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Björk : fertile songs

Because it’s unbecoming to betray a woman’s age, and because this particular woman is practically ageless, let’s say that Björk is twenty years old–exactly the same age as her oeuvre. The same age as Violently Happy, Human Behavior, The Anchor Song and other morsels fallen to earth in 1993 on her voice of pearls and steel. For twenty years, the Icelandic pop star, in the past known only by a handful, has launched a promising solo career that will immortalize her as a planetary–yes, planetary–mega star come tomorrow. And it so happens that this ‘mega-star’ was in France these last few days, in Paris for the first time ever to demonstrate a sprawling project that has been in the works since 2008, a project made of raw energy, atoms, galaxies, iPads and music lessons. “It´s great to be here!” she confided in an email whilst traveling between her residency at the Parisian venue le Cirque en Chantier (a circus tent on the l’Ile Seguin on the Seine) and the concert arena le Zenith. “This residency idea is really an amazing thing for a musician like me who has toured forever and usually only stays in each city for a day or two.”

With an unremarkable history of media buzz–she went virtually unmentioned on radio or television between 1996 and 2000–Björk was this time treated like an idol, waves of cheers and applause breaking over the stage before she had even struck the first note. Whether it’s the news she’s making, her newest artistic endeavor, her whimsical look or her wild set, Björk is now undeniably an icon. Her initial works in the form of the three outstanding discs: Debut (1993), Post (1995) and Homogenic (1997), each an eclectic and audacious in its own way. At the time of their release, the three albums evoked pop music of the future, and what remains amazing, if not a bit unsettling, is that the music and the novelty it conveys haven’t aged a bit–that music is timeless.

Björk took a moment to reflect on the influence of her initial work on the rest of her career as a singer. Commercial success on such a large scale, repeated artistic audacity, and consistent delivery of innovative and unfailingly passionate material has been the privilege of only a handful of artists in the history of popular music, and this is what Björk has achieved three consecutive times. The pace of her work has since slowed, but its quality has by no means faded, and what Paris witnessed in the last series of concerts was Björk’s tireless capacity for exploring the unexplored with perfect artistic intuition.

Her newest foray into the uncharted is summed up in a word: Biophilia. Biophilia is perhaps the first musical project capable of extending itself infinitely, and to have been conceived as such. The project comprises an album (10 titles available as a CD or as downloads) which is admittedly a classic; a series of iPad apps that challenge the limits of the digital medium, an astonishing live spectacle; and least expected of all, an educational program compelling enough to have recently been implemented in the Icelandic educational system. “I have quite a precise idea regarding how the lessons are to be taught, and I explained my idea to a teacher in Iceland. When I’m on tour, I devote every hour to my career as a singer, and the only way to make this (educational project) happen was for it to happen at the same time as the concerts. But after the whole Biophilia project is finished, probably later this year, I intend to develop the continuity of the educational program myself with all the lessons we have learned from it having travelled around the world.”

Bjork_Biophilia_2The project, an intersection of concepts from music, science, and the humanities, is modeled in the image of that which it seeks to teach–intriguing and pleasantly free of the pretensions one might expect. It is centered on a message slightly metaphysical in nature that is best summarized by the following: how the laws of nature, physics, and biology are expressed in music and in each individual. Bio-philia: the rough translation is something like ‘an affinity for nature.’ “Here both the macroscopic universe–like the planets–and the macroscopic universe–like atoms–are taken into account,” says Björk as if arranging a set of Russian dolls to explain her all-encompassing approach to explaining how everything in known existence partakes of the same process. “And in light of this, understanding sound, how it moves and how notes behave in a piece, how they reverberate off walls and between objects becomes more relevant to the way in which planets or microscopic things behave.”

Given her level of notoriety, Björk can appear onstage with only a piano. Or a laptop. Or a quasi-conventional percussionist, or even a harpsichord; it doesn’t matter, because she always makes it work. And it works because of her voice, a voice like nothing you’ve ever experienced, a totally unique voice. We asked her what her voice sounds like according to her, filtered through her internal ear; she responded with a riposte typical of Björk, enigmatic but effective.

“Lush.”

‘Lush,’ a word that conveys many things at once: “luxurious,” “fresh,” delicious,” “fertile,” a descriptor that doesn’t fall far from our own external perception that beautiful voice. And that same voice, according to the Icelandic pop star, has slowly disappeared over the course of the last few months. The primary culprit is a vocal chord nodule that she has managed to pacify with a vocal technique that has also restored her capacity for singing anything and any way that she wants. She came out of it all with a completely new sound: to hear Björk whisper a melody or belt a techno-inspired refrain remains an experience that greets lucky music lovers only once in their lives, if at all. A blue voice, piercing, so many times compared to an ice pick (and with reason) that the image has become a cliché.

Bjork_Biophilia_1The scenography of Biophilia continues the image of evolution that Björk has given her music since Homogenic: conceptual and complex. Three musicians busy themselves with instruments that would sooner be found in a laboratory than in your average music store. A chorus of twenty female voices weaves a tapestry of sound of incredible finesse, gently enveloping Björk’s voice. The artistic commitment evident in these meticulous arrangements evinces a theme in the pop star’s work that can be traced to the glimmering orchestral tracks of Vespertine (2000): a search. Cerebral? Quite possibly. A bit abstract? From time to time, but it’s inevitable. Is she extreme in her rhythmic exaltations and melodic odysseys? A valid interpretation, to say the least. Experiencing Björk in 2013 is an experience of absolute artistic immersion (scenography, videos, costumes, music of course), all the more impressive because the whole time she is challenging the way we experience music, right down to the way we perceive it. There is neither a bass nor a bassist to be found onstage, but one feels the low notes rattling one’s body, as if they played from the earth, a small earthquake. The rhythms are elusive and intangible, flirting in a normal patterns with the melody lines. Few refrains, no couplets, but phrases put to melody with an arbitrary beauty, like constellations drawn between stars. It’s impossible to immediately grasp and appreciate the aesthetic of Biophilia with the same spontaneity applicable to Violently Happy or It’s Oh So Quiet; it’s nevertheless impossible to remain indifferent faced with such a deluge of unusual vibrations.

Björk, in the exchange we had with her, was not very enthusiastic about discussing the rapport between her current work and her past oeuvre. “The moment we began working on this project in 2008, I had the idea to abandon the 4/4 time signature because it’s stagnant,” she commented a few months ago. “I needed change. I had the impression that technology and electronics were far enough advanced for me to start playing around, doing things in an impulsive manner.” Onstage, as on recording, the songs of Biophilia nonetheless assemble splinters of sound from each of Björk’s previous works, proposing a sort of synthesis that at once extends and connects her entire work. Biophilia sounds notably like a rehabilitation of Medulla, the a cappella album released in 2004. Not celebrated enough in it’s time, and tossed into obscurity by the return to the trend of guitar-driven rock, it appears now, seen at a greater distance, as the cornerstone of the pop star’s oeuvre. Everything that followed Medulla–Volta, Biophilia, etc–assumes the sonic characteristics of it’s predecessor, stretching the vocal capacity with which divine nature blessed Björk to new levels of mastery. The grammar of every song is a mine for contemporary musicologists.

Along with Homogenic, Biophilia is also an apparently “Icelandic” album. The images projected onstage and the decision to include the song Joga in the Biophilia concert set were the ultimate giveaways. “Emotional Landscapes” …would have also worked nicely as an alternative album title for Biophilia, an album haunted by relations between man and the materials that comprise him, encircle him, and give rise to his emotions. It’s necessary to have lived in a place where nature’s forces manifest themselves so profoundly–the beautiful and the terrible–to have developed such a degree of artistic, poetic and almost philosophical preoccupation with them. “The music of Biophilia is simple and direct” countered the artist when we asked her what guided her in her unusual artistic choices, inaccessible to most artists given the chance to record an album. “I guess Biophilia doesn’t have much to do with things on a human-sized scale?” she suggested with a note of apprehension.

We respectfully disagree: the search for meaning might be the most human activity conceivable.

Björk realizes before our eyes one of those artistic gestures that are typically characteristic of mega-retrospectives or end-of-career albums: she is searching for new forms of musical expression at every chance, questioning and consulting the arts and techniques of her era with the curiosity of a pioneer, manipulating the DNA of every melody. Between terra incognita and a pleasantly predictable future, she always chooses the former. The result is always stunning, the process is anything but easy. It’s a path rarely chosen, and one gets few opportunities to watch an artist walk it. Tim Buckley passing from classic folk to poetic abstractions inherited from free jazz? Talk Talk shedding the coat of mainstream rock to adopt a novel simplicity of style? Something like that has happened chez Björk, no questions asked, but something characterized by a more formal mastery, driven a striking vision realized according to an expertly devised plan.

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Twenty years, seven albums not counting Biophilia, an oeuvre possessed of exceptional coherence: it’s an eternity laid next to the hurtling pace of life in the twenty-first century, even if “in a way, the music industry hasn’t changed much for me” explained the star. “I’m still making music for the people that are interested. In other ways, the computer has enabled me to become a much more independent music maker. The difference is that it’s no longer possible to finance my next project with CD sales from the preceding one–that’s not happening anymore, so I feel like a teenager again. Back to DIY. But I’ve done that before, and I have good people around me who come from the same punk background as I do. We do it for the music.”

From punk to Biophilia: from our conversation with Björk by email, it’s the only link between her early career and her current projects that she shared. She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to go back, so we’ll leave her happily in the present. It is true that vertigo could take hold of her, as she told us that she hadn’t had a chance to pursue all of the musical research she’d hoped to accomplish. She offered us this note of reservation: “I’m not sure (where I want to go next). Then again, I prefer the feeling of not knowing when I’m at the start of something. It has to be a total mystery.” And Björk is always at the beginning of something, inexhaustible source of music in the present, and always fertile with melodies of the future.