The Icelandic avant musician worked with Apple to use iPhone and iPad apps to release Biophilia—a record that mimics lightning, DNA strands, crystals, and "zombie snails"
Björk's new album, Biophilia, is an expedition into the creative canyon between science and technology. Conceived out of a simple interest in the relationship between the nature and sound, like a rapidly evolving organism itself, the scale of the project multiplied from there. Academics and multimedia designers were consulted. Instruments were invented (including a synthesizer that plays lightning). Three years later, the result is not only Björk's most musically elaborate record to date, but the first in history to be released in a constellation of iPad/iPhone apps (though the album's music will be released as, yes, an album tomorrow). In an email interview, the iconic Icelandic musician discussed the many dimensions of her latest work.
With its multimedia aspect, Biophilia seems to be one of the most ambitious projects you've even taken on. Would you say that this album is your magnum opus? What does "magnum opus" mean? Just Googled it, hmm... To be honest, Biophilia started as me thinking I would downscale from Volta, that being a hooligan, flag-and-trumpet-on-a-top-of-a-mountain kinda thing. So in autumn 2008 we started programming the behaviour of a pendulum on a Lemur touchscreen, which we later then plugged into small organ pipes we found on eBay. The idea for me was to be self sufficient, have the natural elements in my lap that I could then play by plugging into acoustic instruments. This idea then multiplied and funnily enough became one of the most multilayered albums I have done. The original idea is still very simple. And when you see the show or play with the apps, most people so far have commented on how cut-the-crap it is and simple. It just looks complicated on paper.
What were some of the greatest challenges involved in the creative process?
Well, on a functional level, no one had before made these connections, and there were a lot of people along the way that didn't get it. I don't blame them, really. So it became very DIY and without budget, the three or four of us kinda hacked through hindrances for a couple of years. But once we could show people the apps, folks have been incredibly positive, and the last year or so has been really fluid.
In terms of the way the album is structured, it seems like it could have been influenced by Gustav Holst's "The Planets." Was it?
Well, I did hear it as a child in music school but haven't listened to it recently...
Biophilia is known as the world's first app album, in collaboration with Apple. What has been the response to this project from Apple?
When I met Apple, I made it very clear that I am an old punk and I have never done commercials or been sponsored. And I wasn't after their money. It was simply to make sure that, technologically, they could receive our app box and distribute it. No one had done an app box before, and they were the only ones who could distribute it. They were incredibly welcoming and expressed excitement in the fact that we had picked their tool. They then had to program new stuff.
After producing an album this way, do you think you'll ever go back to the "traditional" format for your next one, or will you continue releasing music in app form from here on out?
Well, this album comes out as an album as well. That hasn't gone away. If you don't have an iPad or iPhone, you can still get the music only. I try not to plan too far ahead as I very easily get claustrophobic. So we'll have to see...
Do you believe that apps represent the future of how music will be released? Do you anticipate that other artists will follow in your footsteps?
Not sure, we will have to see. I think connecting natural elements and musicology is probably pretty idiosyncratic of me, so it is hard to imagine anyone else going down that route. But I guess each musician could have a little something visual he sees in his or her songs. And a touchscreen is a great way of sharing that.
Have you read any of Ray Kurzweil's writing on The Singularity? What do you think are the implications of future technology on music, and what do you make of the idea that one day computers will be composing songs on their own?
Well they already can and have been for a while. But are we listening to it? I feel there has always been that fear of the tool. Doesn't matter if man discovered fire, the knife, nuclear energy or the computer. With every tool there will always be the moral question, what will we do with it? And how will we include our feelings and put soul into what we do with these tools. And each and every one of us will solve it for ourselves and it won't be once for all, we will have to ask us this question again and again through life. And I like that.
The "Crystalline" app is an interactive musical game. Do you play video games, yourself, or have you ever in your life?
The album has a real scientific basis. Have you always been interested in biology and technology? Had you not been a musician, do you think you would have become a scientist?
Possibly?! I had never thought about that... I wanted to map out on a touchscreen how I experience musicology and then write with it. The most natural way I could make music visual for me was to compare it to elements in nature. So shapes of songs are like crystals, arrangements multiply like viruses, chords are like strata in tectonic plates, rhythm like DNA replicates, arpeggios like lightnings and so on... sound is pretty abstract and sometimes hard to explain it and talk about it, unless you compare it to something visual that everyone knows.
You've said that part of your research in preparing this album was figuring out where nature and music meet. Specifically, which elements of nature inspired you the most?
Because of the educational angle I went for the most simple touchpoint. Arpeggios and lightnings, rhythm and DNA replication and so on...
How did zombie snails helped inspire the writing of the song "Virus"?
That song is about symbiotic relationships in nature and zombie snails seemed to be interesting enough... I hadn't really heard about that before and got really excited when I watched it on youtube...
Between your work on Volta, Mount Wittenburg Orca with Dirty Projectors, and now Biophilia, it seems like your music has become more earth-conscious in the past few years. Why is nature a theme that is important to you in this phase of your career?
Nature has always been important to me. It has always been in my music. In Reykjavik, Iceland, where I was born, you are in the middle of nature surrounded by mountains and ocean. But you are still in a capital in Europe. So I have never understood why I have to choose between nature or urban. Perhaps it is just a different reality, perhaps people that live in cities abroad only experience nature for two weeks a year in their holiday, and then they experience it as some trip to Disneyland or something. That it isn't real. I have noticed the magazine shelves in cities have like music papers, porn and then like [National Geographic] describing some lost Utopian world people will never get to see... Sorry, don't mean to get defensive, but you city folks are the odd ones, not us. Nature hasn't gone anywhere. It is all around us, all the planets, galaxies and so on. We are nothing in comparison.
Can you describe what the live shows associated with this album will be like?
We are trying to keep them quite intimate. The stage will be in the middle and all the bespoke instruments and a 24-girl Icelandic choir. We are playing the apps in real time. The touch screens are plugged into the instruments that play obviously in real time what we do on the touch screens. Then we have big screens for the listeners so they can see in real time again what is happening in the apps. So it is set up in a way so the listeners feel like they are inside the apps.
You worked with Dr. Nikki Dibben, a musicologist, during your research. What sorts of discoveries did you make with her?
She has been incredibly helpful keeping her academic hat on while I could more keep impulsive and follow my gut.
What sorts of things (images, video) did you send Michel Gondry as reference points to inspire his work on your Crystalline video?
Lot of nature YouTube links, DIY chemistry stuff, and then played him the songs and told him the stories around them.
For people who don't know, what is the Gameleste, and why was it important to you that this be made?
It is an old Celeste of mine that has been gutted and the notes replaced with bronze ones. It then has midi, which basically means that it understands digital information. Which means that you can play a touchscreen (an app) and the Gameleste will play what you did while you do it.
And can you describe the Tesla coil synth? It looks really powerful. Are there any dangers associated in playing it?
Tesla coils have been around for almost a century. So the ones going around now are very safe.