Step inside Bjork’s brain. The real and the surreal slide in and out of each other, nature commingling with imagination, black volcanic rock and raving neon jellyfish, as the avant-techno savant’s music and video works surround you. "Bjork Digital," the exhibition of her virtual-reality creations that opens May 19 as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Reykjavic Festival, immerses the visitor in 360 degrees of Bjorkian sights and sounds. In the video for the song “Stonemilker,” from her 2015 album Vulnicura, VR thrusts you onto the Icelandic beach where the country’s prodigal daughter wrote the song.
Step inside Bjork’s mouth. A tunnel of crimson and fuchsia lit by white flashes of teeth glistens, at once enveloping and intimate, as machines click and whistle and that inimitable accent — Rs rolling like rocks, vowels long and open — attempts to articulate its “Mouth Mantra.”
Step inside Bjork’s heart. In the “Black Lake” room, walk onto the precipice of despair and feel Bjork’s fists as they pound against her chest, the pain of heartbreak made thunderous by the sphere of speakers.
From her days as a child pop prodigy, to her years fronting the Sugarcubes, to her decades as a solo artist collaborating with a who’s who of musical, film, art and fashion pioneers — including Michel Gondry, Tricky, Spike Jonze, Thom Yorke, Zeena Parkins and Alexander McQueen — Bjork has been one of our most forward-thinking pop artists. In 2011, she created apps for her science homage Biophilia. For Vulnicura, an album that plunges deep into the heart of darkness in its exposition of her breakup with the visual and performance artist Matthew Barney, Bjork became one of the very first musicians to experiment with virtual reality.
At "Digital," you can experience on high-quality VR equipment the videos she created with Andrew Thomas Huang and other directors. There is also the “Black Lake” installation made for a retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, along with her two-dimensional music videos. Bjork’s debuting old-school musical technology as well. The book 34 Scores features musical fonts created by pianist and collaborator Jónas Sen, design house M/M (Paris) and the engraving company Notengrafik Berlin.
The big event is May 30, when Bjork makes her debut at the Walt Disney Hall with 32 string players conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason; the show sold out in minutes. You can also catch her in July at the FYF Festival. Bjork with the Phil or Bjork with Missy Elliott: that’s the expansive range of Ms. Gudmundsdottir.
In a phone interview, Bjork praised the emotive and metaphysical capacities of VR, Icelandic choirs and the ties that bind her and Beyonce.
LA Weekly: How did it come about that there is a traveling exhibition of your videos?
Bjork: It was something that grew gradually. When we did the first video, me and Andy Huang were experimenting with a camera. We were commissioned by MOMA to do a video to a song called “Black Lake.” We were going to do a dome. That developed into two big screens and the speakers were in a circle. We were having this conversation about circular, surround things; we both find it really exciting when new technology comes along, and the rule book hasn’t been written and you can make it up as it goes. The whole “Black Lake” thing took up two years, we did so many scripts, there were so many board meetings. Emotionally that song is so difficult, it’s the toughest song I’ve ever written, so filming it went hand in hand. I was barefoot in lava, it was a cold day — it was really hilarious.
We literally finished that and he was in Iceland and he said, "By the way, I borrowed this [360-degree] camera someone just made. Shall we try it?" The next day we went to the beach where the song was written and filmed it in one take, that was “Stonemilker.” Emotionally that was the opposite to “Black Lake,” it was very happy and free. It was like this effortless spontaneous sibling.
So we got an offer, from Australia, to have a room with 40 VRs, a warehouse — nothing on the walls, just VRs — and people come watch our VR videos. So we made a couple more with different people, and we just decided to try this and experiment, and people loved it; it was a huge hit. We didn’t know if it was going to allow people to be emotional, but we were watching people holding hands, and crying.
The last video we did, called “Family,” that’s one of the ones I’m proudest of. You could really act on what affected the viewers the most. I think it’s quite metaphysical in a way. “Family” is about showing a wound in your chest and then you heal and do these somersaults and you walk away. That’s one of the strengths of VR; it has that power where a 2D video on MTV didn’t have. It seems like it’s you. It feels like it’s your body and it’s inside you.
I know you’re releasing the score book in L.A.; will there be anything else new in "Digital"?
There’s not going to be a new addition in L.A. because I’m working on a new album, and I feel the Vulnicura cycle is complete now. We’re going to have the best VR headsets and sounds possible. Plus, it’s probably going to be one of the last times we exhibit the “Black Lake” room. We have a room with all my videos, the old ones, but the quality has been put in the best position. I feel in a way, after working with so many directors, like I’m their little curator babysitter. A lot of people are watching it on YouTube, where the quality is terrible and the sound is terrible. Partly in defense of all these directors, you can watch this with the best sound possible.
So, you’re working with the newest of technologies with VR and the oldest of technologies with written musical scores.
In the beginning of Biophilia, I thought, so how do I feel about musicology? Let me map it out and make a music score how I would have liked to be taught when I was a kid. How do we notate these things? With Biophilia and Vulnicura we had these animated scores with Stephen Malinowski, which are scores for people who are trying to learn notation, to try to dissolve this gap between people who are educated in music and those who are not. You have digital notation, which is basically MIDI, and you have classical notation, and you have CDs and you have MP3 files and you have streaming. I want to put everything on the table and then go, OK, let’s not moan that the music industry is going to hell and we’re all going to die. Let’s see what we’ve got on the table. This scorebook is part of that. Then I would like to sell online the MIDI files of the scores from these songs so people could plug it into the synthesizers at home and do karaoke and jump up and down. I would like people to take their harp to the bonfire and play the scores and sing along. In a way it’s me trying to figure out all the different ways and combinations of sharing music today.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
It was really fun, when we were making Biophilia, we were at this house on the beach, and we bought this really cheap pipe organ with no keyboards but that you could run MIDI through. We were hacking online and getting MIDI scores of songs, everything from Destiny’s Child to Led Zeppelin to Snoop Doggy Dogg. We would get a bottle of rum and play those MIDI files and plug it into that cheap eBay organ and do it like karaoke. We were crying laughing. People really like, especially when they’ve had a couple of drinks, to sing along. In Iceland I don’t know how may hundreds of choirs there are; everyone’s in a choir and people like to sing. They want to sing old Icelandic choir songs, they want to get drunk by the bonfire in the summer and sing.
It’s funny that you were listening to Destiny’s Child, because it seems to me that emotionally and thematically, Vulnicura paved the way for Beyonce’s Lemonade.
I definitely noticed the similarities. I decided to put Vulnicura in chronological order, which hadn’t been done on a pop album before, I think, not that consciously. I wonder if that inspired her. I think it’s important women credit women. I think Lemonade is an incredible album. I don’t think for a second musically it was inspired by what I do. She’s obviously in her own universe. I’ve said this before, I’m obsessed with Beyonce, she’s one of my favorite artists. Also, it’s different times. I really noticed it when Beyonce’s album came out, and around the same time, Donald Trump was trying to grill Hillary Clinton for Bill Clinton’s affairs, which is obviously ridiculous. I think it’s a generational thing. I think 10 or 20 years ago, that would have been the woman’s fault. I think it’s a big improvement that Beyonce has been a big part of. Now, if the guys fuck up, they fuck up. It’s not the women’s fault. We’re not swallowing that anymore. Guys just have to take the blame for what they do and be responsible for their shit, and we’ll be responsible for our shit. But we can’t be responsible for our shit and their shit, that’s not going to happen anymore.
"Bjork Digital," Magic Box at the Reef, 1933 S. Broadway, downtown; opens Fri., May 19, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (runs through June 4 with ticketed entry every 15 minutes); $35. laphil.com/tickets/bjork-digital-overview.