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EPISODE 7

A recurring theme in Björk's music is the intersection of humanity and technology. Think of how she effortlessly combined the human pulse of strings with crunchy electronic beats in Homogenic. Or how she mixed vibrant drums and horns with electronic instruments in Volta.

But her experimentation goes beyond the music itself. Björk also plays with the technology of music distribution. Her seventh studio album, Biophilia, became the first record to be released as an app — with each song accompanied by a musicology or science game — and her immersive virtual reality exhibit, Björk Digital, paved the way for some of the first VR music videos.

In this episode I'll talk about how Björk’s music intersects with technology and science. I'll start with Biophilia and trace its evolution into the even more expansive Björk Digital exhibit — to show how she uses technology to transform the way we experience music.

 
 

TRANSCRIPT

Savannah Wright: You’re listening to Björk Unravelled — a series that demystifies Björk’s music one piece at a time. I’m your host, Savannah Wright.


A few years ago I saw an ad for a traveling exhibition called Björk Digital. It was coming to the Walt Disney Concert Hall to coincide with a series of shows that Björk was scheduled to perform there. 


So I called up the only Björk fan I knew within 300 miles: my friend Aaron.


Aaron Nichols: I remember we walked in and we had to wait in a little area first and then were just kind of like some things to play with, but there was all of the, all of the different, like just arts. And like the space was just sort of like clean and futuristic. And I was like, okay, this is going to be, this is going to be something. you know, there's like something around the corner and I don't know what it is, but I'm excited. And also maybe a little terrified.


Savannah Wright: Aaron might have felt uneasy because we had to sign a waiver before entering. I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that for an art exhibit. But this was not just an art exhibit.


It was a virtual reality experience.


Björk Digital billed itself as “an immersive virtual reality exhibition” that is “Inspired by Björk’s own discography and especially by her latest album Vulnicura.” It’s basically a combination of music and videos and interactive VR experiences.


Here’s what Björk said about the project: “I think we need to put humanity into technology—the soul. It's about using technology to get closer to people, to be more creative.”


That’s a tenet Björk has lived by throughout her career. Think of how she effortlessly combined the human pulse of strings with crunchy electronic beats in Homogenic. Or how she mixed vibrant drums and horns with electronic instruments in Volta. 


And later on, Björk experimented with the technology of music distribution. Her seventh studio album, Biophilia, was the first album to be released as an app — with each song accompanied by a musicology or science game.


Experimenting with technology is nothing new for her. Björk Digital just showed that she was ready to take it to a new level.


In this episode we’re going to talk about how Björk’s music intersects with technology and science. We’ll start with Biophilia and trace its evolution into the even more immersive Björk Digital exhibit — to show how she uses technology to expand the way we interact with music.


[MUSIC]


Biophilia was a first-of-its-kind record because it was released as an app as well as a digital album. It’s also part-instrument laboratory and part-school curriculum. It’s a lot of things.


Basically, Björk wanted to align her love of science with her love of music and help children feel that same excitement for both. So each song has a connection to a concept in musicology or science.


For example, “Crystalline” compares crystal structures to the creation of songs from small motifs, and “Solstice” likens swinging pendulums to overlapping contrapuntal lines; and “Virus” has an unstable, ever-shifting accompaniment that evokes cells subdividing and multiplying. 


She invented some hybrid instruments to use on Biophilia, too. Like the gameleste, a Midi-controlled device that incorporates gamelan-like bronze bars in a celeste housing... 


[“Crystalline” 0:00 - 0:06]


and the Sharpsichord, a 46-string automatic harp controlled by a pin cylinder.


[“Sacrifice” 0:00 - 0:10]


I don’t want to spend too much time on this project because there’s actually just too much to cover. But I do want to analyze my favorite song from the record to give you a taste of how she incorporates science and music here. And how the multimedia aspect of this album laid the groundwork for Björk Digital.


That song is “Virus.”


[“Virus” intro]


In “Virus” Björk sings about a parasitic kind of love, where there’s a winner and a loser. She could be talking about a person.


But of course it’s more than that. It’s about the earliest relationship of all.


In an interview with the Guardian, Björk said: "It's a kind of a love story between a virus and a cell. And of course the virus loves the cell so much that it destroys it.”


The instrumentation tells that story pretty literally. The song starts slow with a pulsing 808 bass and the hang drum.


[“Virus” 0:22 - 0:40]


I didn’t know this but the hang drum is actually commonly used in meditation music. It makes sense, though. It sounds ancient, just like the topic of the song.


Then the gameleste enters. It’s one of those instruments created specifically for Biophilia. 


It definitely sounds sharper than the celeste Björk used in Vespertine, and that’s probably because it’s an electronic instrument. It does have an angular sound to it. While the hang drum has that smooth sine wave sound, these sound more like sawtooth waves to me. They’re sharp, just like the spiky proteins on the surface of the virus.


After the first chorus, the gameleste picks up in speed. The virus multiplies.


[“Virus” 1:30 - 1:40]


So does the rhythm of the bass, which at this point feels like a heartbeat to me. The body is fighting infection.


Then Björk’s voice multiples, as if foreshadowing the takeover of the virus. 


[“Virus” 1:48 - 1:59]


You probably know where this is going. And sure enough, around the 4 minute mark the gameleste multiplies, becoming more and more dissonant and unsettling. 


[“Virus” 4:05 - 4:15]


The 808 sound, or heartbeat, dies about 45 seconds later. The virus is victorious. 


[“Virus” 4:50 - 5:00]


This musical story plays out in the app as well. There’s a game that accompanies the song “Virus” involving little green viruses attacking purple host cells. Here’s Björk describing it.


[Björk - Biophilia Virus 0:06 - 0:36]

Björk: This app is called virus and it’s about generating music, so you have one hand you have the good cells and then you have the viruses attacking it and taking over it. So you sort of have a little pop song and then in order to let it play you have to flick with your fingers and try to stop the virus take over the song.


The app designer Scott Snibbe shares more:


[Björk - Biophilia Virus 1:07 - 1:56]

Scott Snibbe: This is a kind of game where the viruses are attacking the cell and it’s possible to fling them away so you can use your fingers to fling the viruses away. But if you do, the song actually gets stuck. You only hear the first two verses, and then you’ve managed to save the cell but you don’t get to hear the whole story. So it’s a game that you actually have to lose in order to win. You have to let the cell die in the center in order to hear the entire song.


There’s another way you can play, too, called “instrument mode.” When you touch the cells, you’ll hear samples of the hang drum. When you touch the viruses, the gameleste sounds chime. It’s not often that we get to know exactly what purpose the instrumentation in a song serves, but here Björk makes that narrative explicit.


I think this song is gorgeous both sonically and narratively. It’s one of a few songs in Biophilia works seamlessly both as a song and as an app game.


Unfortunately, most of the others are clunky in their execution. They feel more like app music than album music.


“Moon,” for example, has a pretty sound but it’s pretty rigid, and that’s because each note represents a phase of the moon as it changes from full to new.


[“Moon” 0:00 - 0:13]


Then there’s the song “Hollow,” which is very… literal.


[“Hollow” 0:52 - 1:05]


It honestly feels like a kid played with the app for that song and then they recorded it for the final version.


Still, Biophilia was groundbreaking in how it presented Björk’s music through a completely new medium. Granted, Björk has always done this well through her music videos, but the app was different. Because instead of staring at a screen, you can interact with her music through both sight and touch. It’s a two-way experience between listener and artist.


In fact, that interactive element is exactly what made Björk Digital so special, too.


Before we dive into the exhibit, I want to provide some context on the album it showcased: Vulnicura.


Björk released Vulnicura after her breakup with her partner of 13 years, Matthew Barney. Some critics called it her singer songwriter album because of its incredibly vulnerable and emotional lyrics. She called it her “complete heartbreak” album.


And let me tell you, she’s right. I feel like the album’s string arrangements alone could break your heart. 


[“Black Lake” strings clip]


To craft the visual material for this album, she could have continued making her usual videos, but instead she chose to create some of the first 360 VR music videos ever made. 


So why VR? Here’s what Björk said in an interview with Jefferson Hack:


[Nowness interview 37:06 - 38:01] 

Björk: Obviously as a musician and as a performer I knew compared to all my other albums that Vulnicura had the theatrical potential for, you know, a Greek tragedy or like a really Shakespearean sort of situation, you know. And the VR was perfect for that, but it was private. It was something about just putting that thing on your head and headphones. Your private life isn’t just spread all over the universe. It’s like one on one. It’s not in some gossip columns or something. Do you know what I mean? It’s like a private circus, a private theater, and it just suited the music I think. It was like reading a book. It’s a one on one album.


You watch a typical music video on a screen with other people. It’s meant to be shared with a large audience. But a VR video forces you to watch independently. Each person has their own headset, their own headphones. It’s intensely intimate, and that’s the kind of reverence that this album deserves.


Take “Black Lake,” for example. It’s one of the bleakest songs on the album. She wrote it two months after the breakup, so her pain was still raw.


[“Black Lake” 0:30 - 0:47]


Could you imagine playing that in the car with other people? You might feel uncomfortable or exposed.


The song is 10 minutes long, and it’s hard to listen to unless you’re also heartbroken. But it beautifully captures the grieving process — when you’re still trying to put your pain into words. 


Here’s what Björk said about the track:


It’s like, when you’re trying to express something and you sort of start, but then nothing comes out. You can maybe utter five words and then you’re just stuck in the pain. And the chords in-between, they sort of represent that. […] We called them “the freezes”, these moments between the verses. 


[“Black Lake” freeze clip]


They’re longer than the verses, actually. It’s just that one emotion when you’re stuck. It is hard, but it’s also the only way to escape the pain, just going back and having another go, trying to make another verse.


This dark place, this seemingly endless loop of frustration and sadness — it’s the first stop on the Björk Digital tour. Here’s my friend Aaron again.


Aaron Nichols: We were in a room, it was dark. And then on each end there was a video screen where we. Once the, once the video started, um, it was essentially like we were in kind of like a volcanic, um, chasm and there is sort of like this, like life going around and Björk is like kind of crawling through and, and singing at us, which is, which was great.

But what was interesting about it is rather than just have it be like an experience where it was, um. Like it was a tunnel, like each end was, um. It was like Björk moving forward into the future, and you could see your future. It was like two different Björk's coming at us, both singing. Um, and there were different things that happened on each screen.

I think one, it sort of ended up being like more kind of like watery and like filled with vegetation. And the other one I think ended up like kind of going towards a lava and fire and it was just like gorgeous and amazing. 


Savannah Wright: The room experimented not only with visual perspective, but sonic perspective as well. As you walk around the perimeter of the room, the sound subtly shifts. It’s like you’re in the chasm with Björk, hearing the drums pound against the walls.


[“Black Lake” 4:35 - 4:50]


And then you walk to another part of the room, and instead you hear the weeping of the strings.


[“Black Lake” 4:55 - 5:05]


For me, this experience changed the way I thought of the song. Before, “Black Lake” felt dark and hopeless. I struggled to listen to the whole thing. But when you see both screens, you can see that Björk will come out of that dark chasm. And when you listen closely to just the beats, you feel her determination to make it out alive.


[“Black Lake” 8:02 - 8:20]


She’ll push through to the other side of heartbreak. It just takes time, and the length of the song completely captures that.


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


Ok, I’m going to go slightly out of order now because I want to save my favorite video for last. The next video is for a song called “Mouth Mantra,” and it took us to a place Aaron and I never thought we’d find ourselves in… and hopefully won’t ever again.


Aaron Nichols: So now's the part where we get to be in Björk's mouth. And if you’ve ever wondered what Björk's mouth is like, um, it's like yours. But if you want to see it 360 in VR on a rotating stool and see all of her teeth and her uvula, this is the, this is the experience for you!

But yes, all kidding aside, it's like, okay, this is the part where they're like, Okay so just so you know, you might get like motion sick. And it makes sense. You're like in a VR, it's black, you're on a stool spinning. But, um, so this one, the camera was inside of her mouth, as she sang.

And, um, yeah. And so you could see everything that was happening as she sang. It was interesting because then I think in front of her, I think it was just black. And I don't know if they, I assume they probably had some sort of black screen or something like that, but, um, but yeah, as you kind of, it was just very disconcerting and spatially strange.

And then it, I feel like it did sort of start spinning and, um, at some point then there became like abstract, like fireworks and other things and it made you look up and as you were spinning. Like it, actually, I didn't, I don't get nauseous or carsick easy, easily, but I remember almost feeling like I was going to fall over or like vomit or something.

Um, and so that was just, that was just mind bending and like, I don't know. I don't, I don't know that I wanted that, but, but we got it.


Savannah Wright: I don’t have much else to say about this one except that this is vindication for all of you out there who just know Björk as a weirdo. This captures her weirdness perfectly. 


I mean, sure, “Mouth Mantra” is about being silenced and making yourself heard. And it probably has something to do with exploring Björk’s voice as an instrument and objectifying the voice rather than the performer, etc. But honestly it was so bizarre and disorienting that the meaning went over my head. 


That’s okay because, as we’ve talked about in previous episodes, Björk wants her music to be visceral, not cerebral.


And, hey, at least now I can say I’ve been inside Björk’s mouth.


[TRANSITION MUSIC]


Now let’s circle back to Aaron’s and my favorite video — and my all-time favorite Björk song — “Stonemilker.”


This one was written 9 months before the breakup. You know that feeling when you know your relationship is doomed but you’re still fighting to make it happen because you’ve invested so much time and hope into it already? Björk does. 


[“Stonemilker” 0:16 - 0:39]


Aaron Nichols: There's just something like deeply moving about that song that, uh, I guess, hits so many different emotional notes and like. In your life, regardless of whether or not, um, you're in love or out of love, there's always a relationship or something in your life that feels like, uh, you want more out of it. And it's like milking a stone. Um, that no matter what you do, no matter what you're putting into it. If that's like your career or the person you're chasing or the friend that you've lost or you're arguing with, it always feels like it has applications to something in my life.

And I listen to that song and every time I'm just like, Oh, Björk understands what I'm feeling like.


Savannah Wright: I 100 percent agree. No matter what you’re going through, there’s this line that Björk sings that’s so relatable… and empowering.


[Stonemilker 1:49 - 2:09]


“Show me emotional respect. And I have emotional needs”


It’s such a simple line, yet it carries so much power. It takes courage to be vulnerable and to assert your emotional needs. I feel like in relationships, you’re considered weak if you care more than the other person or if you show more emotion. But here Björk shows that real power comes from opening your heart and being unapologetic about that.


In an interview, Björk described how the music needed to feel cyclical, "that it could go on forever" as a way to create "equilibrium, like the person who's singing this song is showing some sort of harmony to someone as an example."


You hear that cyclical message in the first and last lines of the song. Here’s the opening again:


[“Stonemilker” 0:15 - 0:28]


And then here’s the end.


[“Stonemilker” 5:25 - 5:40]


It’s normal for relationships to fall out of balance every once in a while. That’s life. And that shows the importance of resetting. You find that equilibrium when you check in with and learn from each other.


But it only works if both parties are willing to try, and from Björk’s tone here it seems like, even though she wants to regain balance, they’re spinning apart. They can’t find their mutual coordinates.


The video for “Stonemilker” captures that idea of spinning apart pretty literally. It was conceived of and shot in an afternoon using 360-degree cameras to create one of the first virtual reality music videos by a major artist. To shoot 3-D, 360-degree virtual reality, the director Andrew Huang used four pairs of sports cameras on a stand, refitted with 180 degree angle lenses and facing in four directions. Their images were later stitched together on the computer.


The result is immersive and intimate. Here’s Aaron again.


Aaron Nichols: So we went into a room and then we had, um, VR headsets and we were on these spinning stools. And what happened was, uh, once we had the VR headsets on, um, “Stonemilker” started playing and, um, what happened was you could spin freely on the stool. And Björk basically walked around here in a 360 circle.


Savannah Wright: So you see Björk singing in a neon green dress, walking around you on the black volcanic rock by the ocean. Everything seems pretty normal. Until she sings the chorus.


Aaron Nichols: She starts splitting in different directions and then you have to choose which, which Björk you're going to follow. Um, and so you could, and at that point, like literally you could spin if you wanted. And so she split into two different directions.


Savannah Wright: What’s interesting is when the next verse happens, the scene changes. We’re on a different part of the beach, and Björk is one person again. So I think that split is tied to the message of the chorus. There’s that line about emotional needs and asking for emotional respect, but then there’s this line too:


[Stonemilker 2:20 - 2:35]

Björk: I wish to synchronize our feelings


Savannah Wright: So the splitting of Björk’s body mirrors their feelings falling out of sync. Sure enough, when the second chorus hits, Björk splits again. This time into three.


Aaron Nichols: It was fantastic because one of the things that it felt like was, um, exactly what that song is about. It's about like relationships and choices and um, like all like divergent paths. And here it's like, you know, you want to. You want to follow everything and see everything that's in this experience, but you're forced to choose. Like you can't, you can't take, you can't visualize everything that is happening at one time.

It's impossible.


Savannah Wright: There’s only one Björk when she sings the final lines. She dances gracefully in front of the camera. She smiles but you also see a hint of sadness in her eyes, and for me that look captures the final feeling of the song. 


She’s one self again, which could suggest synchronicity. But if we’re using Aaron’s read, then it could also mean that the possibilities for other paths have ended. Maybe in another timeline she and her partner could have found their mutual coordinates. Here, though, the choices have been made. The possibilities are gone.


So why does Björk smile? I think it’s because she knows she did the right thing. It’s better to assert your needs than to suffocate them for your partner — even if it means losing that relationship. 


This song, and the music video, consistently moves me to tears. You can experience it yourself through the Vulnicura VR app, which was released last fall. Or if you don’t have a VR headset, you can still experience the 360 video on Björk’s YouTube channel.


[TRANSITION MUSIC]


While I was producing this episode, I re-watched the “Stonemilker” video a few times and scrolled through the comments.


I actually love scrolling through the comments on music videos, especially for sad songs. I almost always find a reflective story or comment that makes me appreciate the song even more. It’s amazing to me how one song can unite total strangers in a common feeling.


Here’s one comment that stopped me:


“Everyone always says Björk isn't of this world, but I'd contend she's the closest to the mother earth as any human could possibly be. She's like seafoam, like volcanic ash, like a burst of lava. She feels unabashedly and vibrantly - with all of the sincerity of innocence, without losing the primal heat. It's reflected in the way she moves, her vocal inflections, her face, her lyrics. I feel unbelievably lucky to be alive during the same time as this incredible artist, and the incredible people who help bring her work into visual reality.”


Whenever we talk about musical greats, it’s typically in past tense. We wish we could have been alive when Mozart was making music. When Charlie Parker was playing bop into existence. Or when The Beatles were at their prime. 


We often don’t stop to appreciate the musical greats that are producing masterpieces right now. Masterpieces that our grandchildren might listen to one day and think: “Wow, I wish I had been alive when they were making music.”


Maybe when you started this podcast you didn’t see Björk as one of those musical greats. I hope that by spending more time with her music you’ve discovered a tiny fragment of what makes her work so masterful.


Marisa Canova: She also just helps me get out the really deep seated emotions that I don't know if I, even, if those even get touched on when I listen to other music, if that makes sense. It goes all the way to your gut.


Aaron Nichols: And I think that's what the human experience is about. I think the human experience is much more complicated than what I think music can make it feel like sometimes it is.


Natalie Scheuller: I think when it lands, which it does for me so frequently, but when it really lands, like every element of that. It's, I mean, it brings tears to my eyes. Because I just feel the beauty of what she does in such a powerful, visceral way. And so, yeah, I just, I think for me, I just, I will always love her because she is so true to herself and she has, such an incredible vision for what she wants the experience to be for her listeners. And I am really transported by that experience. And it’s so powerful.


[MUSIC]


You’ve been listening to Björk: Unravelled, a series that demystifies Björk’s music — one piece at a time. Björk: Unravelled is produced independently by me, Savannah Wright. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and submit a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. Share your thoughts with me on Facebook and Instagram @bjorkunravelled.


This concludes the first season, but I do have a special bonus episode up next. I’m going to touch base with my friend Carter, whom you might remember from the trailer of the show, and see if this series made him into a Björk believer. Look for that in a few weeks. Until then.


Thanks for listening.