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The innovator: Bjork

Bjork’s new project, Biophilia, with an introduction by Sir David Attenborough, is a visionary multimedia experiment, released via an iPad and a series of apps. Using elements of nature like crystals and DNA strands to demonstrate how music is made, it was written in a Puerto Rico beach hut against the background of the Icelandic financial crisis

The innovator: Bjork

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I got entangled in a battle in Iceland. It was really at a crossroads and they wanted to build five aluminium factories, but the island isn’t that big, and if you do that it’ll become like Frankfurt in the space of five years. So the majority of Icelanders thought it was a really bad idea — they’d rather use green, high-tech solutions, like wind energy. Building an aluminium factory seemed like going back to an industrial age; a dinosaur idea. We put up a petition online where we asked the government to keep our energy resources in public property, not to privatise them, and 25% of the voting-age population signed it. We actually held a karaoke party, and it was really touching because old ladies and farmers from the north came and sang the national anthem. People were crying.

Green solutions are easier. You’ve got to connect the dots and make the whole thing work. If you’re using tidal energy, it’s cheaper, and you’re going to be better off in the long run. Coming out of that into Biophilia, I was thinking that the 21st century isn’t just an opportunity; we have to work with nature, whether we like it or not. We have to make cars that are harmonious with nature. This project is very influenced by that.

I got an offer from National Geographic. Because of my environmental work in Iceland they wanted to sign me to their record company, and thought I could be one of their first clients. I thought, “Wahey, I’ll be label-mates with lemurs and sharks.” I was totally up for it, although in the end I came up with the app idea instead. We went to their head offices — they’re the best people in the world. I met all these fantastic explorers and I couldn’t believe the conversations during dinner about moth secret societies.

Living on the beach in Puerto Rico was inspiring. I found a town that was really easy for my boyfriend to fly to New York from. It happened to be a surf town, believe it or not. It’s in a Beach Boys song from the 1960s. I loved it. I still miss it. It was a paradise world — you’d wake up, swim in the ocean… Wow.

These are exciting times for Iceland. What I want to do is not go: “OK, let’s not have it how it used to be, all nostalgic and nationalistic.” I want to use this energy to go high-tech. I don’t want to do what England and Europe had to do: 200 years of building factories. We don’t have to do that; we can go straight into high-tech: solar power, wind farms, volcanic ash, and then we can come into the 21st century.

We can learn a lot from the music of supposedly primitive societies. When you see those societies do music, even today, everybody is singing and playing a big part. It’s not like everybody is sitting listening while one person is a genius. It makes me wonder how the hierarchy of one composer and a symphony orchestra doing what they’re told is going to apply to 21st-century kids, where everybody is important.

How I hear music is more related to nature. It’s not related to some Christian German guys, Bach and Beethoven. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I totally respect Christians and Germans, it’s just that I think there should be versatility. So for me, the best way to teach structure is to have crystals that grow, and then to use the replication of DNA to show rhythm; and arrangement that moves like a virus.

 

Biography

Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1965 to politically active parents, and released her first songs by the age of 12. Childhood frustrations at music college in part inspired her desire to make Biophilia a tool for musical education.

After a spell in anarchist punk bands, Björk was a member of indie group The Sugarcubes. When they split in 1993, she moved to England to pursue a solo career, releasing Debut in 1993 and winning a Brit Award a year later. As well as seven albums, she has also worked with her partner Matthew Barney, an artist, and photographer Nan Goldin.

Biophilia is currently on a major world tour featuring specially built, app-controlled instruments including a giant pendulum and an organ known as a ‘gamelest’.

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)