Thursday, April 16, 2015

Björk Marathon: Biophilia

Björk's next project would become a lot of things, rooted from her passion for nature and environmental concerns. After finding the Náttúra foundation and releasing the single Náttúra, Björk wrote an article for The Times discussing the Icelandic financial crises and proposing a sale of natural resources to help with the situation. She also collaborated with Audur Capital to set up a venture capital fund to support sustainable industries in Iceland. On top of collaborating on a nature-themed album with Dirty Projectors, Björk wrote an article to the Reykjavík Grapevine calling on the Icelandic government to "do everything in its power to revoke the contracts with Magma Energy," when at the time Magma acquired 98.5% of shares in the Icelandic geothermal power company HS Orka. After Björk's deal was approved by the Icelandic government, Björk launched a petition and promoted it by hosting a concert at the Nordic House. Near the end of 2010, she confirmed that she was working on a new album, and stated in the Icelandic newspaper, Fréttablaðið, that the project was almost complete and that it should be ready by the end of 2011. In early 2011, Björk started a 3-day public karaoke marathon to further protest the Magma Energy deal, which got the petition over 47K people, and got it welcomed by Icelandic Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. Then, not long after, the app Solar System, made by Touch Press, introduced a new instrumental track composed by Björk, which officially confirmed that the new album, Biophilia, was on its way. Then, more details were announced about the project once it was announced that the first Biophilia live show would take place at the Manchester International Festival in June 2011. Biophilia was stated to:

" encompass music, apps, internet, installations and live shows."

And Björk gave details about the background of Biophilia:

"I was off all my record deals, [...] so I felt I was off the grid, [...] so in that sense it was kind of crossroads project for me. On another level, at the end of the last project I lost my voice, [I] had a vocal nodule, [...] I didn't even know if I could sing again, so I had to redefine different techniques. And then, all these situation were happening in Iceland, the Bank crush, so I got really involved in environmental stuff [there]. So, on so many different levels, there was this message that all the old systems don't work anymore, you gotta clear your table and start from scratch."

The album was supposed to be released around the beginning of the Manchester residency, but was confirmed for release in Fall 2011, to be released in 4 editions, the standard edition album, the deluxe edition (which contained 3 additional tracks), a special Manual edition (that one I own, it includes standard CD, a live recording of the Manchester show, and a gorgeous 48-page booklet), and the Ultimate Art Edition, which has the album contained in a wooden box with 10 chromed tuning forks, each one adjusted to the tone of a Biophilia track, covering a complete octave in a non-conventional scale. This was limited to only 200 copies and hand made to order.

With all these details, Björk updated her website and introduced her new logo, the "musical compass."

And then, at last, the Biophilia cover art was revealed:

Björk described the character on this cover as being a "frustrated music teacher" (with one amazing harp corset!) with her "head in the clouds" to explain the scientific concepts of the album, and that the red wig (resembling a nebula) was to be worn for this entire era and promotion to make it easier for Björk as this character to explain to her collaborators and to the world.

The album's release date was postponed, pushed back to two weeks, because Björk wasn't satisfied with the way the album was mastered, that it needed more "depth." With the help of Mandy Parnell, long-time collaborator Leila Arab, and drum and bass artist Current Value, they and Björk quickly went back to the studio to re-work the mastering again. Around this time, the album was leaked three works prior to its release date, which forced the album to be released worldwide the following days later.

When I first listened to this album, I didn't love it, but I definitely thought that it was a better album than Volta. It took many, many listens for me to really appreciate the album for all of its complexities, musically, sonically, lyrically, and emotionally. My favorites off Biophilia are:






And though the album may have gone over some fans' heads and may still be one of those Björk albums that many fans can say that they appreciated but can't say that they love (at the concerts, many have told me that they've only listened it to it a few times since its release in 2011), the album would chart pretty well, not one of her bestsellers or highest or fastest selling. Nonetheless, the album would be critically acclaimed by critics and would be on over nineteen Best Album of 2011 lists and was nominated and won many accolades for Björk and her collaborators for the technology.

Okay, I already warned in advance that this album era is meaty. Basically, on top of the album itself, it encomposed many new inventions conceived by Björk that was used for many tracks on the album and accompanied on the Biophilia tour:

The Gravity Harps

Used on "Solstice," this was made from grouping pendulums together, so as they moved, it transmitted the movements of the Earth to the sound of the harp, creating the tune for "Solstice."

The Gameleste

A mixture between a gamelan and a celesta which was programmed in order to play remotely by a tablet computer, this instrument was used for "Crystalline" and "Virus."

Though not a new musical instrument of course,  the Tesla coil was used as a musical instrument for "Thunderbolt."

And then, the MOTHER of this project was the apps, which made the Biophilia album the first-ever "app album." The Biophilia app consisted of 10 separate apps for each album. I don't own the apps and have never interacted with them, but they look nice, based on what I've seen from the demos:

I also found it fascinating how complex and interactive these apps are. Pretty cool and innovative!

And Björk herself also explains how every single apps can be used. Here's an example of one of them, for Mutual Core. Look how adorable and giddy she is when talking about science!

Four singles were released for the Biophilia era:



(No official music video was made for this one, but this fan one is nice!)


(Not the official music video either, just the app)


These videos weren't singles, but they were released nonetheless:


(taken from the app)

Mutual Core

Björk mostly promoted this album through music criticism websites, like Stereogum, Drowned in Sound, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stoned. She was featured on the front cover of Dazed & Confused and hosted as guest editor for the 200th issue.

And she was on the cover of Billboard magazine. She also gave various radio interviews to discuss the scientific concepts of Biophilia. She restrained from doing any TV interviews for this album, but she performed songs from it on these shows:

Later...With Jools Holland

Here she performed  "Crystalline", "Cosmogony", and "Thunderbolt."

The Colbert Report, where she performed "Cosmogony."

And naturally, of course, the Biophilia tour was the core of promotion and a huge part of the era.  

The Biophilia Tour toured the world for two whole years, and I went to two of the Biophilia shows, both in the now defunct tiny and intimate Roseland Ballroom venue in NYC, on February 22 and February 25, 2012. What was so fascinating about this tour was how for every show, the stage was in-the-round, so you really got many different point of views of the show and got to also be close and intimate to not only Björk and her choir, but the instruments. The only thing that was awkward about these shows was that a lot of people didn't seem that much into the Biophilia songs, but everyone loved the Biophilia-themed arrangements for the older tracks (like "Hidden Place," "Generous Palmstroke," "Sonnets/Unrealities," "Where is the Line," "Possibly Maybe," and "Declare Independence), which were absolutely stunning, especially hearing "Possibly Maybe" with the Tesla coil. Regardless though, I'd say that Biophilia live was one of Björk's best tours that so beautifully showcased all that the Biophilia album is all about, exploring sound, nature, science, and technology.

Throughout the tour, Björk also promoted the Biophilia educational program, another layer of the Biophilia project, which consisted of workshops for schoolchildren that explore the intersection between science and music, teaching students age 10-12, using the Biophilia apps as a starting point.

Here's Björk herself explaining the program, and the kids showing how much they love it:

The program was so successful that The Reykjavik City Board of Education brought the program to schools all over the city over the next three years.

And on June 11, 2014, the Biophilia app became the first-ever downloadable app included as a permanent fixture at the New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Senior curator Paola Antonelli commented about this inclusion:

"Björk has never ceased to experiment and surprise. The multidimensional nature of her art—in which sound and music are the spine, but never the confines, for multimedia performances that also encompass graphic and digital design, art, cinema, science, illustration, philosophy, fashion, and more—is a testament to her curiosity and desire to learn and team up with diverse experts and creators. It was just a matter of time before she would invade and conquer the territory of design. [...] With Biophilia, Björk truly innovated the way people experience music by letting them participate in performing and making the music and visuals, rather than just listening passively."

Prior to this, in July 2013, the documentary, When Björk Met Attenborough, aired in the UK on Channel 4. Sir David Attenborough and Björk meet to discuss the relationship between the human relationship with music, tying in the themes of Biophilia.

To have two legends in one place discussing their passions that though seemingly different are pretty similar, it's pretty wonderful, and this documentary was definitely as wonderful as it was thrilling, insightful, educational, and inspiring. Though the reviews for this documentary was moderately positive, with many critics saying that their meeting was "awkward" and not much more than a promo tool for Biophilia, I really enjoyed it for what the documentary is. And I thought that Björk was so adorably shy around Sir David, and Sir David was very much like some grandfather figure with her as they discussed music and nature. I highly recommend viewing this. It's lovely.

In June 2014, Björk recorded original vocal samples for the Death Grips to use on all 8 songs of their double LP, Niggas On The Moon/The Powers That B.

And lastly, to end this pretty ambitious album era, Björk released a concert film in late 2014 called Björk: Biophilia Live.

This concert was filmed at Alexandria Palace in London on September 3, 2013. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26, 2014, and screened across the world throughout the year, in more than 400 cinemas.

If you haven't been able to see one of her Biophilia shows, basically, this DVD is for those who can experience what those shows were like, and it is also a nice keepsake for those who have gone to the shows. This was at a much larger venue than the shows that I have gone to, but the filming still showcased the intimacy and uniqueness of what this event was. Being at the shows, I couldn't imagine how the concert would look like on film, because for some reason, Biophilia live just didn't seem made for the screen. This concert film proved me wrong. They captured everything at their right moments, and overall, this was just one very well made and well shot concert! I'd say that this is one of the best concert DVDs of Björk, definitely one if not the sharpest in quality, that's for sure. The concert film was very successful and rated highly as well. Björk was going to appear at one of the screenings for the film, until...she had to cancel. Her only explanation: to record a new album.

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