Artists Of The Year

CMU Artists Of The Year 2011: Björk

By | Published on Thursday 22 December 2011


In nearly 35 years as a performer, Björk has never been conventional and has done much to push the boundaries of music in her time. But for her latest album, ‘Biophilia’, she experimented not only musically but also with how the music itself was released.

Having released the theme tune for a Moomins film and soundtracked fashion photographer Nick Knight’s short film dedicated to mutual friend Alexander McQueen in 2010, Björk revealed in January this year that she was in the process of recording her eighth solo album, but refused to elaborate further. Then two months later she announced a three week residency at the Manchester International Festival in June and July, with a blurb that posed the question: “Where do music, nature and technology meet?”

The answer was apparently ‘Biophilia’ “a multi-media project encompassing music, apps, internet, installations and live shows” designed to celebrate “how sound works in nature, exploring the infinite expanse of the universe, from planetary systems to atomic structure”.

It was evidently an ambitious project, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what Björk had planned. Then in June, it was announced that each track on the ‘Biophilia’ album would come with a separate app allowing fans to “interact with the song as well as associated visuals”, released one by one but all housed in a “mother-app”.

Although this idea has been written off by some as little more than a marketing tool, the idea had its origins in 2009 when Björk was trying to think of something that would turn her recorded music into an experience, rather than a collection of tracks that could simply be half-heartedly pirated online. She explained to Wired earlier this year that her original plan was to have different songs playing in different rooms of a house “like a museum” and a 3D film directed by Michel Gondry. The film was scuppered when Gondry became unavailable, but the music house idea grew and changed with the launch of the iPad.

Björk used Apple’s tablet computer in both the writing and recording of ‘Biophilia’, but all the time work was also going on to develop the apps through which the music would be released. And it’s clear that the final result is anything but a quickly thrown together marketing endeavour. With an introduction by David Attenborough, the apps do provide a different way to experience the album. True, I have probably listened to the record far more via more traditional means, but the various software experiences do give you a different relationship with the music, particularly those which allow the user to manipulate the music itself.

Add to that the score and lyric visualisations that come as extras and you’ve got the thing that anyone who’s ever complained that no one sits down and looks at album artwork in the digital age should be crying out for.

In the accompanying live show, Björk unveiled some of the custom instruments she had built for the recording of the album, including one constructed from a Tesla coil for the song ‘Thunderbolt’, which had the added bonus of being visually impressive. With it giving off (albeit artificial) lightning, it was one of the ways the themes of nature that run through the album were represented. With a stage set that designed to look like a Victorian hall, and a combination of video footage, narration by David Attenborough and a 25-piece Icelandic choir thrown into the mix, it was certainly a spectacle.

‘Biophilia’ as a whole is a hugely ambitious project, and one that perhaps overstretches itself at times. The music at its centre is not perfect, with ever shifting odd time signatures ensuring it’s not an easy listen. But there are plenty of successes within it, and plenty to keep drawing you back in. Songs like ‘Crystalline’ and ‘Mutual Core’ find the album at its most accessible, while opener ‘Moon’ is one I think I would enjoy less had I not spent time playing with its app.

And I don’t see that fact that Björk sometimes overstretches herself as a bad thing, per se. She clearly attempted to push herself, her music, and technology as far as she could with ‘Biophilia’, and if that means occasionally slipping over the edge then so be it. She still succeeded in her aim, and created something (or indeed some things) that will act as a marker in music, and the music and technology industries. We need more people like Björk.

Below is a video of Björk performing ‘Thunderbolt’ live at the Manchester International Festival earlier this year:

Find more of CMU’s ten Artists Of The Year here.