The Creation Myth As Science : Bjork on “Biophilia” – Exclusive Interview, 11 novembre 2011

Iconic singer and visual artist Bjork has a decades-long reputation for delivering musical projects that are out of this world. Icelandic-born and sometimes Brooklyn-based, she is regarded as a hero to fans of electronic music and art-rock. Her albums set a high creative bar that is the result of an intense work ethic and rigorous artistic standards. Her latest project is titled Biophilia and it is perhaps her most ambitious work to date. Bjork visited our NYC studio for an interview recently to discuss the creation of this album which is a tribute to the natural world and the elements that shape it.

On a warm summer day in New York City, Bjork came by to explain how Biophilia was conceived and what went into its creation. More than just an album, this project is equal parts music and interactive learning experience. As Bjork created the songs, a team of collaborators built experiential iPad apps, one for each song. Where the songs stive to immerse the listener in the worlds of physics and biology (for instance on the song “Virus”) the apps take the experience into the visual realm with in-depth, informative “games.” Bjork hopes that fans and children alike will use the Biophilia apps to discover some of the elements and processes that make up our universe and govern our existence. Read on for our fascinating discussion with this diminutive star, herself a force of nature. There is perhaps no other artist in the world better suited to tackle a project such as this. Bjork‘s aesthetic discipline and artistic drive make this detail-rich world come to life and be at once educational and enjoyable

Street Date : You performed Biophilia at a residency in Manchester (U.K.). Did those shows provide the model for taking this on the road ?

Bjork : Yeah definitely. I think for me it’s sort of like a concert but except the set up is that the stage is in the middle and there aren’t that many people because it sort of has to be intimate. Then I’m sort of playing the apps, playing the song, and the apps are touch-screen directly connected with the instruments. We have big screens so people while they hear the songs they see the apps because most of the apps are visualizations of the songs. We are trying to make it feel like they are inside the songs.
The dream is to do it in either the natural history museum or science museums because of the educational aspect. The song about crystals – there would be a course for children and they can come and see crystals and biologists will tell them about crystals and then they will see the app and get to play with the instruments and then they can write their own song and put it on a USB key and take it home.

SD : Did you learn a lot about the science behind the subject matter, while creating this project ?

Bjork : I was excited about the project that was going to semi-educational for me. I wanted to show kids how I feel about musicology and a more 3D touch screen tactile environment. Sort of take it out of the academic environment. I wanted to teach but I actually ended up learning a lot of things myself. I guess it is often like that right ? So I feel like I have been in school for 3 years.

SD : While performing on stage with the apps, are you still able to improvise ?

Bjork : Yeah even more so. That is the reason I fell for the touch screen when I saw it. We used to perform with it on our last tour in 2006-2008. I wanted to not only use it to perform but to write with and understand. One of the weaknesses of writing music is you have this sort of computer grid. It’s hard to improvise with or be flexible and hard for example to speed some things up or slow them down. They are sort of wooden but finally I felt with the touch screen now you can be as tactical as with a drum or a guitar. Then you can sort of decide as you go about the structure. You can say ‘I want that verse to play again.’ When you are playing music with a mouse, it just brings out different sides of you. You sort of end up kind of making more sensible decisions and not being as impulsive. With a touch screen I feel like technology has finally caught up with a more organic side and that is why I ended up doing this whole project structured around nature because… I always felt like generating music is sort of passive aggressive so I wanted to just go full on and make it proper aggressive and take over the song.

SD : Did you craft all of the music before you wrote the lyrics for these songs ?

Bjork : They kind of come side by side. In a way the entry point in this was ending the last tour and having those touch screens. The first thing I started was programming pendulums on touch screens because something I always wanted to sing on top of was pendulums as a rhythm because it has a sort of regularity to it but it is also irregular so it is more organic. I would start with the lyrics and I would get really emotional about writing a song and I was like ‘wow that’s sort of like the moon’ so it sort of grew like a plant, quite organically. The moon pulls up the tide and that is the sequence before the song. Once you have that setup, you sort of do a lot of songs so it was a lot of sketches. I guess the 10 songs I ended up picking, I felt the natural element and the emotional angle and the song. Nobody was suffering for the other, they kind of met in equal strength in one point.

SD : At what point did you start fabricating those giant instruments and using them in the creation of Biophilia ?

Bjork : I went to music school from 5 to 15. I kept thinking about what kind of music school I wanted to go to. I wanted [the apps] it to be plugged in with certain acoustics because I felt like with some kids when they play too many computer games they get stuck in this virtual world and I wanted it to be like an exit point out of this virtual thing and that’s why I picked really acoustic things like a pipe organ and gamelan. So I kept trying to think of how I could empower the kid and make it really like music. So it is swirling around with something on a touch screen with its fingers and it is triggering a pipe organ and they would think ‘wow that’s cool.’ You think ‘wow music is impressive and I want to write a billion songs.’

SD : What should listeners infer from your use of cutting-edge technology to explain these natural, physical elements ?

Bjork : I think there is something in me. Sometimes it is too close to me that I can’t see it from afar but I guess I have been in a way ; I am always doing things in the same way. There is an album from 15 years ago called Homogenic and it has beats that have been distorted and I wanted them to sound like volcanic eruptions so they felt like the electronic beats of Iceland. Then we had a tech playing on top of it. You can say there that I was trying to combine the electronic and the acoustic and technology and nature. In a way I am doing it again now but just from a different touch point. You have technology but the touch screen is more impulsive because you can touch it with your finger and it is plugged into something acoustic. Whatever algorithm from the touch screen is based on something in nature so you can say I am doing the same thing with different toys.

SD : But this is much bigger and much grander right ?

Bjork : When I set out to do this project my intention was to simplify things and it’s weird because it sort of became the most complicated project I have done. It wasn’t my intention. After the Volta tour it was bombastic on my standards playing festivals with 10 brass players and waving flags and putting together all the hooligan songs I have done not only on Volta but all my other albums. So I was being bombastic as I could get. When I started doing this I was like ‘wow I’m going to do this educational project, something that is really complicated and we simplify it and do it with just one finger and maybe I can start this music school project in Iceland.’ That is sort of where it all started. Maybe it’s because I was tapping into something that was really fertile where technology is just really a revolution. It’s sort of a plant that kept on growing…

SD : How much of your beliefs and your own person interests are in this ? I’m thinking about “Cosmogony,” where you talk about the birth of the universe. Is it all from your mind or did you draw inspiration from other sources ?

Bjork : For me… sound works different than images. Sound is more like billiards or a pool table because you hit one ball and it goes to the end of the board and it kicks free and it comes back to you. You can really see physics and that is sort of how it works. When I was picking the 10 subject matters, I don’t think it was a coincidence that virus that multiplies and the micro and the macro is like a galaxy and it sounds very utopian and it sounds like a galaxy. Thinking about a solar system : you have the sun and then the planets swirling around it, that is pretty much how sound works.
If you are a musician and you are either writing a song or actually mixing it, you sonically place it. Where do I put the bass and where do I put the high frequencies ? That is sort of why the subject matters ended up in this project because every song is a visualization of sound.
That particular sound, Cosmogony, I guess after watching documentaries about string theory, it was sort of a personal joke, maybe my sense of humor is local and a lot of people might not find it funny because they are talking about Big Bang being 20th Century and string theory being so 21st Century. Big Bang theory felt like a creation myth that is 100 years old. Me and my friends, probably after a few glasses of something, were sort of thinking “I guess all creation myths at the time of their making were science”. I’ll bet the pharaohs thought pyramids and mummies were the future – that was pretty science fiction. 3000 years later it is just mythology and the creation myth. In this song you have 4 verses. The first verse is the American native creation myth, next verse is Sanskrit creation myth, the 3rd verse is Aboriginal creation myth and the 4th verse is Big Bang theory. But it is also tongue and cheek. It is Monty Python. I guess it doesn’t translate as well in print.

SD : Which of the songs should be the starting point for people who listen to this ?

Bjork : I guess I picked “Crystaline” to be the first single probably because for most people who haven’t studied music or think of themselves as sonic sound people, structure is pretty easy to get. That song focuses on music structure and is sort of about the verse being claustrophobic. [In the app] you go through them and then you can pick whatever tunnel comes next and depending on what you picked, that is the next section of the song. If you picked the chorus, everything becomes the opposite of claustrophobic. Everything is spaced out in a nebula.

SD : So after the beginning, is it really about discovery ? You want the listener to figure out his/her own path ?

Bjork : Yeah, in the app you can make up your own path so you can basically make your own version of the song structurally and then these crystals are hovering over your path and whatever path you choose shows in the bundle above. You can email it to your mates and they can play your version of how you think the song should be.

SD : When people come see this live, will you play Biophilia front-to-back or is it a concert with other Bjork music mixed in ?

Bjork : I guess because usually people feel that concerts should be an hour and half, this album is only 50 minutes so I added some songs, but older songs. It is kind of fun because I have a 24-piece choir so I picked songs that I wanted to perform when I couldn’t afford to bring that along on earlier tours. I also picked songs that were musically from the same kind of family as this album. Emotionally for me, the last tour was bombastic but this is kind of the opposite. This tour is about harmony and equilibrium. It is a little more mysterious.

SD : With some of these songs, for instance “Virus” or “Moon,” you can tell right away which element we are talking about. One that stands out in contrast is “Sacrifice.” How does that song fit in ?

Bjork : It is funny you picked that one because it is really the odd one out. A couple of years ago I spent 8 months in Puerto Rico, I rented a house on the beach. While I was there, 5 of my friends [couples] divorced. A lot of them had been together for 10 or more years and it was weird to be on the other side of the Atlantic and try to email or talk on the phone. Maybe because all the other songs are about elements, I guess I became an anthropologist and decided to write down in my book all the things that the girls were complaining about and all the things the guys were complaining about. It was interesting because all the guys were all complaining about very different things while the girls were all complaining about very similar things. So I ended up picking out sentences that they all had in common and skipping what they had different. I kind of puzzled it into a lyric. It was really powerful. It is about complaining. It is quiet and a sad song.
That app is different from the other apps. My friends who designed the look of the whole project, called M&M in Paris, they designed a special music font so that app is about musical notation and music font. That app is called Element. So it is the odd one out.

SD : Do you have a favorite among the apps ? Is there one that you spend the most time on ?

Bjork : No. It is too hard. Also it is kind of a weird project because in a way I was working for so long with imaginary instruments because some of them didn’t get ready until a week before the concert. It has been a lot about fantasizing about things. But now I can write my next project with the apps and with the musical instruments.

SD : So is there more to come ?

Bjork : Yeah I’m looking forward to that. Now that the app box is ready online – that is what the internet should be good at. To be spontaneous. You should be able to write a song and just put it online. So in a way I’ve just gotten to know these apps, and it is exciting.

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