With her 2011 LP, Biophilia, Icelandic singer and performance art icon Björk turned her avant-garde eye on the natural world, using touch-screen technology to present a fantastical vision of Earth, space and all that lies between. She says it allowed her to express herself more fully than ever before. The critically lauded album was released with a suite of custom apps (conceptualized by Björk herself, of course) that were meant to provide a window into her creative process while educating audiences on the science of music and nature.
We spoke with Björk about her Biophilia live show, the children's educational program touring along with it and how the project is fulfilling her childhood dreams.
What inspired Biophilia?
Björk: Nature has always been a big part of who I am. I didn't even think of it when I was back in Iceland, but when I started traveling and touring, I ended up mostly in cities meeting other people who didn't live with nature. I realized I kind of took the natural world for granted as a kid.
Has technology affected the way you understand nature and music?
I was really excited about the touch screens because I realized something had arrived with which I could actually map out how I experience music. The technology just makes it so tactile and intuitive and impulsive, and for me made it possible to map out basic things in musicology like riffs and scales and chords and counterpoints and so on. It's easier to visualize these things with nature.
How do you mean?
For example, using lightning to explain arpeggios and using the tide and moon to explain patterns and crystals to show structure. In this project, I basically turned to nature for functional reasons.
I was also thinking of my own music schooling, because as a child I was frustrated because things were too academic, too based on 17th-century European things. There I was, an Icelandic teenage woman in the '80s, and none of that applied to me. It had nothing to do with me. I wanted to somehow use the things around me, like nature, to understand music.
Now, with technology, there are these touch screens that you don't have to study for 10 or 20 years to be able to express yourself on them. It's an immediate thing, but the complexity of musicology is still available at my fingertips.
Why then apply those tools into an education program?
The educational thing came into it when I started imagining matching every song with a natural element and a musicology element and realized that even an 8-year-old child would get it. They'd see a pendulum swinging back and forth and understand what a counterpoint is.
Why is bringing this project to children important to you?
When I started working with the touch screens back in 2006, it was finally the thing I had been waiting for since I was an 8-year-old kid in music school. These aren't concepts you should be reading from a book. It's like learning to dance from a book. It doesn't make sense.
With the hundreds of thousands of apps available now, you can really see things explained that are not meant to be in words. This is why the core of the project immediately became educational.
It was a dream come true to have access to these kinds of learning tools, and these are topics I would have wanted to learn about when I was a kid.
Has technology strengthened humanity's connection to nature?
I think so. We went through the industrial age, and that obviously brought a lot of arguably bad things and also some good things. The 21st century is very much a continuation of that, where we can try to correct some of the errors.
Clearly the step forward is to do things in consideration of nature. Technology is more refined and sophisticated now, so it's easier to collaborate with nature with solar power and wind power and recycling, as opposed to abusing it. We have to do that if we're going to survive.
Does the Biophilia live show create a similar kind of education for adult audiences?
Yeah. I've never done a show like this before. We perform in the center; it was important for me to not have that many people in the room. It's sort of like the audience is almost onstage and a part of the show. The choir is so big, and all of the instruments were built specially, and people can really watch them work. It's the closest to an opera that I will ever get.
It's not so much about me, because the stage is in the middle, and a lot of the time people can't see me. It's more about the whole show. I'm trying to be humble and bow to nature.
What's the best feedback you've gotten on the show?
I like when people tell me it's like nothing they've ever seen before. That's some sort of achievement.
Björk performs Biophilia at the Hollywood Palladium on June 2, 5 and 8. The Biophilia Education Program takes place June 2 as part of MOCA's Big Family Day. Björk also performs at the Hollywood Bowl on June 11.
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