MANCHESTER, England — In one song that Bjork performed here on Thursday night, the bass lines were zaps of artificial lightning from a Tesla coil in a cage. In another, a sizable Victorian-looking contraption of stainless steel, the Sharpsichord — part giant music box, part harp, part gramophone — used a rotating barrel to play deep, bonging counterpoint.
For another song, four 10-foot pendulums swung in a computer-maneuvered sequence to pluck delicate, harplike figures. A gameleste — a celeste with gamelanlike bronze bars replacing the usual sugarplum-fairy notes — and a portable pipe organ, both remotely controlled, pinged and tootled through the set. A roving 24-woman choir in sequins and gold lamé capes, Graduale Nobili, sang dense, cascading harmonies behind Bjork, the constantly surprising Icelandic songwriter. In a frizzed-out wig and a sparkly garment that was a robe on one side and a mini-dress on the other, Bjork was performing her new collection of science-minded songs, “Biophilia,” from an album to be released in September.
It was the concert premiere of “Biophilia,” commissioned for opening night and five additional performances by the Manchester International Festival, which continues here through July 17. Bjork’s concert was staged in the round in Campfield Market Hall, a warehouselike building now used by Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry; about 1,800 fans were packed in around modest rope barriers, just a few feet from the musicians.
Despite the intimate staging and the unusual instruments like the Sharpsichord and the pendulum harp, the concert — along with the coming album and its associated Web site — is among the more standard aspects of “Biophilia,” a Bjork project that has snowballed with missions and media. By now “Biophilia” has brought together not only Bjork and her recording studio collaborators, but also instrument makers, smartphone app designers, scientists and a musicologist.
“I didn’t intend it to go so big,” Bjork said with rueful pride in an interview before the performance. “It’s the way most complex project I’ve ever done. There’s been like 500,000 million e-mails and meetings.” But from their beginnings, the songs on “Biophilia” had a grand ambition: to unify music, nature (as described by science) and technology.
“Biophilia” is a possible paradigm for the 21st-century album, one that welcomes the interactivity of the Internet and harnesses the power and flexibility of devices that incorporate video, audio and user control far beyond the play button.
The songs on “Biophilia” will also be released as apps — one for each song, to be sold as modules in a larger app for the entire album — for the iPad and iPhone. (The developers have not yet decided whether to reprogram the apps for Android devices.) Along with animated graphics, some of which were shown on overhead video screens during the concert, the apps hold not only detailed analysis of the songs — including both conventional and newly devised music notation — but also gamelike excursions through the music, visions of scientific phenomena and the potential to be used as musical instruments themselves. A listener can hear a song, see its structure, play along or completely disassemble some songs and turn their components into something new.
“What Bjork is doing feels a lot like the birth of cinema or the birth of opera,” said Scott Snibbe, a media artist and leading app developer who managed the “Biophilia” project and whose studio created three of the album’s apps. “We’re entering the age of interactivity. The passive, one-way media will become a blip in human history. Bjork had a complete, unified concept where everything was interconnected. The music wasn’t dominant, the image wasn’t dominant, the interactivity wasn’t dominant. Everything worked together the way a movie or an opera does.”
For instance, the Tesla coil onstage, for the song “Thunderbolt,” finds its digital equivalent in an app that lets users make sounds by gesturing to draw lightning bolts — or swirls or dots or polygons — on the touch screen. Some apps can output MIDI signals that can release any sound in a musician’s library, letting the user apply Bjork’s musical elements and interfaces to create music that sounds totally different. The apps format will allow Bjork to add material to the album after its release; the app visualizes the album as a galaxy, and each song as an additional constellation.
“Biophilia” also encompasses performing residencies in eight cities over the next two years (including, tentatively, New York in early 2012
), with music education programs for children at each stop. That’s because the project began with pedagogical intent. Since her own days in music school in the 1970s, before she started making her name in Icelandic punk bands, Bjork had been thinking about music education that would encourage creativity rather than rote and would look beyond classical European models.
“We need to build on other things that are not just major and minor,” she said. “There are a hundred scales.”
The album was shaped by multiple impulses. Bjork, 45, had completed her major-label contract, freeing her to reinvent her career. She was weary of touring. She had new electronic toys, including an instrument that would make sounds by moving blocks of different shapes across a flat surface, called a Reactable, and a Nintendo game controller wired to vary musical patterns. And as a songwriter who has often written lyrics about natural phenomena, she had larger aspirations.
“What I always wanted to do was to reconnect musicology with nature,” she said. “I always wanted to make bass lines behave like gravity.”
“Biophilia” has songs about crystals, dark matter and the origins of the universe. Musical structures reflect the subject matter, as in “Virus,” in which contrapuntal inner parts multiply as the virus overcomes the defenses of its host cell.
At first Bjork wanted to make “Biophilia” very site-specific: a house with 10 rooms, one for each song. That gave way to the idea of making a short, three-dimensional movie for each song, to be directed by her frequent collaborator Michel Gondry. They wrote full scripts and sought financing, often being told that the project was “too esoteric,” and then Mr. Gondry was sidelined for months of re-editing “The Green Hornet.” But along came the iPad; Bjork said she realized “it’s much easier to put it in an iPad than to build the thing and film it.”
Bjork was working without a major-label advance. She has regularly reinvested most of what she earned from each album into recording the next one; “If I’m on zero, I’m happy,” she said. She used the 1 million Swedish kronor (about $160,000) she won in 2010 with the Swedish Music Foundation’s Polar Music Prize to build the instruments — the pendulums, the gameleste — that she envisioned for the album, for both sounds and visual presence. The pendulums harness gravity, and the handmade wooden instruments offer contrast to disembodied electronic sounds.
The app developers offered to treat Bjork’s apps like their own: to create them on spec and split any profits equally. “That’s how we did it back in the punk years,” Bjork said. “Everybody worked for free, and then if there was profit, you split it 50/50.”
The apps provide more mappings of the music and science. “Solstice,” for instance, is a geometric rendering of the concentric planetary orbits that create the solstice. But with the sun pulled vertically, the image turns into something like a Christmas tree with the planets as ornaments; after all, Christmas is near the winter solstice.
In performance, each new song was introduced by the orotund recorded voice of David Attenborough, giving the song’s title, scientific phenomenon and musical lesson: “ ‘Hollow,’ DNA, rhythm.”
But if the new songs aim to be educational, they are hardly singsong children’s ditties. The music is often eerie and convoluted, full of fluctuating meters, far less determined to be catchy than some of the older songs in the concert, like “Isobel” and “Hidden Place.” The new songs juxtapose hovering textures of choir and organ with sparse pointillism and sudden eruptions of break-beat drumming, all set against Bjork’s idiosyncratic melodies: pithy or sustained, pausing unexpectedly and then snaking upward and opening out to a banshee wail.
The final twist is that for all the cerebral and technological superstructures of “Biophilia,” Bjork’s relationship to her scientific subjects is anything but clinical. “Moon,” purportedly about lunar phases, is a cycle of endangerment and rebirth. “Virus” is something like a seduction: “I’m waiting for you, I’m starving for you,” Bjork sang, with a sweet, wordless refrain and a voice of pure innocence. And in “Hollow,” standing under images of replicating DNA helices, she sang her own take on what drives DNA: “I yearn to be loved.” Amid all the concepts and apparatus, Bjork kept things personal.