Björk: 'Manchester is the prototype'

The Icelandic singer's Biophilia project incorporates handmade instruments, iPad apps, David Attenborough's nature films and an album too – and she's showcasing it all at Manchester international festival

Simon Reynolds on why Björk is the ultimate shapeshifter

Björk on stage at the Manchester international festival
Björk on stage at the Manchester international festival. Photograph: Carsten Windhorst/www.frpap.com

Originally formulated by scientist Edward O Wilson, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that human beings have an innate affinity with the natural world – plants, animals or even the weather. Yet it's not biophilia but good old-fashioned fandom that has drawn a small band of Björk obsessives to queue outside Manchester's Campfield Market Hall since 10am this morning. Not that there's anything old-fashioned about the woman they are here to see. Biophilia is the Icelandic singer's new project – the word means "love of living things" – and promises to push the envelope so far you'll need the Hubble telescope to see it.

A collection of journalists have already had a preview at a press conference in the Museum of Science and Industry over the road. Björk is absent, preparing for tonight's live show, her first in the UK for over three years, which will open the Manchester international festival. Instead, artist and app developer Scott Snibbe, musicologist Nikki Dibben and project co-ordinator James Merry talk through Biophilia's many layers. There will be an album in September, with an app to go with each of the 10 songs. There will be an education project, designed to teach children about nature, music and technology – some local kids will embark on it next week. There will be a documentary. And then there will be tonight's show, performed in the round to a 2,000-strong crowd including journalists representing publications from New Scientist to the New York Times, as well as the diehard fans waiting outside. One, 20-year-old Nick from London, is a classical violinist who has loved Björk since the age of 14. "I wasn't really into pop at all until I heard Medúlla," he says, citing her most challenging album. "It was like a gateway drug from me liking difficult 20th-century western art music to liking pop."

It's a journey in the opposite direction from the one most music fans make, and one which speaks volumes about the complexity of Björk's work. "More classical musicians respect Björk than any other pop star," he adds.

At the museum, Snibbe is demonstrating the apps. The app that goes with the first single, Crystalline, includes a game in which you collect crystals in a tunnel, through which process you alter and customise the music. The app also includes an abstract version of the musical score; and an essay by Dibben that explains, in this case, how the structures of crystals relate to the musical structure of the song. The app for another song, Cosmogony, presents a 3D cosmos you can navigate. Each app has been created by a different – often rival – developer. "To me, it feels like the birth of opera or the birth of cinema," says Snibbe.

Yet Björk didn't have such lofty aspirations in creating the project. "My main aim is to not get too bored myself," she says, via email (she rests her voice between shows). "I feel that if I'm curious and excited there is a bigger chance the listener might be. At the end of the day, it's more about the feeling of an adventure rather than the details of the adventure itself. So in short: whatever turns you on."

That said, the change from a passive to an active listening experience is a radical one. "The apps are mostly made for headphones and a private experience," says Björk. "What you see live is only us playing our version. You can play a totally different versions at home." If you've no desire to do that, Merry is at pains to point out that Biophilia will still exist as a CD or download – and indeed only those with access to an iPad or iPhone can experience the apps. So far, the project has been too expensive to adapt to other handheld devices.

At the show venue, the journalists are being given a tour of the new instruments that have been specially built for the project. One contraption looks like a giant silver mangle decorated with two massive ear trumpets, but is called a sharpsichord. There are two giant pendulums, which have strings plucked by a plectrum as they swing past. There's a Tesla coil that descends in a cage from the ceiling; two prongs that emit purple flashes of lightning – and, with it, sound. There's also a celeste, which has been gutted and fitted with the pipes of a gamelan. These fantastical devices are controlled by an iPad. Above the performance space is a circle of screens that show the apps for each new song; moving tectonic plates for Mutual Core; invading pink cells for Virus ("Like a virus needs a body, as soft tissue feeds on blood, I will find you, the urge is here," go the lyrics).

It must be one of the most complex pop shows ever, and according to Björk, it could have been more elaborate still. "Manchester is the prototype," she says. "We had to leave many things out because of budget and time and stuff." As it is, the whole project has taken three years and cost so much money she told Rolling Stone that "we'll be lucky if we earn zero".

Yet, on purely artistic grounds, it's hard to regard Biophilia as anything other than a success. As the lights go down, Björk's childhood hero David Attenborough's unmistakable voice, recorded just that day, fills the room to explain the songs. The show includes Björk's favourite footage from BBC nature documentaries playing when she performs older songs. Hidden Place is illustrated by a beautiful but disturbing clip from Attenborough's Life – of a seal's corpse being devoured by psychedelically coloured worms and starfish. All 10 tracks from the new album are played. Such an onslaught of new material would try the patience of most audiences, but this one is rapt – no one even goes to the bar.

Much of this is due to the sensory bombardment of music, images and costumes – not least Björk's bright orange wig, which a comment on the Guardian's review says makes her resemble a tamarin monkey. Her decision to ban cameras and other recording equipment from the venue has also played its part. "I feel since everyone has made such an effort to be there all together at the same place and time, we might as well go for it," she says. "It can be hard to play music for people who are filming you for Twitter or whatever. It's like going to a restaurant with someone who keeps texting their friends while you are speaking to them – hard to concentrate."

Then there's Björk's extraordinary voice, once compared by Bono to an icepick, and still imperishable at 45. "My voice has changed," she says. "I thought it had gone a little deeper. On my last tour I got nodules [on the vocal cords] but managed to stretch it out with three years of vocal work, so I'm back to my old range now." Björk "adores" a whole range of singers: "Chaka Khan, Beyoncé, Antony" – the latter being Antony Hegarty, a former collaborator who is here in the audience – though her "favourite singer alive today" is Azerbaijani devotional singer Alim Qasimov. She is accompanied by a 24-piece Icelandic choir she discovered on YouTube.

After spending so long meticulously making Biophilia, performance feels liberating. Live shows and making an album are, says Björk, "extreme opposites. After noodling for ever on an album, gathering together the best moments, it's refreshing and healthy to have to do it all in one whack. Then you sort of have to take real life into it and accept that you only have whatever you have that day – and that is  enough."

Right now Björk is at the intersection of music, nature and technology, exploring how the three together might help build a more sustainable future. But is it still pop? "Yes, absolutely!" Björk claims. (Dibben, who wrote a book about Björk, says the singer is wary of having her music hived off into the rarified world of the academy.) "Or perhaps I would rather call it folk music – folk music of our time. I was never too much into Warhol and the whole pop thing – it felt a bit superficial. I prefer folk. People. Humans."

Bjork plays Manchester international festival on 7, 10, 13 and 16 July. Biophilia is released in September


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Comments in chronological order (Total 83 comments)

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  • This symbol indicates that that person is a contributorContributor
  • kitsua

    4 July 2011 9:07PM

    One of those rare creators that manages to straddle Art and Entertainment with aplomb. She's a treasure and I'm thrilled to be going to see something genuinely new in Manchester on Thursday. Bjork is fantastic.

  • thisperson

    4 July 2011 10:12PM

    Alim Qasimov? Help!! I've actually heard of this singer .Jeff Buckley liked him. There's a duet Buckley and Qasimov did on the Live At Olympia cd[extra track,What Will You Say?]. I'm perplexed-Bjork's" favourite singer alive today" is someone I've heard of? She's losing her edge,for sure...

  • HelenWilsonMK

    4 July 2011 10:30PM

    Fishapple

    4 July 2011 9:21PM

    I'm sure it's good but can I sing it in the bath?

    If you can reach the notes Bjork can you might want to consult a doctor! ;)

  • johnnw

    4 July 2011 10:38PM

    and promises to push the envelope so far

    If ever Pseuds Corner actually existed, we have a whole collection here....

    Never thought I would be embarassed to be Mancunian but this pile of crap finally managed it (and I mean the article, not Bjork, who is seemingly an oblivious bystander).

  • AshleyPomeroy

    5 July 2011 12:06AM

    It's nice to see she's still going. I've always thought of her as one of those talents that you might not be partial to, but it's good that they're still around. Like Stanley Unwin, albeit that he is not still around. Imagine a whole concert with just Stanley Unwin. It would be torture.

    Still around, still singing love songs to fax machines / standing in for a bollard / and all of the other things that Spitting Image came up with. Ye Gods, she's been around long enough to be in Spitting Image, and she still looks fairly chipper. So, respect there.

    Kate Bush has a new album out, they both have telephones, they should phone each other up.

  • pratabruite

    5 July 2011 12:37AM

    i love the banning of cameras and recording equipment.... the ruination of so many moments

    @zzeb.... hilarious :D ......the contemporary test for all greatness

  • 9999

    5 July 2011 6:00AM

    the picture reaks of gaga. why are journos there first. i know the answer but isnt their profession reporting what happened after it happen, compelling us to think its just happened. music needs its fictionalisers in order to mask itself doin the same thing over and over. dibbens book music in everyday life could have been riskier but then academia wouldnt have liked the tone.

  • ayleshamlad

    5 July 2011 6:03AM

    "Right now Björk is at the intersection of music, nature and technology, exploring how the three together might help build a more sustainable future"

    and

    ""It can be hard to play music for people who are filming you for Twitter or whatever"

    Personally I find it hard to listen to music and think about the environment at the same time. I do, however, reap the benefit of watching documentaries and reading books about the environment (separately).

    Listening to Bjork's music and trying to understand the environment through it sounds about as useful as trying the same by listening to whale music.

    Essentially the "show" is what it is. Theatre. A Light Show. I'll give the music a go perhaps when it's released. I'll bin the apps as they seem to be pretentious twaddle.

  • Pesado

    5 July 2011 6:07AM

    Oh look, the emperor's not wearing any clothes. Bjork is utter fucking twaddle.

    In my honest opinion

  • Pesado

    5 July 2011 6:09AM

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.

  • maiph

    5 July 2011 7:30AM

    She can dress it up however she likes but one look at the picture and I can tell she is still singing that same old favourite note.

  • borderboy

    5 July 2011 7:56AM

    Is that really Bjork in the photo?...I mean really? She's had an eye job if it is.

  • dotmegsam

    5 July 2011 8:27AM

    Saw the show on Sunday, blazing hot in the venue, airless but still stunning. Bjork's interest in image is fun, but has made it too easy for the thoughtless to dismiss her. She is a great singer, from whispers to roars totally in control, up there with k d lang, and an under rated lyricist who is direct and writes truly great love songs. The rest is interesting or ridiculous according to taste, but no one should doubt the core of great talent.

  • Poit

    5 July 2011 8:27AM

    The breath of such a nutter is a suculent breeze to be drawn in and savoured.

  • Benulek

    5 July 2011 8:33AM

    'Peerless innovator' indeed. Unfortunately, ever since 'Post' the ratio of innovation to songs has been getting ever more disproportionate.

  • mmmmbeer

    5 July 2011 8:34AM

    She makes the kind of music that Lady Gaga looks like she might, but doesn't.

  • peekaboo

    5 July 2011 9:04AM

    If Iceland can export a few more Bjorks then their economy might begin to turn around..

  • EdWelthorpe

    5 July 2011 9:08AM

    Always hope she'll return to writing pop songs. There's so many left field noodlers experimenting with the same experiments now. And dull pop. If Lady Gaga put 1/10th the imagination she puts into clothes and make up into her songs (and got away from pro-military pro-meat born-this-way retrograde politics) she'd be remotely interesting. Every album I hear I pray it is that artist's political album. More a "state of the nation" piece. It never is.

  • bobrian

    5 July 2011 9:10AM

    Bjork and Iceland are two of the most wonderful things you can experience in this life.

  • bilboroberts

    5 July 2011 9:10AM

    The picture reeks of Gaga

    ??????????????

    Erm, I hate to point out to @9999 that Bjork has totally lead the way for the likes of Gaga to dress in such a way ever since the release of Debut.

    She is truly an innovative artist. @Benulek, have you listened to Homogenic or Vespertine? They are filled with sing-a-longable epic balladish songs, even Medulla and Volta have there anthemic moments in Where is the Line (which was performed at Biophilia in a way which blew my mind!) and Earth Intruders.

    So many are too ready to cast her of as a bit nuts before listening to the music or figuring out what the imagery associated with each album attempts to depict.

  • Benulek

    5 July 2011 9:15AM

    @Benulek, have you listened to Homogenic or Vespertine?

    Yes, it would have been a little foolish to write what I wrote otherwise. I'm not saying either of those albums are devoid of songs, but the urge to innovate above all other goals has obscured one of the early Bjork's strengths, which was marrying innovation to glorious melodies. One of my formative musical experiences was the first time I heard 'Hyperballad', and I just can't find anything close to that in later Bjork.

  • Scandaliser

    5 July 2011 9:16AM

    I think that those who don't like or at least respect Bjork should be kept under surveillance. They're probably not to be trusted.

  • egbertnosausage

    5 July 2011 9:39AM

    The music world is split into two camps; the artists and the machines.
    Unfortunately the power of the machines behind the machines tends to dominate.
    But we need the artists to lift our souls.
    Thank god for Björk

  • bilboroberts

    5 July 2011 9:42AM

    @Benulek hold out for the song Hollow on Biophilia, especially it's "I yearn to be loveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed" ending, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Of course she will release a song like a former song, that would not be a good aim for progress and would leave her a one trick pony. Unless it is intentional like Isobel and Bachelorette.

  • kemuri

    5 July 2011 10:11AM

    I'm only wondeirng if this is all a little too zeitgeist. Seems like hype and has the potential to be forgotten in a year.

    I do hope not, I like Björk.

  • jockeylad

    5 July 2011 10:17AM

    Not a fan (but I do give everything a fair listen before it is dismissed) & this kind of stuff is not aimed at me. Having said that I was surprised that ------ people still get away with such pretentious utter bollox.

    Lemmy strides out on stage & (every show for the last, ohh, thousand years) informs the crowd that "We are Motorhead - & we play Rock n Roll." Its not rocket science kiddies - & anyone who tries to tell you any different has already begun to disappear up their own arse.

    Sleep well in the (ooohhh interactive ! ooohhh apps !" fire.

  • VintageVeevers

    5 July 2011 10:38AM

    This really was a bit special. And is if anyone would want to see Motorhead play Ace od spades for the billionth time.

  • Raffiruse

    5 July 2011 10:44AM

    The music world is split into two camps; the artists and the machines.
    Unfortunately the power of the machines behind the machines tends to dominate.
    But we need the artists to lift our souls.
    Thank god for Björk

    Nice parody of a pretentious Bjork fan.

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