Q&A: Bjork Talks Ambitious New App Project

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Bjork performs 'Biophilia' in Manchester, UK on June 23, 2011 (Photo: Carsten Windhorst/Camera Press/Retna)
WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

Twenty-five years into a career that's already defined by artistic experimentalism, Icelandic iconoclast Bjork will release her most ambitious project yet: Biophilia, an album-as-multimedia that explores the links between music, nature, and technology via interactive apps, custom musical instruments, live performances, and educational workshops for children.

Biophilia will first arrive as 10 apps, one for each song, all housed under an umbrella "mother app." Each app has its own naturalistic theme, inspired by the song's lyrics and music -- for example, the app for "Virus" features a game in which you have to stop a virus from decimating cells. Each app also includes a musical animation, an academic essay, and a feature that allows users to interact with elements of the song and learn about music structure while creating their own version. Bjork's longtime collaborator, director Michel Gondry, is shooting new music videos, too (though those 'won't be included in the app).

Bjork worked in partnership with Apple and a number of high-profile programmers on the project, including the creators of Sim City the bestselling apps Gravilux and Bubble Harp. Max Weisel, the high school student behind the "musical geometry" app, Soundrop, also participated.

"You're seeing sounds," she tells SPIN. "The apps are basically visualizations of the songs."

On June 30, Bjork launched Biophilia with a performance at the Manchester International Festival. Sporting a fluffy orange wig, Bjork used apps to play a set of custom-built musical instruments, including four 10-foot pendulum-harps, a 10-foot pin barrel harp called the Sharpsichord, a digital pipe organ, and a synthesizer that "played" lightning (the song "Thunderbolt" was accompanied by flashing Tesla coils).

Exhausted yet? There's more: Music School Biophilia, a playful educational program that allows children to explore the instruments, apps, scientific concepts, and technologies. The show is hitting the road, too, stopping in difference cities for months-long residencies in each, totaling three years in all. And it'll all going to be documented on a 90-minute documentary film, set to be unveiled later in the Biophilia campaign.

Whew. SPIN recently sat down with Bjork in New York City to ask her a few questions.

You don't currently have a record label -- who foots the bill for an ambitious project like this?
I met with National Geographic -- you know, the channel with sharks and pandas -- in Washington, DC. We talked about the album and even a show with me as an explorer. But I think everybody was terrified of the Biophilia project; it was too out there. It's the first time I've had to go out and pitch a project and I don't blame them [for their skepticism]. In the end, we financed the music ourselves. The guys making the app offered to work for free, then we'd share the profits.

That's awful nice of them.
Yeah. It's like the punk days -- we all do the work for free and then we share the profits 50/50. I've never been sponsored and I've never done a commercial. Apple actually asked me in the past to do a commercial for them and I was like, "No, I'm going to stick to my principles." But we visited them when we were almost done with Biophilia because we had to make sure, since nobody had ever done this before, that there was room for this on an iPhone or iPad. We said, "We're not here asking for any money. We just want to know if your programmers would facilitate us." And they were amazing. Apple welcomes people that want to push their innovations.

Did you always envision Biophilia as a teaching tool?
Yeah! As I slowly wrote all the songs, I felt they were based on all that went wrong in my musicology class when I was a kid. I was there for 10 years and I never understood why writing music is considered such an academic thing, especially for kids. The older I get, the more I realize that what the kids are taught in school is very much based on 17th century German/Christian values. There's nothing wrong with that. But how is that going to help a kid in the 21st century? When I was a kid I wanted to make a music school, but then this pop thing happened. I'm not complaining,it's been fun. But it took a bit longer than I thought. When touch-screen technology came along, I was like, "Now we can do things." We can reconnect music with nature and sound. People are obsessed with sound; they understand that it's not an intellectual thing. It's more of an impulsive, intuitive thing. I picked songs where sound and subject meet. I could do 5,000 songs. But I decided to pick the most obvious tracks and I kept imagining that this album would be for an eight-year-old.

Wait...how old is your daughter?
She's eight.

So was she your little lab rat?
Yeah! But then when I started working with older people, I realized that they never had a music education either. They really wanted to learn, too. It's musicology 101: Scales, chords, counterpoint, arpeggios, time signatures.

Did you then purposefully write songs that are simpler, as entry points to dive in and manipulate them to learn about music?
It's not just me trying to educate others; I was being educated. I did research on this project and I've never read so many books. I wanted to make really simple songs with things that I usually stay away from, like the simple C-F-G patterns, four-four time, this Christian-cross kind of musicology.

Is "Christian-cross" an actual term?
No, no. I just made that up. But if you look at the relationships of musical notes, you'll notice that it's square. I'm not saying that in a demeaning way. I'm just saying that it's only one way of looking at it. It's just really effortless to write a song about the moon where you have the tides go up and down in different time signatures. It's matching and very fluid. I wanted to make it simpler, but put in complexities from very common structures in nature without it feeling like it's an effort. A six-year-old would make a song in 5-4 that has speed changes and the texture of the song is shaped like a tree branch. And it's not weird. Kids are like, "I want to write my own music! I want to take care of my own individual style!" But kids just aren't encouraged to do that. And that age is a very good age because you don't have any inhibitions, you can make up whatever you want.

And you're really going to be on the road for three years?
I'm going to do residencies. I'm going to go to eight cities and spend three years. I want to perform in science museums. We were talking about San Francisco and the Exploratorium. It'd be a resource: When the kids come in to study crystals, they'd get the best crystals in the world, as well as a specialist, then straight after they'd write a song about it. We have kids coming in each city. Manchester is the prototype. We're doing a week with 30 kids, who write and use the instruments.

So there's 30 kids onstage?
No, no. On days off, when we're not performing, the kids will come in during the daytime for the workshops. If they want to play with crystals, then somebody will provide crystals and come in and teach about crystals. Then they will learn about how you can change structures in a song: I want that verse looped five times. So it's a bit like LEGO. The next lesson would involve arpeggios and lightning. We'll have lightning and it'll be a bass line. We're trying to pick objects that are a little showoff-y, so kids are like, "Wow! I can do that??" We're trying to empower the kids -- they can say, "I want this song to be a waterfall shape." Then they can have a way to play it. So I was trying to pick the most impressive sounds that man has found, like pipe organ bass for lightning. Kids can really plug into the phenomenon of nature.

Biophilia really cracks the idea of an album as an entity that you have to buy...
This idea of only having one way to release music is ridiculous. When the radio was invented people were like, "That's it, nobody's going to go to a concert ever again." My theory is that instead of going to the music store and meeting other people and having a conversation, you sit on your laptop. But at some point you want to have a physical experience. So you go out to the concert not just to see the band, but to also meet other people who like the same music. I've just got this faith in music and physicality that at the end of the day, we've got two arms and two legs. It's always going to be the next generation that comes and has twice as much energy as we do. And they're going to want to do something with these arms and legs. With laptops and the Internet, you just have re-evaluate physicality. You aren't limited to a guitar. It doesn't matter how well you can play piano. That physicality is not limiting you.

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