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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.

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Björk performing in New York on February 18.  

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.


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