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Björk’s Big Bang


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.”

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