 2011
  • min read
Ahead of M's Björk Week, starting Monday 26 September, the iconic Icelander speaks to Anita Awbi about the creation of her epic Biophilia project, and reveals why she’s co-opting new technologies into her creative vision.

‘There were many moments where I thought that Biophilia would never be complete,’ Björk confides. ‘But at the same time there was a very stubborn element in me that would never, ever have given up.’

Despite this initial trepidation, Björk will unleash her Biophilia album on the world next month, revealing a multi-layered, multi-dimensional exploration of the relationship between music, technology and nature. On the surface, it may seem like the opening gambit of a lofty concept album, but instead Biophilia stands testament to Björk’s astonishing ability to convert complex artistic ideas into mainstream pop.

The Icelandic siren has appeared in many incarnations since her career began in the early 80s, and it’s often hard to tell if she is growing new layers before our eyes, or peeling some away to reveal more of herself. She co-founded pop band The Sugarcubes in 1986 as a plucky young star-in-the-making, before sowing the seeds of a successful solo career with the release of the album Debut in 1993. She later became a PRS for Music member, and this year will mark her tenth anniversary with the society.

Throughout her career, she has drawn and redrawn the boundaries between music, art and technology, working with people as diverse as leftfield film directors Michel Gondry and Lars von Trier, and pioneering producers Nellee Hooper and LFO’s Mark Bell.
...underneath all the layers of ingenuity lies a simple core mission: ‘to follow with my gut the true nature of the songs

Her metamorphosis has been organic and, like other noteworthy artists before her, including David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, she has never failed to inspire awe at each turn. But with Biophilia, Björk has modified the way she creates music, regrounding her relationship with sound.

The project forms a creative hub from which an entire universe has been invented: it encompasses her seventh studio album, a 90-minute documentary, world ‘residency’ tour, educational workshops and an interactive app suite for the iPad and iPhone. ‘I think some computer nerd did the calculations on how many different ways one can go through Biophilia, and the answer is more than million ways. Which means it is not very linear, right?’ she jokes.

Biophilia feels like the culmination of the artist’s 25-plus years in the business, and she must have drawn on every ounce of her well-documented collaborative skills to pull it off. The roll-call of artists, scientists, technicians and designers is astonishing, but underneath all the layers of ingenuity lies a simple core mission: ‘to follow with my gut the true nature of the songs,’ says Björk.

She first began exploring the ideas behind Biophilia more than three years ago, when in Puerto Rico with her engineer Damian Taylor. Together they customised electronic instruments called ‘lemurs’, which had an intuitive touch-screen functionality that pre-empted the iPad. She wrote most of the music for the album using these, inventing new rhythms and melodies as she went along. ‘Some of the songs don’t even fit into any traditional scales because they were improvised freeform along the musical continuum,’ explains Scott Snibbe, Biophilia app designer, executive producer and director of Snibbe Interactive.

‘Björk created the whole album using these new interactive technologies, which were part of her inspiration… Then she wanted to open up her audience to how she had done that, because for her it changed the way she was composing music.’

‘I felt the touch-screen was an opportunity to write my music structurally closer to how I feel it is shaped than usual,’ confirms Björk. ‘Making electronic music sometimes forces you to iron out organic things, make the songs more linear than they are. So for each Biophilia song there was a different algorithm written, a different program…I didn’t have to reprogram how I feel about music though, it was more like technology finally caught up with us and it could reveal how I’d felt about music the whole time.’

She drafted a manifesto outlining the core narrative for each of the 10 songs that make up Biophilia, listing the tracks’ connections to nature and detailing the musicological approach she used to create each. The manifesto acted as a seed that the collaborators took away and incubated.

‘It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life,’ says Snibbe, who worked on various apps, including one for the song Virus. The app crosses the boundary between computer game and music video, with an ‘anti-game’ structure that is purposefully counter-intuitive. Users must try to save a cell from being attacked and killed by viruses, but the only way to hear the whole song is to allow the cell to die. This idea runs parallel to the song’s theme, which explores the relationship between parasites and their hosts.

‘Björk is such a great collaborator, and I think that’s pretty obvious to anyone who pays any attention to her career. Collaborations often dilute the quality of a project, but Björk manages to be both extremely kind and generous while still managing to keep a strong hand and the highest quality end results. She has an extremely gentle way of steering everyone towards a strong goal,’ Snibbe explains.

In addition to the ‘lemurs’, Björk also sourced a range of bespoke instruments that appear both on the album and in the live shows. There is a giant bass-playing pendulum, which harnesses the earth’s gravitational pull, a gamelon-celeste hybrid, a digitally-triggered pipe organ, the ‘Tesla coil’  synth and a ‘sharpsichord’ invented by British composer and sound engineer Henry Dagg.

The sharpsichord was designed and built between 2006 and 2010 as part of a sound sculpture commission for London’s Cecil Sharp House, and came to the attention of Björk through electronica artist Matthew Herbert. Herbert was so taken with the invention he showed Björk some video footage of it and, ‘Pretty soon I had an email from her asking about the possibility of working together on a song with the sharpsichord,’ says Dagg.

Björk and Dagg worked on the track Sacrifice together and, although the sharpsichord parts weren’t complex, it was tricky to play the notes in the right rhythm. The instrument is built around a long chain of linkages and springs that trigger each separate key, which in turn produces each note. It became the sole instrument on Sacrifice, both on the album and live at the Manchester International Festival (MIF), where Biophilia debuted this summer.
Not only is the live show centred round Björk’s performance and an amazing array of bespoke instrumentation, but lighting and visuals also play a key role too, as she attempts to bring audiences into the world of the app suite

Björk’s residency at MIF comprised two shows a week for a three-week run at the Campfield Market Hall, appropriately housed at the Manchester Science Museum. It was the first in a series of six-week residencies that will span eight cities, including her two hometowns of Reykjavik and New York. Björk also drew on Biophilia for her headline Bestival appearance on the Isle of Wight earlier this month.

In each city Björk will use the iPad apps to trigger musical instruments, and will be supported by a 22-strong all-girl Icelandic choir. The venues will also host an exhibition of all the Biophilia artefacts and music education workshops, in collaboration with local schools.

It may sound overly ambitious, but Björk is no stranger to grandiose stage shows, as her last tour will verify. 2007’s Volta was a dizzying 18-month worldwide jaunt with a strong multimedia element. However, this time round she is determined to offer something different in each city, creating a unique musical experience at every location.

As long-time Björk collaborator and Biophilia production manager Peter van der Velde explains, it’s her desire to introduce a range of new elements throughout the tour. ‘The sharpischord was a typically British introduction to Biophilia, but it’s not what we are going to tour with. In Iceland she’s probably going to introduce other musicians into the project, and in San Francisco she might introduce another instrument made by some crazy professor, which I don’t know of yet!’

‘It feels like we’re just starting,’ he laughs. ‘Initially I thought we would develop Biophilia in Manchester, but while we were doing that, Björk kind of pulled the carpet and said “no no no, it has to be unique in each place,” which was really great but at the same time frustrating, because people would ask for things in advance but we would have to see what the venue was, and develop a new show from scratch, to a degree.’

An experienced production manager, van der Velde admits that it took him a while to ‘get his fingers under what Björk was trying to do,’ revealing that it is often a challenge to ascertain what artistic direction she has pre-determined. ‘Generally it’s a test-and-trial procedure — throw balls up in the air and see which ones she hits… [as far as the collaborators go] we roll with the punches along the way, so we always have to be prepared to reshuffle everything, and it keeps you on your toes but it also keeps you very flexible.’

Not only is the live show centered round Björk’s performance and an amazing array of bespoke instrumentation, but lighting and visuals also play a key role too, as she attempts to bring audiences into the world of the app suite. The bedrock themes of science and nature are amplified through three-dimensional graphic displays, while the show opened in Manchester with a narration from David Attenborough – a direct reference to Björk’s deep affinity with the natural world and her admiration for the renowned scientist and broadcaster.

Both the lighting and visuals took their cue from the app design, lighting designer Paul Normandale explains. He was originally invited to join Björk and The Sugarcubes on tour in 1986, and jokes: ‘Björk was my first client ever, so we have a long history of not understanding each other!

Biophilia had a wider brief than any other project I have worked on with her,’ he goes on. ‘Its science and nature concept was very much Björk’s mission, and my role was to help in making it a three-dimensional technical reality within the site specific venue.’

The final element in the Biophilia puzzle is the extraordinary app suite that will accompany the album’s release on 10 October. It encompasses separate apps for each of the 10 songs, allowing fans to interact directly with the music using a range of instruments, games, educational pieces and videos.

Stuart Dredge, digital media analyst and freelance journalist, has been experimenting with the apps for some time now. He explains that the suite feels like a genuinely creative leap forward for music app technology, and believes it has stretched the form into a dimension beyond the realms of a simple marketing device. ‘It’s a really interesting concept, and she is the perfect artist to be pushing the boundaries. She’s always played around with sound and video.

‘Weirdly, because it is really creative and interesting, I think it probably is the best kind of marketing. A lot of acts have them, and it’s about them saying “hey, buy my songs on iTunes, buy my gig tickets”, but this is genuinely complex.’

Despite the suite’s many intricate layers, one of its most striking moments pops up at the very start, when Attenborough whispers, ‘With Biophilia comes a restless curiosity, an urge to investigate and discover the elusive places where we meet nature, where she plays on our senses with colours and forms, perfumes and smells, the tastes and touch…

‘You are the gateway between the infinite and the microscopic…Listen, learn and create.’

Monday 26 September sees the launch of M's Björk Week. We will be talking more to the Biophilia collaborators and posting video footage, reviews and full length interviews with Björk and her team.