Deodato worked on several Björk’s albums: see how she broke the sound barrier
Published at The Guardian |
With an acclaimed new album, and a MoMA exhibition due next month, the Icelandic star is back. Award-winning music writer Alex Ross traces her musical journey from child prodigy to genre-defying queen of the avant garde.
A few years ago, for a feature on a music blog, I asked Björk to make a selection of her favourite records. Her list included Mahler’s 10th Symphony; Alban Berg’s Lulu; Steve Reich’s Tehillim; a collection of Thai pop, entitled Siamese Soul, Volume 2; Alim Qasimov’s Azerbaijan: The Art of the Mugham; Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; Nico’s Desertshore; Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; Aphex Twin’s Drukqs; the Ranges’ Panasonic EP; Black Dog Productions’ Bytes and James Blake’s debut album, James Blake.
What’s striking about the list is not just the breadth of Björk’s taste – this is no surprise, given her obsessive curiosity about every corner of the musical world – but also the animated map of genres that materialises in the background. It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent. A grandiose howl of late Romantic agony; a juggernaut of 12-tone modernism; a cool minimalist dance through Hebrew psalms; off-kilter pop from south Asia; a virtuoso survey of Azerbaijani mugham; three defiantly idiosyncratic albums by female singer-songwriters; three pathbreaking electronic records; a raging tour-de-force of political hip-hop; a collection of dubstep ballads: Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
The partition of music into distinct genres, each with its own history, philosophy and body of technique, is a relatively recent development. Before a global marketplace emerged, with the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century, there was little talk of the classical, the popular and subdivisions thereof, although the language of music was seen to vary widely from nation to nation and from city to city. Shakespeare employed the word “music” with blissful vagueness: “If music be the food of love, play on.” He apparently felt no need to specify what kind of music might feed a lusty ear. Rousseau, in his Dictionary of Music, noted that tastes varied widely – “One is most touched by pathetic pieces, another prefers gay Tunes” – but nonetheless spoke of a “general Taste upon which all well-constituted people are agreed”.
The possibility of such a consensus now seems remote. The musical landscape teems with genres: classical, jazz, folk, blues, gospel, country, Latin, R&B, funk, soul, hip-hop, rock, metal, punk, pop and dozens of national and regional varieties. Recording technology has surely fuelled this explosion of typologies: once a piece of music becomes a circulating commodity, it requires classification, so that one can know what section of the record store to put it in or, in latterday terms, what tag to place in its metadata. Furthermore, each genre has its own subgenres and ideological schisms. Popular music is regularly riven by debates between acolytes of classic guitar rock and devotees of newer pop genres that make sophisticated use of digital manipulation. Contemporary classical music exhibits a long-running conflict between tonally oriented composers and those who still pursue Schoenberg’s high-modernist “emancipation of the dissonance”. Music is far from being a “universal language”, as Arthur Schopenhauer once defined it; to the contrary, no art stirs more heated debate.
Shortly before his death, in 1992, John Cage said: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist, upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material. The jazz composer Michael Gibbs may have summed it up best when he said: “There is a fusion going on every time somebody writes music.” The idea of fusion keeps materialising and disappearing before our ears, a mirage generated by the limited ability of language to account for what we hear.
In the intersecting tributaries of Björk’s work, there is a glimpse of the delta that Cage described at the end of his life – whether or not Cage himself would have been able to wrap his mind around her music. He died the year before Björk released her first solo album, 1993’s Debut, in which she began in earnest her fierce dance across the continents of genre. You hear first a bouncing riff sampled from an Antônio Carlos Jobim–Quincy Jones soundtrack, its syncopated beat consigned to a venerable orchestral instrument, the timpani. Over this pattern, Björk sings a gloriously odd opening line: “If you ever get close to a human and human behaviour, be ready to get confused”. The voice exists somewhere on the continuum from the folkish to the operatic; less by calculation than by default, it lands in the middle ground of pop.
Björk’s Icelandic origins almost certainly contributed to her quizzical, questing approach to musical identity. She belonged to a geographically isolated society in which centuries-old folk traditions remained strong and in which young people passed the time singing in choral groups, as generations before them had done. “Somehow, we missed out on the Industrial Revolution and modernism and postmodernism,” Björk recently told me. “We are jumping straight from colonialism – we got our independence only in 1944 – into the 21st century. We could enjoy a still almost untouched natural landscape and draw upon it as we headbutted our way into a green, techno, internet age.”
All the latest products of western culture were readily available to Björk’s generation and to those who came after. Yet these shiny commodities could be assembled in eccentric formations. The up to date mingled with the obsolescent and the ancient. Despite Björk’s enthusiasm for the latest developments in the digital arena and her painstaking attention to the minutiae of studio production, there is much in her music that feels rough-hewn, homemade, pre-technological.
Classical music loomed large in her early years. From the age of five, she attended the Barnamúsikskóli in Reykjavík (a children’s music school now called the Tónmenntaskóli), where she studied theory and history, sang in choirs and played the flute. (The boxset collection Family Tree contains a fragment of Björk’s flute playing: a sinuous little piece from 1980, called Glora.) The focus on a canonical repertory of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven frustrated her. “I remember being almost the fighter in the school, the odd kid out,” she once said. But a teacher named Snorri Sigfús Birgisson excited her imagination by introducing her to major 20th-century composers: Schoenberg, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage. Early on, she made her own attempts at avant-garde composition, creating pieces from sonic found objects such as a tape of her grandfather snoring.
The art of singing often consists in hiding the physicality of the voice – the noise of the breath, the click of the tongue, the croak of the throat, the innumerable nuances that fall between the 12 chromatic tones. Björk, by contrast, has never tried to disguise that visceral aspect: her voice has a raw, abrupt, outdoor character, even at its airiest and most unearthly. While you can hear intimations of that sound in her earliest recordings, she laboured for many years to refine the vocal presence that so often elicits adjectives such as “organic”, “natural”, “authentic”. The development of the voice went hand in hand with her emergence as a songwriter and as a producer of complex electronic and instrumental textures.
While artists as various as Maria Callas and Joni Mitchell shaped her sense of the capabilities of the voice, perhaps the most enduring influence on Björk’s career, from Debut to 2011’s Biophilia and beyond, has come from the American composer, singer, dancer and theatre artist Meredith Monk, who shares with Björk a fundamental unclassifiability, a tendency to invade the interstices of institutionalised culture. Monk belongs to the great vanguard of artists and musicians who thrived in the unheated lofts and makeshift galleries of downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s. Where so many of her contemporaries, including Steve Reich and Philip Glass, adopted a cool, impassive mien, Monk brought a touch of ritual mysticism to the New York avant-garde, cultivating an otherworldly yet piercingly immediate vocal style that suggested some lost, nameless folk culture. She aimed for a “voice as flexible as the spine” and connected it to a self-invented dance vocabulary and a mobile theatre of gesture and image. The resulting work caused a certain panic in critical circles: the New York Times once sent a trio of music, dance and theatre writers to assess her.
Monk provided a clear precedent for Björk, even if the two artists seem to inhabit fundamentally different worlds. Having admired each other from a distance and exchanged letters over the years, Björk and Monk finally met in 2005, in a conversation mediated by the pianist Sarah Cahill. Björk described her early encounter, at around age 16, with Monk’s 1981 album Dolmen Music, which gives perhaps the purest demonstration of her invented-folk style. Björk recalled that until that point she hadn’t been greatly interested in vocal music, preferring the buzzing complexity of instruments and electronics.
But Monk showed what could be achieved when the voice alone, divorced or distanced from language, is treated as the most malleable of instruments. The two found other common ground: a family tradition of collective singing; an early love for Cage; a tendency to compose while walking outdoors; an abiding interest in how the voice is linked to the body.
Björk resists being called a composer, even if she has drawn extensively on the notational classical tradition. The cult of the solitary genius is alien to her. Instead, she sees her work as an essentially collaborative enterprise, one that calls for an entire community of musicians, studio technicians, instrument makers, producers, programmers, videographers, fashion designers and other creative individuals. She is not the kind of pop star who makes a game of donning masks and disguises; her vocal identity has changed remarkably little over two decades as a solo artist. But almost everything else has changed: the instrumentation, the arrangements, the production techniques. Her albums tend to react against one another, with extroverted moods giving way to intimacies, dense textures followed by transparent ones.
To a great extent, Björk’s career can be narrated in terms of her collaborations. In the early and mid-1990s she was living in London, keeping close tabs on the city’s club scene. Debut and Post had purring trip-hop beats layered beneath the sinuous strings of Talvin Singh and more opulent parts that Björk co-arranged with Eumir Deodato. On Homogenic, from 1997, the late producer Mark Bell became a crucial member of Björk’s team, injecting cooler, more brittle timbres; for Vespertine, in 2001, Björk brought in the avant-garde harpist Zeena Parkins and the electronic duo Matmos; and Medúlla, in 2004, involved, among others, the avant-garde rock vocalist Mike Patton, the Inuit throat-singer Tagaq, and the “human beatboxes” Dokaka and Rahzel.
Biophilia, from 2011, is perhaps Björk’s most ambitious project to date. Part-album, part-stage spectacle, part iPad-app emporium, part new instrument laboratory and part school curriculum, it is almost Stockhausen-like in its joyous disregard for the constraints of genre. As often before, Björk set about mapping the intersection of art, nature and technology, presenting analogies between scientific and musical elements. Crystalline compares crystal structures to the efflorescence of songs from small motifs; Solstice likens swinging pendulums to overlapping contrapuntal lines; and Virus, whose folk-like melody seems to come from the depths of the centuries, has an unstable, ever-shifting accompaniment that suggests cells subdividing and multiplying. The battery of bespoke instruments includes the gameleste, a Midi-controlled device that incorporates gamelan-like bronze bars in a celeste housing; and the Sharpsichord, a 46-string automatic harp controlled by a pin cylinder.
The circle of colleagues now included the organ craftsman Björgvin Tómasson, the sound sculptor Henry Dagg, the percussionists Matt Nolan and Manu Delago, the engineer and programmer Damian Taylor, and the sound-artist and educator Curver. They joined such long-time confederates as Zeena Parkins, Matthew Herbert, Mark Bell, the Icelandic poet Sjón, and the Iranian producer Leila Arab. Grownup audiences thrilled to the hi-tech spectacle that Björk unleashed in live performance – plasma bolts zapping inside a Tesla coil, producing organ-like blasts of sound – but most of all she wished to serve the starved imaginations of schoolchildren, many of whom now enter adulthood without having studied music in school.
“I want the kids to feel like they’re superheroes of sound,” she told me, before a series of performances at the New York Hall of Science, in Queens, in 2012. One afternoon, I watched as a group of kids from Queens middle schools raced around playing with the instruments and the attendant software, their eyes glittering with unsuspected possibilities.
Vulnicura, just released, may be the most emotionally direct work of Björk’s career, recording, with blistering candor, the breakup of her relationship with the artist Matthew Barney. At the same time, it marks another stage in her musical evolution, with the 10-minute expanse of Black Lake presenting one of her most intricately layered compositional conceptions to date. All these records document both an intellectual journey and a personal, psychological one. How the work matches up with the life is a subject on which only the artist herself can speak with authority; what matters for the listener is the sense that each song is an attempt to transmit honestly and unabashedly an inward state, rather than to concoct a calculated, knowing image for the outside world. As in Schubert’s final string quartet or Berg’s Lyric Suite, the music has a seismographic action, recording shocks and sensations that we may not see firsthand.
Art and soul: Björk’s creative debt to Iceland
For the forthcoming retrospective of her work at MoMA in New York, Björk created, with director Andrew Thomas Huang, the work Black Lake, which was filmed on location in Iceland during the summer of 2014. The show’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, watched it being made…
Black Lake is an 11-minute looped composition that deals with the expression of the pain that Björk went through during her separation [in 2013] from artist Matthew Barney. For the video, she worked with choreographer Erna Ómarsdóttir on expressive, dance-like movements, through which she palpably exorcised her pain.
I sat in the prep trailer during filming in the Icelandic landscape. In the background, behind a curtain, Björk was tuning her voice, exercising the width and capacity of her vocal spectrum, before leaving the trailer clad in a dress made out of a woven copper wire fabric to sing in a freezing, water-dripping cave. The camera crew and director were covered in layers of coats, but Björk was doing take after take, standing in her bare feet on cold wet sand. For each take there was no lip-synching; she sang live, loud and real.
Outside the cave, the prep trailer, the set, walking through the lava fields of Iceland, you are as a human being by far the tallest living object. There are no trees, no large animals, just moss and very low-growing vegetation. Coming across rocks feels like the only encounter of an equal volume, another object standing across from you, the human being. All of a sudden, it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself and the landscape inside of her – her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceived by her – are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.
Björk was born in 1965, during the four-year volcanic eruption that caused the formation of the Icelandic island Surtsey. Red-hot flowing lava formed a rocky island that was soon colonised by seeds that were washed ashore. These seeds brought the dead island into the cycles of life. At the end of filming Black Lake, the Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga erupted under a glacier, again bringing together scorching liquid with centuries-old glacier ice and generating new rocks out of the cooling magma.