Bjork doesn’t have to do much to warrant interest. But having described new project Biophilia in March as consisting of “music, apps, internet, installations, and live shows”, ears were even more pricked than usual. She’s referred to Biophilia as “music of the spheres”, an implication of the wider themes of the project: nature and the universe, their interplay, and the importance of that relationship in music. Yet with a team of developers and engineers, she’s created something that uses cutting-edge technology to do so much more than a concept album.
Three months later, I’m sat in a crowded, sweaty exhibition area at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, in a group of around 50 reporters local, national and international getting the first glimpse of Biophilia, her first offering since 2007’s ‘Volta’. Onstage, in front of a pair of screens, are her PA James Merry and iPad app developer Scott Snibbe, who worked closely on the project from conception to creation, and biographer Nicola Dibben.
Like the topics of nature and technology it covers, Bjork’s Biophilia project has – in the words of app co-ordinator Scott Snibbe – had “quite a lot of steps of evolution”. From the blueprint of “a physical house which was going to tour” the venture has, over 3 years, moved perhaps into its natural habitat: the world of the iPad, on which much of it was created. Where its earliest physical manifestation consisted of a room for each of the album’s ten tracks, its iPad equivalent is presented as ten constellations, each a part of the Biophilia ‘app suite’ galaxy. The shell of the Biophilia app is free, while content for each track can be added separately at a cost.
At its most basic, birds-eye view, this galaxy looks not unlike a Microsoft Paint experiment – harsh, black lines crossing and clashing with its blank canvas background, a child’s imaginary cosmos made real. But as your forefingers separate on the screen and you’re zoomed deeper and deeper into the constituent units of this creation, the level of detail becomes clearer and the manner in which something 2-dimensional and lifeless has been turned into a living, breathing creation is palpable. Bjork hasn’t just fitted a concept album around the nature and technology that surrounds her, but rather made them work within the framework of her choosing.
Each of the tracks in the app is available in a handful of ways, using the track in both ‘song mode’ (that’s to say, the product Bjork created) and ‘instrument mode’ in which the listener can reshape the track or play along. It’s just one aspect of what Snibbe refers to as an “intuitive and tactile” experience and an example of the app suite’s ‘completely infinite pallette’. The tracks, when just being listened to, are also presented variously in standard animated notation – like sheet music – and a more abstract infographic-style visual, with shapes, lines and colours representing parts of the music typically reserved for notes, staves and dynamics. The suggestion is that Bjork has tried to introduce styles of notation that are more “functional and real” than sheet music, in an effort to appeal to listeners – both young and old – put off by what can appear as requiring a diploma and years of practice. As Snibbe points out, “she doesn’t want music to be an elite club… she wants it to be something instinctive.” In the visuals for lead single Crystalline, for example, the structural complexity of the track is presented as a Guitar Hero meets Sonic the Hedgehog-style game, where the listener speeds down a twisting tunnel and for every crystal they add to their growing collection, they get closer and closer to the track’s explosive, Aphex Twin-esque rhythmic pinnacle.
Part of the rejection of elitism is Biophilia’s use in education. Dr Nicola Dibben, Bjork’s biographer and Musicologist at Sheffield University, describes how “schoolchildren are coming to MOSI in the coming weeks and taking part in demonstrations.” We get a sneak peek, being shown the DNA-themed visuals to new track Virus which will form the basis of a talk from a DNA scientist for local schoolchildren, alongside an ongoing DNA exhibition at the museum. In the programme we’re handed as the show begins Bjork’s “wonder at the natural world” is referenced and the stunning visuals of shifting tectonic plates (for Mutual Core ) and lunar cycles (Moon) not only harness this wonder but passes it on to the audience. Indeed, introduced and narrated throughout by David Attenborough, the feel of Bjork’s live offering is certainly one of education: something which, as Dibben argues, has practical applications in the schoolroom as well as on the stage. In Biophilia, Manchester International Festival’s promise to create events “engaging for local communities” has reached its most laudable point yet.
Like much of the festival’s content, Biophilia’s live aspect has a residency in Manchester before touring internationally. Taking place at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Campfield Market Hall, it’s quite something to behold: a raft of original and unique instruments created especially for the project adorn all four corners of a stage that sits in the centre of the hall. On one corner, a ‘pendulum-harp’ consists of four swinging columns, each with a plectrum fixed to the base and striking a different note as they pass through a base structure. On another, a ‘sharpsicord’ uses pre-programmed synthesizers to bring a 21st century twist on the 19th century autonomous ‘pianola’, with keys rising and falling without human interaction. Another, the ‘reactable’, is a table-top midi controller and synthesizer that most closely resembles the iPad itself. Bjork and 24-piece Icelandic choir Graduale Nobili take centre-stage, and over 90 minutes make a case for Biophilia sitting comfortably alongside the rest of the singer’s back catalogue.
From the opening crackles of Thunderbolt, which uses a Tesla coil to play its sharp, abrasive basslines, through Crystalline, which uses a ‘gameleste’ (half gamelan, half celeste) for its twinkling, metallic rhythm, it’s evident that the extraordinary instrumentation that surrounds those onstage is more than just for show. While some acts using new instrumentation can disappear in a haze of style over substance, Bjork has created original music from original means. And when these innovations at points threaten to overshadow the real attraction of the night, Bjork’s stunning vocals and the interplay with her choir (specifically on the sumptuous Hidden Place and Where Is The Line? from acapella album ‘Medulla’) is often more affecting and gripping than any host of gadgetry.
Over 90 minutes, there are 10 old and 10 new tracks, with the first quarter exclusively consisting of Biophilia material. While a stunning pairing of One Day and Joga provides a highlight for those (many) in the crowd who appear to have been followers since day one, newer offerings like Hollow resonate with the same emotion and tenderness as anything that preceded them.
High concept isn’t new for Bjork. Each of her albums appears to trump the previous, in presenting something that on paper appears a wild departure, yet on closer inspection isn’t nearly as baffling as first thought. Yet with Biophilia, she’s taken everything up a notch, in telling a wholly original story with instrumentation that allows new possibilities, and presenting it in a way that rejects the constraints of music ‘schools’. And, most importantly, it works: every aspect of the project, from the ‘app suite’ to the live show, with the 10 new tracks that constitute it at its heart, is stunningly impressive. Scott Snibbe may histrionically describe it as “like the birth of opera, or the birth of theatre”, yet throughout it has the air of something truly ground-breaking and worth experiencing first-hand.