there are so many versions of björk’s biophilia, it’s easy to forget that at root, it’s an album of music, available on cd, download and 12" vinyl, as well as a limited £500 box set ; it’s also a suite of ten ipad/iphone apps, a set of residencies across eight cities, and an educational workshop for schoolchildren. it’s a sprawling project with equally sprawling intentions concerning technology, non-traditional music education methods and bridging the gap between nature and sound.
the app suite is what the publicity for biophilia shouts about. it comprises ten apps, one a hub with a free track and navigational cosmos-like interface, plus nine ‘tracks’ (one app per track). each app contains a game, lyrics, credits, an academic essay and two types of score. both scores allow you to follow the track as it plays, but neither have any tools to play with the elements that make up the song. the “crystalline” game’s audio is arbitrarily fragmented, broken into short loops to soundtrack a crystal collecting game. it’s a slightly patronising conceit, as though simply listening to an album could not possibly be enough to stave off boredom.
other apps are better thought out, bringing the audio elements to the fore. the “moon” app visualises harp notes as stages of the lunar cycle : two looping strings of moons are moved through lunar phases to change their pitch. the phase defines the note each plays to compose a two-part harp loop, offering interaction rather than distraction. disappointingly, only a handful of the apps offer the latter, providing the tools for primitive composition or aids to understanding how music works.
typically for björk, though, none of biophilia feels truly original. existing apps already perform similar functions to those created for her project. brian eno’s bloom raised the bar for generative music apps in 2008, while the visual concept for “crystalline” recalls tetsuya mizuguchi’s synaesthetic computer game rez, and “sacrifice” is a sound effects app with a playback and record function.
but you can’t play biophilia from start to finish in app yet. as it is, the app suite devalues the music, fragmenting it beyond recognition or, in some cases, sidelining it for nifty graphics and games.
musically, biophilia might hold together as an album, but it forms a shaky foundation for the rest of the project. wistful and plain, the plink-plonk of harp and ‘gamelest’ (a gamelan/celeste hybrid controlled via midi) is repetitive. drifting, aimless melodies lead nowhere, trailing björk’s vocals in a fug that calls to mind the drearier sections of medúlla. this could serve as a motif for the whole project : ideas that lead nowhere, without purpose or effect. see also the tenfoot pendulums, commissioned as part of the project’s efforts to bridge the gap between nature and sound. they swing via the force of gravity, with harp strings plucked from barrels at their bases. here, the design exceeds the function – why such an extravagant commission to construct what is essentially a harp ? other commissioned instruments make better use of the sounds of natural phenomena, like the giant tesla coils used to generate basslines.
lyrically, biophilia is a mishmash of geography lessons and uncomfortable metaphors, as on “virus”, which talks about love through the queasy analogy of a spreading fungus. any meat to the movement of her compositions comes in unexpected dollops of digitised percussion (programmed by 16bit, matthew herbert and el guincho), panicked splashes of drum machines at ridiculous bpms or chunks of ugly breakbeat, as at the close of “crystalline”.
björk’s project is too far reaching, conceptually and geographically. collaborating with artists, developers, designers and musicians from across the globe has inevitably resulted in a lack of focus. if the main purpose of biophilia is education, it fundamentally flawed in its choice of platform, since access to iphones and ipads is restricted (even björk has said that the apps have been specifically designed to be easily hacked and pirated for other devices).
björk has embraced digital in an awkward hug that has squeezed her music out of shape. positively speaking you could say biophilia takes her a step deeper into digital zones little charted by other musicians. at worst, it’s a supermarket sweep : a giddy wish list made reality without the conceptual foundations to hold it up." jennifer lucy allan