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What do solar systems, sonic experimentation, and orange afro wigs have in common? Biophilia

Björk On Collaboration, Vision, Her New York Residency, And All Things "Biophilia"

The one-of-a-kind Icelandic singer performs the first of 10 live versions of her album/interactive app suite tonight in at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. We talked to her about Biophilia's inception, it’s evolution, and where, if anywhere, it will end.

On some distant planet with an unpronounceable, umlaut-riddled name, Björk is the equivalent of Earth’s Mr. Wizard.

Fortunately, you don’t need a wormhole to watch her, right here in this solar system, combine string theory with actual strings, vocals, digital sounds, a giant custom Icelandic pipe organ, the crack of a lightning bolt-hurling Tesla coil, immersive video walls, and more. Tonight begins her 10-night series of concerts (running through March 2nd) based on her nature-and-technology-inspired album/app/exploration, Biophilia.

David Attenborough explains Biophilia

The 46-year-old Icelandic born-and-schooled artist is partnering with the Creators Project and the New York Hall of Science in Queens for six performances designed to Björk’s own specs. Based on the debut performance of the show at the Manchester International Festival in July 2011, it’s part science lesson, part technological experiment, part fantastic opera, and it’s the biggest extravaganza in her outsize concert history.

"It does have that feeling of courage-slash-foolhardiness," Björk tells Co.Create.

Shows at the hall are performed in the round and promoters promise no audience member will be more than a few yards form the stage. Björk will also do a version of the show for four nights at Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan.

Before she got into the thick of planning and rehearsals, we spoke with her at length about all aspects of Biophilia, including the music, apps, public middle school education component, and more. For this story, on the eve of the her New York residency, we get into how the performance in particular took shape, how she gathered together the pieces and collaborators to make it real, and how Biophilia has morphed but never veered outside of her vision.

CO.CREATE: From the music to the technology, Biophilia feels like a leaping-off point, is that right?

BJÖRK: It definitely seems like it…. It’s been, for the whole three years, this kind of line thing going on, and definitely it feels exciting, and it’s been very rewarding to take those risks, but it’s also been definitely has scary moments.

"Moon" from Biophilia

Like what?

Because it’s just so humongous sometimes, it feels… Like a year before it came out, I had my moments where I thought, "Wow, this is probably not going to happen." But to be honest, that was like 5% of the time. Not the other 95%, because I had a really clear vision of what I wanted, but I didn’t really know how it would get done. And that’s where the sort of collaborators come into it.

Biophilia continues to evolve—the app, the show, the music. How does that adaptability jibe with your very solid vision?

I mean, I think the best things are a mix of both. You sort have to have a spine in it, you have to know where you are going, but I think you have to be open to improvisation and especially if you’re going to collaborate. I’m not that keen on fierce dictatorship. I think that sort of the point of working with somebody is them coming up with stuff and feeling free to do that. But you can see pretty much, when you read the credits for the apps, you can see pretty much how it spread out…. Different people end up doing different things.

At what point do these people that you’re involved with, whether it’s Manu Delago, Zeena Parkins, Max Weisel, your pipe organ builders, or others come into the process?

Well, it’s a different story with every person. But all in all, me and an engineer I work with, Damian Taylor, (engineer-slash-programmer-slash-other things) and my assistant James Merry, we went to Puerto Rico, and I would say that a bulk of the track work we did there, and we experimented with eBay organs—we just found old, cheap organ pipes—and Damian programmed some [apps] under my instructions … and we did a lot of research and watched a lot of DVDs, read a lot of books.

What kind of DVDs do you watch for this?

We found, I remember a schematics DVD, and I think I found materials which are used for universities in physics classes about string theory, like 50 episodes of them.

So just a little light research.

Yeah, exactly. I read so much and watched so much and consumed so much, I think at one point, after a few glasses of wine, I think I actually managed to explain string theory to my friends, but I don’t think I could now.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and to focus on her performance series. Check back here and at Fast Company for more from our talk with Bjork, coming soon.

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3 Comments

  • Zachary Adam Cohen

    I am looking forward to the shows at Roseland. What a fantastic innovator. Bravo to Bjork for at least attempting this

  • Mikel1814

    See the Biophilia show.  You won't say it's a terrible album.  I just saw it Sunday night.  It was one of the most breathtaking things I've ever witnessed.  And every song on the album was brought into stunning light.