Björk’s Big Bang

Don’t be frightened, says the Icelandic singer turned professor of science and musicology. Even that gravity harp won’t kill you.
Nitsuh Abeb 02/26/12 New York magazine

It’s tempting to imagine yourself crossing over the threshold of Björk’s home and into a magical Björkian realm—some place where it’s snowing indoors, or a papier-mâché hedgehog offers to take your coat, or there’s a tiny live volcano instead of an oven. She comes from Iceland, makes a few wildly inventive albums, and wears one swan-shaped dress to the Oscars, and this is the caricature that sticks: Björk the magic elf, Björk the giddy sprite. She’s remembered by one of my family members as “the one who dressed up like a chicken” and is regularly impersonated by Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig as a giggling eccentric who spouts charming nonsense (“Would you like to hold my invisible baby?”). A sketch this February had her knitting a sweater for an octopus, with “one extra hole for its dreams and ideas.”

And yet Björk does not, for better or worse, live in an enchanted forest. She lives in a bright, orderly penthouse in Brooklyn Heights, at least during the third of the year when she’s not in Reykjavík or on tour. The only one there to take my coat is her assistant, a lanky British human named James. I even manage to meet Björk in the most unmagical way possible: while exiting a typically narrow Brooklyn-apartment bathroom that she’s paused in front of, clearly wondering who’s in there if James is still talking to her from the kitchen. She’s makeup-free, hair pulled back, and padding down the hall in big woolly socks. “Oh,” she says. “I was just going to make some coffee, if you want some.” True, she’s wearing a ­garment that does not conform to the definition of any garment this average American knows the name of, something like a boxy sleeveless kurta. A couple weeks from now, an acquaintance will spot her on the street and say she looks like she’s dressed for a penguin’s funeral. But today it’s more like she’s just dropping by to bring a hot dish and look after the penguin’s kids while the widow gets some rest—all very sensible and around-the-house.

Björk’s family has been in this apartment for two and a half years now. “I never thought I would ever move to such an urban city,” she says. “I could never live in Manhattan—I’m too Icelandic for that. But there are incredible schools here.” The schools are for Ísadóra, now 9, her daughter with art star Matthew Barney. The penthouse has windows looking out in all directions and takes in enough sunlight for eight to ten more ordinary Brooklyn homes. “I get claustrophobic in urban situations,” Björk says, “but at least here you have the option to relate to the sky.” We sit in a nook off the kitchen, in which Isadora has drawn a season on each wall; there are polar bears, foxes, berries, and women stacking bananas on a tropical island labeled “not Iceland.” Björk’s been relating to the sky by doing some wall-drawing of her own, lightly tracing out blocks of sunlight and dating the marks. At the moment, she’s looking forward to 9:15 tomorrow morning, when the sun should return to one of last winter’s lines.

Once we’re settled and caffeinated, we talk about her latest record, Biophilia. The conversation is not particularly whimsical. Björk is, after all, one of the most hyperanalytical musicians ever to have put an album on Billboard’s top ten. A rigorous conceptual thinker, beloved by listeners with conservatory training, academic tastes, and shelves full of records by Meredith Monk and Steve Reich. A musician who’s been interviewed on Charlie Rose, where she compared her working methods to those of a librarian. Her presence this afternoon isn’t particularly ebullient; it’s more organized around restless energy, idle drumming of fingers on tables, and a hard-thinking squint, like a meerkat taking a philosophy midterm. Before long, she’s hopping to the piano to explain why it’s a “very European, almost Fascistic” instrument; demonstrating how different musical scales intersect like numbers on multiplication tables; describing digital sound-editing as a kind of sonic needlework; and talking about the difficulties of constructing electronic ­controls for Indonesian gamelan instruments or the different sonorities that come from replacing a celesta’s steel bars with bronze ones.

This might be a good time to mention that Biophilia, in addition to being an album, is an educational tool. And Björk, in addition to being an artist of global standing, is now sort of a music teacher, too.

Biophilia was released this past ­October, and it’s what has Björk in New York for the moment—first for five small concerts at the New York Hall of Science and to oversee a music-education program, and then for a string of shows, through March 5, at the Roseland Ballroom. Biophilia is also super-­complicated, so bear with me for a moment.

For one thing, the album is about ­natural science: lunar phases, the growth of crystals, DNA replication, viruses, planetary motion (hence the set of performances at the Hall of Science). For ­another, it’s about musicology, with a heavy emphasis on the structural details of how its own songs are put together (hence the music-education program). In addition to all the ordinary sonic formats, it was released as a collection of iPad and iPhone apps, one for each song—­including electronic instruments, arty interactive gewgaws, and teaching tools. (The whole thing is now officially part of the core curriculum for Reykjavík middle schools over the next three years.) And each song is built around a set of interlocking ideas, from the science to the music to the apps to the massive custom-built instruments some of them are performed on.

The whole thing can get alarmingly complex. A song about inspiration and “craving miracles,” for instance, is called “Thunderbolt.” Musically, it showcases the massive arpeggios (a chord broken into individual notes) of the bass line—which is performed live using a giant Tesla coil that belches purple sparks and makes thunderous, flatulent, physically palpable noises. In the corresponding application, you can play those arpeggios by tracing lines of electricity across a touchscreen, transforming the music around Björk’s vocals and, ideally, learning something tactile about how it functions. You get “a spatial feeling for it,” she says. “Music and sound are so not bookish. It’s a 3-D thing.”

Note that “Thunderbolt” is just one of ten songs, each with an emotional thrust, a scientific one, a musico-structural one, an app that will be deployed in the service of educating Reykjavík-area tweens, and occasionally a whole instrument designed to capture the connections between these things. Like, for instance, the “gravity harp,” a series of ten-foot pendulums that are, in Björk’s words, “definitely the divas of the tour.” When we talk, she’s in the middle of negotiating to bring them along for a performance on The Colbert Report, but the show can’t accommodate them; they take days to tune every time they’re moved. (They’re also big enough that the artist who built them, Andy Cavatorta, had to worry about safety: “I didn’t want to be that guy, the guy who killed Björk.”)

Note also that this mad-scientist stuff wasn’t funded by some outrageous old-fashioned major-label contract that lets Björk throw money at whatever invisible baby she happens to dream up and let someone else do all the invisible diaper-changing. When the project began, she was between contracts; all the administrative work was done by her and her team. Profits from Björk’s last record funded the recording of the album, and the construction of instruments was paid for by the Polar Music Prize—an award dreamed up in the eighties by ABBA’s former manager and worth about $150,000. Development of the apps was done for free, with profits split fifty-fifty between Björk and the programmers—the standard cooperative arrangement from her early days as a punk, when she played with acts like Spit and Snot and Tappi Tíkarass (translation: Cork the Bitch’s Ass). The administrative challenges alone seem … substantial. “Everything in the project works together,” Björk says. “It’s about equilibrium and harmony in that way.”

“The original idea for Biophilia was, it’s like a troubadour album,” she says. (Here she mimes a troubadour, sitting alone with an invisible lute—and since the way Björk rolls her r’s is practically a totemic sound for a certain generation of music fans, you can imagine her selling an entire album of herself just saying “troubadour.”) “I can’t play the piano and sing, and I can’t play acoustic guitar and sing. So I started off with a touchscreen in my lap.” This being before the release of the iPad, she used a piece of music hardware called Lemur, wired to a celesta she’d bought secondhand from the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.

Oddly enough, it’s a straight line from that simple idea—Björk sitting alone with a touchscreen, accompanying herself—to the complexity of Biophilia. She’d always thought, for instance, that good bass lines felt like pendulums, controlled by gravity, so she worked with producer Damian Taylor and app developer Max Weisel to create a touchscreen program that’d let her play them that way. (The result is that “diva” gravity harp, huge cantilevered arms wrapped in strings.) And that process continued: Suddenly Björk could reconceptualize music-­making however she liked, then sit down with software that actually let her compose accordingly. “It was very selfish—what sort of tool would I have wanted when I was 8? What went wrong in my own school? It sent me back there.”

Hence Biophilia’s educational component, which aims to chip away at all the rigid, bookish, or “Fascistic” parts of learning music, replacing them with something more natural and intuitive. “I’ve always thought it’s unfair that electronic musicians have this minority complex, like ‘I don’t know about major or minor keys,’ ” she says. “As if that’s going to change anything. Part of Biophilia is explaining to those people: It’s not scary. Music education has always been on this pedestal, as the VIP club of the chosen few who are very smart.”

In each city where Björk takes up residence on this tour, groups of schoolchildren will get demonstrations of the instruments and lessons on the iPad apps, whose principles are based on Björk’s original tools. (The one for “Solstice,” the song with the pendulums, lets you compose harp parts by pulling strings from a central sun and flicking planets into orbit to pluck them.) “It turned out generous, like: How can I empower children? But the other side of the coin was that it was selfish: How can I be a self-sufficient troubadour?”

The result is that each song winds up literally taking apart something about how music works—song structure, time signatures, scales, chords, arpeggios—and then reassembling it, Björkwise. It’s no wonder the album itself felt thin or disappointing to some critics. Heard on its own, it can feel bare bones, perhaps undercooked, and certainly a long way from the lavishly expressive sounds on Björk’s first few albums. Some songs sound educational, as if they contain just enough parts to demonstrate a principle. Others are oddly open-ended, as if they were left flexible so you could warp and shape them in the applications. Some of the music sounds almost academically complex. But then there are tracks, such as “Virus,” that are tender and meditative and way too full of feeling to accuse of having gotten lost in the concept.

It’s a lot more immediate onstage, backed by mad-scientist Tesla coils and monumental pendulums, by an array of iPad controllers, by downtown legend Zeena Parkins on harp, and by an Icelandic choir that occasionally starts bouncing and shouting ecstatically, resulting in sprays of blonde hair that resemble a really avant-garde conditioner commercial. At the first of Björk’s shows at the New York Hall of Science, in Queens—where interactive exhibits help cultivate that museum state of mind that inclines a person to get stonerishly fascinated by the intricacies of orbital motion or tectonic plates—the audience was ­studious, rapt, and, remarkably, almost religiously silent. The biggest cheers were for spare, meditative numbers, intimate showcases for Björk’s voice. Troubadour songs. Midway through, something occurred to me: Björk’s voice is so singular, and by now so familiar, that it wears off, to the point where we can put on her latest record and be slightly deaf to how remarkable it is. Hear it live in a small room, and you’re reminded. Maybe not to whatever eye-opening, pulse-spiking extent attended your first exposure to “Birthday” or “Human Behaviour” or ­“Hyperballad” or whatever else first turned your head—but you’re definitely reminded.

“Birthday”—that was the single that introduced Björk, one of a set of anarchic Icelandic New Wavers called the Sugarcubes, to an international audience. Her voice, back then, did not exactly lead fans to imagine a left-brained administrator type. The song’s chorus that was just a series of potent vocal sounds, growls and wails, and ecstatic coos wobbling in and out of one another. Up until she developed a vocal-cord nodule a few years ago, Björk made a point of not investigating how that instrument worked. “With arrangements and lyrics,” she says, squinting over her coffee, “I work more with the left side of my brain. But my voice has always been very right brain. I didn’t try to analyze it at all. I didn’t even know until I started all this voice work, two years ago, what my range was. I didn’t want to let the academic side into that—I worried the mystery would go.”

Still, since the success of her first two solo albums—colorful collections, made with British dance producers, that seemed to approach pop music as one big inflatable bouncy castle—she’s chased ever more rigorous ideas and more ­ambitious formal constraints. One record combined electronic production and orchestral arrangements (1997’s Homogenic). One was embroidered from tiny sampled sounds (2001’s Vespertine); another, built almost entirely from the human voice (2004’s Medúlla). She dropped the funhouse sonics and peppy house beats and took to using instruments with spare, ascetic sounds—plucked harps, droning organs, crackling electronics. Over the past decade, some critics have complained that her music has grown increasingly austere, intellectually abstracted, maybe even cold or distant.

But along the way, Björk wound up in a place rare and special and worth making sure someone gets to occupy: She’s a musician free to dive headlong into experiments and abstractions while still carrying the reach of a pop artist. Sort of a designated explorer, if you will. She gets to be curious on a grand scale—something she is remarkably good at—and if making an album about sailing around the world on a boat (2007’s Volta), or designing musical pendulum robots, or geeking out about DNA replication comes at the expense of a few funhouse hooks, this still strikes me as a net gain.

Her new role is perfect for an artist who’s always treated abstract ideas and visceral emotions as if they’re the same thing. All through Björk’s catalogue, you find her turning animals, nature, and science into vivid metaphors for human feelings. “Oceania,” the song she wrote for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, was sung from the point of view of the ocean itself, hugging the continents and watching humanity with motherly pride. On Biophilia, she sings about proteins, viruses, and the two tectonic plates yawning apart beneath Iceland—but every song’s clearly about love and family structure, the “equilibrium and harmony” between people who have tied themselves to one another. The continents grow apart like a couple. The virus is dependent on its host, and the host is changed by that dependency. For an album that can seem a bit academic, it’s also pretty emotionally raw.

Björk has brought this Biophilia tour package three places thus far for long residencies like the one currently under way in New York. The first two were in Manchester and Reykjavík, though she doesn’t entirely count those as normal stops: One was part of the Manchester International Festival, and the other was just home. New York is the first big city for which she’s had to independently arrange all of the project’s parts: a museum to host small shows; a partner to run the educational component; and larger shows, like the ones at Roseland, to help pay for it all. “This has become a bit of a beast to tour with,” she acknowledges in the same calm, optimistic way a city bureaucrat might talk about budget projections. “We just about manage to come out on zero, financially.” Next up are Buenos Aires and San Francisco, assuming she can find the right partners to work with. “It’s a little bit like I’m 18 again, in a band. Everything was DIY: We made the posters ourselves, glued them up ourselves. Biophilia is a bit like this for me. It’s an exchange that feels equal. With the science museums, we give them the educational album for free, if they teach the kids for free. This project has to be sort of like that.”

The whole project seems like an alarming amount of work to do, and fund, and organize, for someone who could just as easily hire a couple of producers, spend a month in a studio singing over oddball house beats, record a marvelous pop album, sell insanely expensive special editions of it to obsessive superfans, and get loads of frothing press (plus, surely, higher album sales) for the effort. Why all the extra work—why does each of her albums seem to involve reinventing her entire working method, or purchasing a boat, or dissecting musicology? “Most of it is because I get bored,” she says. “Also, I was in bands for fifteen years. My first solo album came out when I was 27, and I’d been doing shows since I was 13. It’s always the same lineup, the same venues. Every song, all the instruments are playing, from the beginning of the song to the end of the song. I loved that, I really enjoyed it, but when it was finished, I was kind of like a kid in a toy shop. Like, I’ve been in indie bands for years, now I’m gonna have ­Bollywood orchestras and saxophones. It’s like the ADHD of instruments. But the ADHD in Biophilia is in the structure.”

And in between these grand musical expeditions, there are important small things for Björk to attend to as well. For instance, her daughter has just arrived back home and found an exciting piece of egg in her lunch that is the same shape as Africa—so Björk has to go take a look at that, too.

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One Response to “Björk’s Big Bang”

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