October 24, 2011
Playing the New Bjork Album, and Playing Along, With Apps
By SETH SCHIESEL
Since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, there has been only one way to listen to recorded music: Listen to it. That is, to consume passively a precise sequence of sounds exactly as they have been arranged. But what if, in addition to songs, a musician provided intuitive, creative tools that let you control the basic components of the music itself? What if the musician joined with programmers and visual artists to turn the songs into encompassing interactive experiences? What if listeners were to become participants?
That is what Bjork has accomplished with her latest conception, “Biophilia,” among the most creative, innovative and important new projects in popular culture. “Biophilia” essentially turns an album into a sort of audiovisual game, delivering a miniature production studio into the world’s willing hands.
That doesn’t mean I like the music very much. Many of the songs on “Biophilia” strike me as hyper-serious, self-conscious twaddle; they don’t even make me want to get up and dance. Yet as a game critic who spends more personal time twitching my hips than twiddling my thumbs, I’m convinced that ambitious artists and executives in the struggling music industry will recognize “Biophilia” as a vital step forward in rethinking how their work can be conceived, packaged, delivered and made relevant to the public.
The traditional, linear version of “Biophilia,” released this month, can be downloaded from services like iTunes. The far more exciting option is to acquire the “Biophilia” program from the iPad App Store. Alas, the iPad is the only device that delivers the full experience. But what an experience.
You know you’re in for something different when you hear the portentous voice of Sir David Attenborough delivering the introduction to what you thought was merely a pop album. “Biophilia,” he intones, is Bjork’s effort to bring us into greater awareness of the wonders of the natural world through music and technology.
On the iPad screen a galaxy unfolds that you can twist and zoom and pan. Each of the 10 major stars represents a song. When you tap a star, you are offered ways to explore, understand and interact with the tune. There are lyrics and detailed musical analyses. You can watch a scrolling score of the song or simply listen as a colorful visualization passes by.
The real magic happens when you press “play.” That doesn’t tell the machine to play the song; it means it’s time for you to play the song.
Bjork and her team have created a small visual toolbox for each track. A few, like “Crystalline,” play much like a simple video game. In “Crystalline” you tilt and swivel the iPad to add colorful crystals to a growing agglomeration as you zoom along neon tunnels. It is one of the few elements of “Biophilia” in which you are not controlling the sound. Instead you are having a visual and motor-control experience meant to complement it.
Most parts of “Biophilia” are far more interesting and ambitious. In “Dark Matter” the user (no longer merely the listener) takes control of a sound-creation tool, tapping pools of light to combine and mix tones of Gregorian complexity. You may start with a chromatic tone, but with a few taps the program says you have created noises called “Balinese pentatonic” and “mixolydian augmented.” My favorite was described as (take a breath) “double harmonic/Gypsy/Byzantine/ chahargah.” (If you don’t know, chahargah is an ancient Persian musical style.)
Not all the applets are so esoteric. In “Virus” you prolong the song by swiping invading pathogens away from an innocent cell. In “Solstice” you take control of vocals and layers of harps to create your own personal remix. In “Thunderbolt” you augment the song with flashes of lightning and waves of electronica, as if manipulating a sort of personal beat box. In “Hollow” you queue up various proteins for what is meant to be a representation of the microscopic DNA machines within us. Different proteins change the rhythm to time signatures of varying complexity, while you can drag a control to change the tempo, or beats per minute.
These are toys that children could play with for a moment and in some cases serious musical tools that professionals, students and enthusiasts could spend many hours exploring. Some of the programs allow you to save your creations for future editing or sharing with friends, though by handing them your iPad, not by exporting your creation to another device or program.
What I felt shining through the interactive elements of “Biophilia” was commitment from the people behind them, including Bjork herself, to deliver something wholly creative. I could sense an artist who wanted to communicate a feeling, a vision, a passion, an idea — not just through sound and words but also through the modern tools available to the public.
So far, the digital music revolution has meant a shift in the way we buy and store music. But the actual modality of simply listening has remained the same. Instead, the real music revolution may just be beginning: a revolution that changes the substance and practice of loving music.
As for the old-fashioned parts of “Biophilia”? Those I found less successful. Most of the arrangements on the album are aggressively spare and almost proudly antimelodic. Instead we have Bjork’s gorgeous, otherworldly voice floating above exceedingly formal compositions dominated by organs, harps, gamelans and some more harplike instruments. To the unschooled ear this comes across as a lot of plinking and plunking.
In reality this is serious music; it’s just too serious for many people, I suspect. There is no toe tapping or head nodding or humming along here. “Crystalline” has the faintest notion of a catchy hook, and there is a brief moment of deep bass club-worthy implosion in “Mutual Core,” my favorite track. But most of the time I felt as if I were straining to understand a mysterious voice crying out from the other side of the universe, which is, I suppose, the desired effect.
Perhaps the actual songs ended up so bare, almost barren, in their construction so they would lend themselves more readily to manipulation in the “Biophilia” iPad apps. It seems logical that it would be easier to make interactive programs manipulate plinks and plunks than interact with and control more richly textured and structured compositions.
None of this, however, should detract from the genius underpinning the overall endeavor. For many musicians and composers, the notion of giving fans the ability to mess around readily with a treasured creation will be anathema. Yet for the confident, bold artists who are ready to help propel the musical experience to a new level enabled by personal technology, Bjork has shown the way.
May others follow.
I dunno, you gotta discount the game reviewer's opinions of the music.
I think the nature of the apps require a touchscreen to work properly
Heard Bjork and Flaming Lips will be performing here tonight....at 1130est
I haven't really been paying attention. Have we already talked about Bjork's use of this BBC Life backdrop of sea stars and swarming monster worms during 'Hidden Place'? I think the the video suits the song magically. It's beautiful and disturbing all at once. When the worms start slithering madly as the female chorus kicks in? Oh boy...
Seriously, dude? Her? In this thread?
"Am playing live shows in reykjavik at the moment. Here comes a recording of thunderbolt live. Please please, do me a favour and use headphones or proper speakers when you listen.
"Proper speakers", ha ha. Love her.
Really? Bjork is kind of an asshole.
So... I'm currently listening to Médulla, and I think it's pretty fantastic. I think it may be Bjork's bravest album.
It definitely has a bad reputation, unfairly so.
How dare you?
Also, I wonder if Bjork is revamping her tour plans in terms of cities. I'm sure those festival dates she is going to do aren't related to the 8 city plan she had before.
You know I was little skeptical about the choice of venue....but then this!!!
In partnership with The Creators Project and the New York Hall of Science, Björk is set to bring her live Biophilia show to New York City for a special 10-night residency. Six performances will take place at the New York Hall of Science, (http://www.nysci.org/) New York City's only hands-on science and technology museum (located just across the Grand Central Parkway from Arthur Ashe Stadium and Citi Field in Flushing Meadows, Corona Park). There will also be four performances in the round at Roseland Ballroom (www.livenation.com) located at 239 West 52nd Street.
Biophilia premiered this past summer at the Manchester International Festival (MIF) in England to great acclaim including The New York Times featuring the performance in their "Concert Highs of 2011", followed by a sold out residency in Bjork's hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland. Initially commissioned by MIF, the intimate performance finds Björk accompanied by a set of unique musical instruments created by a team including an Icelandic organ builder and a graduate of the MIT Media Lab. Among these creations are four 10-foot pendulum-harps, a midi-controlled pipe organ celeste re-fitted with bronze gamelan bars, and twin musical tesla coils. The performance also features an award-winning 24-piece Icelandic female choir and visuals from the Biophilia Apps with app developer Max Weisel performing on stage alongside Björk and musicians Manu Delagu and Zeena Parkins. Tickets go on sale January 13 at 10:00 a.m. through Ticketmaster.com and Ticketmaster charge by phone at 800.745.3000.
In addition to the Bjork's live performance, she will collaborate with the New York Hall of Science on a three-week-long Biophilia education series. Featuring interactive science and music workshops for middle-school children, the series leads students on an intensive study of the scientific concepts at the core of Biophilia's songs, including crystalline structures, lunar phases, viruses and more. Students will also learn to use the Biophilia apps as tools for music composition. This program has been incorporated into the Icelandic school syllabus. The series debuted at the Manchester International Festival and a version of the program will also tour to major European festivals including Roskilde, Oyez and the iTunes Festival in London.
Björk has collaborated with app developers, scientists, writers, inventors, musicians, and instrument makers to create a unique multi-media exploration of the universe and its physical forces--particularly those where music, nature and technology meet. The project is inspired by and explores these relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic. "Biophilia's songs are astounding," raves NPR. "These songs have room to breathe, employing space and silence as much as melody and harmony. The sparse instrumentation and arrangements become gorgeously intricate meditations on which to build...vocal melodies unfurl more like transcendent devotionals than typical verses, and become even more stirring when accompanied by a chorus of voices that could fill a cathedral."
Each performance will feature songs from Biophilia, Björk's most interdisciplinary project to date. Stereogum raves that "Biophilia is one of 2011's best releases...the songwriting is sharp, the feel immediate and enveloping." The 10-track album, out now on One Little Indian/Nonesuch Records, is available digitally, in CD format and on vinyl. Additionally, each of the 10 songs are available as a special feature of the Biophilia App for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Biophilia was named one of 2011's Best Apps by Apple and landed on year-end best-of lists from NME, Mojo, The Observer and Uncut, among others. The newly updated 1.4 version is available through In-App Purchase, exclusively at iTunes (www.itunes.com) and the App Store (www.itunes.com/apps/biophilia). Biophilia 1.4 is a new simple way to buy the entire app album upon launch; a special offer for the dedicated fans who bought apps before the full album was released, and iOS 5.0 enhancements and bug-fixes.
The Creators Project is an ongoing global arts and technology initiative created by Intel and Vice in order to support visionary artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are using technology to push the bounds of creative expression. The Creators Project will be presenting Biophilia, and supporting the development of the education program for the US. Content around the Biophilia project will be available at thecreatorsproject.com
BJÖRK BIOPHILIA NEW YORK RESIDENCY
February 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18
New York Hall of Science - Queens, NY
February 22, 25, 28; March 2
Roseland Ballroom - New York, NY
lul, no Coachella/Cali dates slated, ever...
I'd fucking flip if she played a venue the size of Roseland in LA...I was expecting much bigger.
What's the equivalence in LA?