The Whole World In Her Hands: Bjork Interviewed

As Bjork launches Biophilia, Luke Turner heads to Iceland to discuss technology, the environment, her country, musical education and the genesis of this astonishing project

An 18 hour trip to Iceland to talk to Bjork about her Biophilia project is exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring. The aircraft lands at 1am, when the sun has barely dipped below the Northern mountains. They’re silhouetted against an orange glow, and a curious grey light falls across the grey and foreboding lava fields that line the road between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik. A short sleep is followed by a walk through the quiet streets of the Icelandic capital to the modest, black-painted house in which Bjork lives. It’s light and airy inside, with Moomin ephemera all over the place, a table and chairs carved from wood, and an oversize Times Atlas Of The World on the floor underneath a well-stocked bookshelf.

While Bjork has a voice coaching lesson, her assistant James makes camomile tea and demonstrates the full version of Biophilia on his iPad. It is, suffice to say, nothing short of stunning. As user, you navigate around a galaxy of stars. As each Biophilia track and app is released, it’ll appear as a brighter glow amidst the lighter pinpricks. Selecting one, you fly into a glowing dot, which becomes a fully immersive experience, more than just a trigger to play the song. You learn about different elements of musicology as compared to, or explored by, elements of nature rendered in animation – the formation of crystals, how a virus attacks cells, strands of DNA – under titles like Hollow, Dark Matter, Cosmology. You can interact with all of the tracks, exploring the inner workings of the songs as you create your own version.

There is a unique, contemporary way of scoring music, and an essay explaining the musicology by Professor Nikki Dibben, photographs from National Geographic, a narration from Sir David Attenborough… James shows me footage of the instruments that will take Biophilia on the road – giant pendulums, a Tesla coil that fires out lightning bolts that become sound, and the gamelest, a midi controlled organ. With 10,000,000 potential journeys through Biophilia, it’s almost too much to take in, and when Bjork emerges from her shower dressed in a stunning red and white striped smock, it’s hard to do anything save sputter in wild enthusiasm "wow" "it’s incredible" "there’s so much to get your head around" and "well done!"

Unlike so many of the new formats and futures of music we’ve been promised in the years since the business took a dive down the dumper, Biophilia genuinely does feel radical, futurist. Even more exciting, it feels as if Bjork isn’t just breaking new ground in music, but the world of apps too. It seems certain that Biophilia won’t, unlike many apps downloaded, be used only once. This is of course not to mention the educational aspect, something that emerges all the more strongly during our three hours sat in her living room, overlooking the North Atlantic, newspaper cuttings about the recent Grimsvotn eruption on the table. On the plane home a few hours later, I can’t help but think that Bjork reminds me of a 21st Century William Blake, a visionary fascinated by the potential of science and the wonder of the natural world, a master in the pioneering disciplines of the age.

Bjork’s mind is clearly still overflowing with Biophilia. She explains it in a narrative that goes here, there and everywhere, with non-sequiturs and digressions. Just as after a lunch of scrambled goose eggs she clatters around the kitchen, returning with a plate of ice lollies, strawberries, nuts and sweets, proclaiming it an "ADD dessert", her conversation is a chaos of thoughts, ideas, beliefs. "I hope it doesn’t sound too ADD, I am so ADD, like top level, but it’s so hard to fit it all in!" she says at one point. "The nature of the project is hard to explain into an interview. We couldn’t have talked properly unless you had seen it first, because it’s not really about me."

So did Biophilia come from a tiny spark? Are you amazed with how it evolved and what it has become?

Bjork: Yes really. I’ll try to tell you a really short version of how it came about. At the end of the last project [the album Volta] we did a world tour, and were using touch screens just for performing songs that were already written. I said ‘we should write on these things’ I saw the opportunity that technology had caught up with us. Musicians always slag off electronics, saying they’re robots and play really square stuff, with no soul and all that sort of nonsense. Obviously humans make technology, so it was just going to be a question of time until the technology was going to be able to take in stuff that we want to put in it.

You’ve said you’ve always been a defender of electronic music. Is this proving that you can make interactive art with electronic music and the machines used to make it?

B: Yes. We were really excited. As soon as the tour ended in 2008 we wanted to get on with something new. I did this whole project with Damian Taylor, and he had eight jobs, like all of us, lots of hats. And he said OK I’m going to try wearing my Max programming hat, it’s a programme where you’re writing algorithms in a way, but for music. The easy way to say it is you’re sort of creating a ping pong machine. So you say do this five times, then turn it around, add seven chords to it, whatever. So whatever sound you put in it’ll do something to it and send it out different at the other end.

[Bjork’s son arrives, it’s his birthday]

Sorry about this. Multitasking. It has been like this for months! Where was I? Basically with Max Programming… at music school as a child I was moaning and complaining, and I think the director of the school got a laugh out me when he was bored, because he’d ask me to come to his office and I’d tell him how to run his music school. It was the arrogance of youth, but I guess I was frustrated, because immediately they want to train you to be a performer, they want a conveyor belt to make material for symphony orchestras. It’s not about you making your music, or trying to figure out what your character is. Twice or three times a year they’d bring out the flutes and xylophones and we could make something, but I wanted to be like that the whole time.

So for me, how I hear music, is kind of more related to nature, it’s not related to some Christian idea, these German guys, Bach and Beethoven. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I totally respect Christians and Germans, it’s just monopoly is never a good idea, there should be versatility. So for me, to have one song that’s teaching structure then the best way to do it is to have crystals that grow, because it’s so similar how it grows. And then to use the replication of DNA to show rhythm and generating music, and arrangement? Well that moves like viruses. So when I saw the touch screens I thought we have to start it with the pendulum. That was the easiest, because a beat is not like a computer grid, but a pendulum that swings. That is really easy to do on an iPad, you programme it in and then you’ve got the algoryhthm of how it functions. Then it’s not four on the floor, it’s still electronic music.

When I was having music lessons at regular school it was a very linear process, there was no sense of trying to create music. So did this frustration with your musical education lead you to want to make Biophilia an educational project as much as anything else?

B: I think it is semi-educational. I am hoping somebody will burst forth and maybe offer me a collaboration to make it a full educational thing.

So-called ‘primitive’ music was originally an instinctive response to nature, and still is in many societies. Have we in the West become divorced from nature in our music?

B: I think when you see those societies do music, even today, everybody is singing, everybody is playing, everybody plays a big part, it’s not like everybody is sitting listening while one person is being a genius. I think that hierarchy with one composer, then a symphony orchestra which is just a load of people doing what they’re told, it’s a model which has made some of the best music that mankind has made for sure, I’m not dissing it, it just makes me wonder how that’s going to apply to 21st century kids, where everybody is important. I think also you have an acoustic guitar, and when hippies are at a party they can play ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, but it’s a bit tricky when it comes to electronic music. I am just waiting for the moment when people have had a couple of drinks and get the iPads out and start to play, so everyone can do it.

From what I saw, though, Biophilia seems as if it could work like that, it seems perfect for the lay person as well as someone at a music school, or children. It allows people to be part of something, and then learn – for example, about the scientific ideas. How did you research them?

B: I watched a lot of DVDs and YouTube clips. I decided not to go too far into things I don’t know about. It’s about simplifying things rather than over-complicating them. I did watch a lot of materials that are used in universities to teach string theory. I watched so many of them at one point I thought that perhaps if I had had a few drinks I might be able to explain it to someone. That’s a year ago, though, so maybe I’ve forgotten. I got really obsessed with that for a bit. But overall it was more things that I felt that technology could… for example Moon is based on water, and of course a lot of pop musicians have done things based on water, but it was more how to do it with electronic music, because it’s usually in grids, very four four. How can you make it really fluid, where every bar is a different number?

Thinking of the structure of the project, you have it set up like a solar system, but to me it almost felt like an ecosystem as well, with different biomasses, connecting food chains, habitats and so on.

B: That would be a way of looking at it. I think the last project was different for me emotionally, because I was saying ‘OK enough is enough, let’s fix this thing’. I was being really critical and sort of tongue-in-cheek, it was a weird joke about the worst music in the world, which is political music. ‘We’ll declare independence!’ It was flag and trumpet. For this project for me it was the other way round. OK, how can we be like Kofi Annan

Also I got entangled in a battle in Iceland. Iceland was really at a crossroads, they wanted to make five aluminium factories. But the island is not that big, if you do that it will become like Frankfurt in the space of five years. So the majority of Icelanders thought it was a really bad idea. They’d rather go to green, high-tech solutions, like wind energy. Building an aluminium factory seemed like going back to an industrial age, a dinosaur idea. So I came out of a few months of that, and then the bank crash happened in the middle of this fight, there was all the unemployment. So against all that I was thinking OK, you’ve got to connect the dots and make the whole thing work. Green solutions are easier, if you’re using the tidal energy it’s cheaper, and you’re going to be better off in the long run. It’s not only for idealists, because the rednecks in Iceland too a lot of time to take that in, you have to convince them that it’ll actually save them money. I ended up debating with rednecks. Coming out of that into this project it was thinking that the 21st century isn’t just an opportunity, we have to work with nature, whether we like it or not. We have to make cars that are harmonious with nature. This project is very influenced by that. So anyway, I will move to the next chapter, which is called The Music House.


B: I knew I could do this music school. I thought I have had it with touring. I thought maybe we could ask the city to give us a house of somebody who had gone bankrupt. I thought I am going to have one room, which is this song, which is crystals, and one room where there is a pendulum doing basslines, and another with lightning doing basslines, and there’s another room… We could make these instruments and leave them there, and it could be a children’s musical museum, or where kids could do a course in the summer. So that’s where the idea started.

While I was thinking about the music house, I got an offer from National Geographic. Because of my work environmentally in Iceland, they wanted to expand and start a record company, and thought I could be the first client or whatever. I thought ‘wahey, I’m label-mates with lemurs and sharks!’ I was totally up for it. We went there, me and James, to their head offices. They’re the best people in the world, I met all these fantastic explorers. We were really excited, I said I don’t care what it takes, I’m signing with them. I usually never go to meetings, but because everything is changing so much I wanted to go for the first time, just to make sure it is relevant, and also not just a good business deal, it protects the music and the creativity. When we were talking to National Geographic, they hadn’t put out an album, let alone a music house, but I still really wanted us to work together. They said well we do 3D movies in IMAX cinemas and science museums, maybe you should do that? It sounded like a great idea, because there wasn’t a great leap from a music house to a 3D movie, it was the same project just a different venue.

But the planned film project with Michel Gondry didn’t happen. Is that where the iPad came in?

B: When the iPad came out we had two years of songs that were ready, with concepts and everything. Each song had different musicology depending on the natural structure, I was buying all these apps and sweating, and then [One Little Indian boss] Derek Birkett, he is much braver than me, he could see me looking at them all, and he contacted the ten best-selling app builders. All of them said that they were dying to do it! The more time was going by, especially with me not being on a record deal, I was going more and more DIY, and just doing 20 jobs, and James doing 20. They all came here to Iceland. We were in a small restaurant in Iceland, brainstorming I guess, and I’ve never really done something like that. Musicians don’t really brainstorm. They eat good food, tell bad jokes and get drunk for a few days, and on day four they have a song. I was really up for it,really up for doing something new – meeting up with all these scientists, the explorers from National Geographic, I couldn’t believe the conversations during dinner, about moth secret societies.

We’d run out of money by that point because we hadn’t signed to anything, and we were trying to get people to finance us, but everyone thought it was the most Utopian thing – nobody could see anything! ‘And then the moon is going to play a song?’ I don’t blame them, it was pretty out there, whether it was a house or a film.

But then the app builders, they just said OK, everyone works for free, and then we split the profit 50/50. So this is how we did it back in the punk days, the indie label system. That was amazing on so many levels, because it made them feel as if it were their baby as well, and for me, without a record company, it felt like I was 18 again, because that’s something I know, the DIY and this group work, it’s not about egos. People just get it done. So 5000 Skype meetings later… So in a way, making it the ten apps simplified it. It was simpler than a house or a film.

Biophilia really started to take shape after your work in Iceland protesting at the planned aluminium factories, and trying to push green technology and high-tech businesses. Does this mean it’s a continuation of this? Is it a form of activism? Is it political?

B: I wouldn’t say it’s political, but it’s definitely a proactive thing. If I was to stop doing music and put all my energy into things in Iceland, which is actually easier than doing it in England, because Iceland is only 350,000 people. And we actually put up a petition online where we asked the government to keep our energy resources in public property, not privatise it. And 25% of the population signed, people of voting age. We actually took the organ and did a karaoke, and it was really touching because old ladies, farmers from the north, they came and sang, the national anthem, and people were crying. It’s weird for a small country like Iceland, we’re at such a crossroads, we don’t have infrastructure.

You have space and natural resources

B: When the banking was, everyone was just gangsters. And when that doesn’t work any more, what are we going to do?

So it was go to corporations, aluminium factories, privatising everything, or working with what you have?

B: Yes. There is a company now that is working on making power from our natural energy, another that does roleplaying games online, and they now have a lot of employees. It’s also a generational thing, because a lot of people who were my parents or even older, who were born before 1945, if it’s not something with a shovel then it’s not a job. Just because people are making computers, harness the tide, wind energy, they think it’s for hippies. So it’s definitely proactive. But I got overdosed on the whole political thing because I don’t find that attractive at all. I wonder how much you can change things. It’s just a lot of meetings really.

But Biophilia is an awareness builder, you’re reaching children with science and music, that has a core impact on them. It seems to me that in the UK at least, direct political change rarely happens, it’s more about stimulating ideas and raising consciousness.

B: That’s another thing that I really got deep into with the environmental stuff because it’s so different from how musicians work. With musicians, it’s all about the vibe, which is a terrible word. If you’ve got a group of people and what’s the word that doesn’t sound terrible?

I think it has to be vibes

B: Well if you have that feeling you know you’re going to make a good song, and you can cover the whole emotional range if you’ve got that synergy or chemistry in the room. But if it’s not in the room you’re not going to get anything done. And what musicians do is go somewhere else and find that thing, whether it’s alone or whatever. It’s what we do. In politics it’s just arguing. I know that sounds really naïve, but it partially is. You go to meetings and meetings and meetings and just talk about things. I’d go to a few meetings and go ‘OK!’ [whacks hand on table] ‘We know how to do it, let’s do it!’ Oh no, we talk some more. ‘Ok! Now let’s do it!’ Talk some more. It’s frustrating because it’s the art of talking, it’s not about getting things done. Both the weakness and strength of Iceland is that it’s so small, you can get things done here if you really want to. But the bad side is because you don’t have infrastructure you get the banks getting away with what they did. It’s really good for artists, because they can do whatever they want.

I’ve read that a huge proportion of people in Iceland are published authors and writers. It seems to be a culture that has grown up with creativity and storytelling.

B: It’s always tricky to generalise, but I think the country is the size of England, and it has the same population of Edgware Road, so each person has a lot more space. You know everyone. So I think that element develops more. I think also it is because we were a colony for 600 years, so we were basically suppressed, we paid really high taxes, and were basically under the poverty level. So there were no tailors, or craftsmen, or any infrastructure, people who make instruments or pots and pans. We were just almost stuck in the medieval times, we had no musical instruments or sculpture or art. But we had sagas, the spoken word. When we came independent, which was in 1944, it’s very recent, all these people who had been repressed for all that time didn’t decide to become tailors or make pots and pans, that sort of thing, they could just do whatever they wanted. There wasn’t a hierarchy to contain those people, they went from pushed down to whoosh!

When I was a punk in the 80s, we were singing in Icelandic, and there was a lot of nationalism going on, we weren’t saying "fuck Thatcher" or whatever, we were saying Iceland is as good as other countries, because there was a minority complex. That’s the whole thing with being a colony. I think the next generation, like the bankers, they’re five or ten years younger than me, I think they went over the mark, they went from being oppressed for 600 years to that. My father and mother were born 45 and 46, so they’re the first generation. I’m the second generation, and the bankers are decided ‘we are superheros, we can run the world’. But it went pffsst.

Are you optimistic about the future?

B: I am actually. But there were 20 bankers who spent the money of 350,000 people. They just ruined it all. I think people are standing up and saying, and trying to mould the future of Iceland. Because it’s so small it could go so extreme right or left. My kids could be two different Icelands.. If you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said I’d never get involved in politics, never ever. But this is a very different situation, because you know you can have a say. And people stood up to the bankers and said no, we’re not having it. You are 20! Guys! This is just not fair, everyone losing their houses and their jobs, and will have to pay their debts for three generations. It’s not just me, it’s all of Iceland.

It’s exciting times. What I want to do is not go ‘ok let’s have it how it used to be’, all nostalgic and nationalistic, I want to use this energy, a lot of people and not just me, I want to use it to go high tech. I don’t want to do what England had to do or what Europe had to do, 200 years of building factories, we don’t have to do that. We can go straight into high tech, solar power, wind farms, volcanic ash, and then we can come into the 21st century.

Leading everyone else?

B: Well we don’t have to lead!

Ah that’s my British mentality

B: We can just make green choices, so in the space of 40 years, you could remove a dam and it would turn back to how it was before. So it is exciting times, actually.

So do you think that one day you’ll be doing this but more simply, and have the music school?

B: I’d love to. Maybe I’ll find a small building here somewhere, and I could teach kids.

[The door opens, Bjork’s daughter runs in, and shoots her mother with a homemade bow and arrow.]

You can access Biophilia by visiting iTunes here

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