Three years ago Björk presented the world with Biophilia, a massive multimedia project about the relationships between music, nature and technology. Her grand vision included intricately designed apps for the album’s singles, a new type of musical notation, a musical education program for school children and one-of-a-kind instruments designed just for her live performances.
Much of the preparation and performances are captured on two films, now showing together at New York’s IFC Theater and opening next week in L.A., Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and Japan: Bjork: Biophilia Live and When Björk Met Attenborough. The first is a concert film of her last Biophilia show at London’s Alexandra Palace in 2013. The latter is a look at the preparation for the show, all framed by interviews with neurologist Oliver Sacks and naturalist David Attenborough. Attenborough and Björk are an unlikely pair, but they find common ground as giddy observers of nature. Björk was fascinated by Attenborough growing up, and the admiration is mutual. “If I’m very tired I don’t put on your music,” he tells the singer. “I put on your music when I really want to think about something.” Both films show that there’s still plenty to learn about with Biophilia, but here are five things we picked up.
Björk and Sir David Attenborough actually seem pretty comfortable with each other.
Attenborough’s rich, familiar voiceover narration opens Biophilia Live, and he takes Björk for a tour of the British Natural History Museum for When Björk Met Attenborough. The doc has a rather awkward premise — pairing the arty and surreal musician with the British national treasure – but it’s fun watching the two of them find common ground in the biology of the human voice. Attenborough sees it as a primal characteristic: “The human larynx makes more sounds than it needs for language. Actually, singing is more fundamental to us than speaking,” he says. Responds Björk: “So we were born free jazz singers, but we’re all just chatting away.”
Björk stays on theme.
Björk’s elaborate multi-media project is consistent throughout, from her microorganism-inspired dress by Iris Van Herpen to gravity-powered custom instruments and applications she uses on Biophilia. As Björk explains to Attenborough, her song’s structures imitate structures found in nature. “Crystalline,” for example, sticks to rigid and complex time signatures, much like the delicate and dense symmetry of a crystal. She tells Attenborough that its verses are in 17/8, its chorus is in 4/4, then it “goes into a cube.”
Oliver Sacks demonstrates a powerful connection between music and the brain.
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks makes a cameo appearance in When Björk Met Attenborough, popping in to discuss music’s startling effect on the brain. As Sacks explains, music jolts unused neural pathways into activity, lighting up regions of the brain that we may not frequently access. He demonstrates the implications of this for people suffering from dementia by playing a group of nearly catatonic elderly patients songs from their youth. Instantly, their eyes come alive. They smile, sing, and wave their hands along with the music. As Sacks tells us, the effects from this form of therapy can last even after the music stops playing, suggesting that Björk’s fascination with the biology of music is in synch with cutting edge neuroscience.
The Singing Tesla looks the coolest, but the Sharpsicord is likely Biophilia‘s most precious instrument.
All of Biophilia‘s insane instruments make an appearance in Björk’s concert, including the singing Tesla coil (which really coughs up more of a low, angular belch) and the Gravity Pendulum Harp (a set of software controlled, stringed weights). But the Sharpsicord, which makes a special appearance at the end of the concert, is likely the most difficult to work with. The oversized pin-cylinder harp took maker Henry Dagg five years to design and create, and it’s the only one in existence. According to When Björk Met Attenborough, it takes him a full day to program a single minute of music. That’s likely why we see Dag asking Björk not to miss her cue: There’s no improvising on a two-and-a-half-ton instrument.
Björk is still as punk rock as ever.
Björk says she’s moving into the grand legacy projects phase of her career, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost any of her rebellious edge. One of the encore tracks for is “Declare Independence,” the fiery revolutionary chant from her 2007 album Volta. In the past she’s dedicated the song to Tibet, Kosovo, and Scotland, and here, she sends the performance to the original country she wrote it for: the Faroe Islands, a tiny archipelago between Norway and Iceland that officially belongs to Denmark. Iceland declared independence from Denmark in 1918, 46 years before Björk’s birth, but revolution is still in her blood.