the sound of science: björk: biophilia live

“Love for nature in all her manifestations.” Soft-toned BBC naturist David Attenborough might have the neatest definition for the impetus behind Björk’s ambitious multimedia project. Nick Fenton and Peter Strickland’s new concert film Biophilia: Live...

by i-D Team and Adam Fletcher
15 October 2014, 10:25am

Film still from Biophilia

As the world's first "app album," the Biophilia project has already pushed the envelope of forward-thinking music distribution, offering up new forms of musical consumption in an age of illegal downloads and streaming. Biophilia started life as an album, composed in part as a response to Iceland's financial crisis, of which Björk was particularly vocal in the press. The Icelandic musician initiated the "Náttúra" campaign work to promote the local economy and halt the construction of foreign-backed aluminium factories, releasing a single on iTunes to raise funds. Biophilia is also an iPad app with interactive programs for each of the album's ten songs, designed by programmers including Theo Gray (The Elements: The Visual Exploration) and a host of medical animators. Be gone, the passive consumer.

The app celebrates another first, too. It's the first to be bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which will be hosting a major retrospective of Björk work in 2015. "I started thinking about acquiring Biophilia when it was released, in 2011," observed Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department of Architecture and Design, in a written statement. "At that time, a year after the iPad had been introduced, designers and developers were excitedly experimenting with apps that took advantage of a screen bigger than the iPhone. With Biophilia, however, 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."

Biophilia is an evocative term coined by the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson to define "the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes." As a self-confessed science groupie with an instinctive fascination with planet Earth, Björk has been heavily involved in environmental causes and celebrating the beauty of nature, 'in all its manifestations.' Hallucinatory animation and extraordinary scientific footage are woven around the traditional concert film structure in a bid to expand on the visual and interactive designs of the wider Biophilia project.

"I wanted to map out on a touchscreen how I experience musicology and then write with it," Björk told The Atlantic. "The most natural way I could make music visual for me was to compare it to elements in nature. So shapes of songs are like crystals, arrangements multiply like viruses, chords are like strata in tectonic plates, rhythm like DNA replicates, arpeggios like lightnings and so on… Sound is pretty abstract and sometimes hard to explain it and talk about it, unless you compare it to something visual that everyone knows."

The film, which was originally going to be directed in 3D by the provocative French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is more of a document than a stand-alone work. The imagery alternates between the macroscopic and the microscopic, the oceanic and the crystalline. Footage used expands on that seen in the app, and draws on imagery drawn from the Earth's core - the tectonic plates, teaming sea beds and growing spores of a heaving planet.

Fenton (The Selfish Giant, Submarine) and Strickland (Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio) clearly have an eye for playful imagery and experimental passages, although their conservative approach to the film's form gives these sections the feeling of an extended music video, as opposed to an interactive, innovative concert film it could have promised. The liquid crystal footage of the French biologist and film-maker Jean Painlevé is one of many stunning moments however, perfectly cut to Björk's track "Crystalline." The textures of nature dominate this film: translucent jellyfish and earthy spores sprout from the ground, growing before our eyes through the magic of time-lapse photography. Time is sped up or slowed down, making the "rocks grow slow mo," like her track describes.

Strickland and Fenton capture Björk commanding the stage with her characteristic force and delicacy, and lack of close-ups actually accentuate the singer's small stature and power. The film was shot on a dizzying 16 cameras, a mixture of Alexa and Red Epics managed by the cinematographer Brett Turnbull. Turnbull's experience shooting circus footage (such as Cirque du Soleil's Worlds Away show) as well as high-profile live events reveals a controlled mastery of the recorded live material, even if the cameras remain strangely removed from the star's face.

The singer is captured amid a 14-strong Icelandic female choir, decked unusually in capes and robes woven with sequins and velvets. The visual nods to the Afro-futurist costumes of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra are inescapable, if curiously reversed; the throngs of blonde hair and earnestly waving arms are very much in the realms of the Nordic. The diminutive singer's giant rainbow-coloured 'fro wig appears like a psychedelic nebula, again revealing its Afro-influence. Blue markings on her face are reminiscent of the visual excesses of 1950's science fiction cinema.

Bjork's research into the interaction between science, music and technology, doubtlessly driven by that of her hard-working team of scientists and developers, has even made it into the Icelandic educational science curriculum. Named the Biophilia Educational Program, the project makes use of the potential of touchscreen technology to create a "multimedia exploration of the universe." It has already been informally adopted in schools in Paris, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. In preparation for the project, Björk worked with David Attenborough, the results of which appear in the documentary When Björk Met Attenborough. Renowned figures from the world of science, including star neurologist Oliver Sacks, offer advice and factual information. Finally, a traveling exhibition will show unusual instruments including the gameleste, a 10-foot bass-playing pendulum and a wind-up music-box instrument called the sharpsichord.

A lively performance of her 2008 track 'Declare Independence' injects new life into the film's final moments. Six years later, this track has the power to touch on the present moment, and was recently posted on her Facebook in support of Scottish independence. Exciting the crowd into action, Björk commands arms to be raised, fists thumped.

Biophilia is likely to be the project that Björk is most celebrated for, a wildly ambitious and interactive work that challenges the state of albums in a wildly problematic landscape. The project makes one thing clear: you don't have to sell your album's in a bid to 'pay how you feel,' but you might as well start getting creative with ways to make it more interesting, more interactive and helluva accessible to young and old. Björk is still very much at the forefront of her game.


Text Sophia Satchell Baeza
Film still from Biophilia

Think Pieces
Oliver Sacks
sophia satchell baeza
declare independence
theo gray
when björk met attenborough