7 times Björk used cutting-edge technology to shape her music
Björk has long used pioneering technology to shape her music, often long before it hits the mainstream. Ahead of the release of her next album Utopia, Scott Wilson looks as some of the most memorable tools the Icelandic icon has used across her career.
In a 2015 interview with Pitchfork, Björk detailed her decades-long struggle to be properly identified as an auteur of her own work. A few months earlier, Arca had been wrongly reported as the “sole producer” of Vulnicura; it wasn’t the first time that her role in the studio had been ignored by the media. When Vespertine was released in 2001, Matmos were widely credited as having produced the album when Björk spent three years creating the seminal LP’s patchwork of microbeats using a laptop and software.
While Björk has frequently employed collaborators like LFO’s Mark Bell, Arca and The Haxan Cloak to help her realize her musical vision, from 1993’s Debut onwards she has led the production process herself, typically using cutting-edge software in unusual ways to craft her music. It’s a process that typically starts with her writing songs at home, or even on mountain walks. “I got my laptop in 1999, and it totally liberated me from the studio,” she told RBMA in 2016. “I could do 90% of my music in my bedroom. I could basically make up the dream but make the dream real.”
However, Björk’s relationship with technology has gone far beyond using off-the-shelf tools to create her music. She’s allowing fans to purchase her latest album, Utopia, via cryptocurrency, but this is just the tip of the iceberg: over the past decade, she’s looked to emerging technologies such as touchscreens and virtual reality to create her art, usually long before they reach the mainstream. We’ve looked at some of Björk’s most illuminating past interviews to find some of the most interesting examples of how she’s used technology to shape her music.
Yamaha QY20 music sequencer
Though the laptop wasn’t really a viable too for making music in the early ‘90s, it was still possible to make music on the move thanks to a now obsolete class of portable sequencer. These tiny devices were actually more like shrunken workstation keyboards, and Yamaha’s QY20 packed a tone generator (with drum kits and 100 different instrument presets), MIDI sequencer and memory for up to 20 songs into a box just a little larger than a Korg Volca. It was owned by Autechre, PJ Harvey and Tricky over the years and we know from archive footage that Björk also used the QY20 to sketch tracks at home in 1995, even using one on stage at during the ‘90s.
The hub of Björk’s studio today is Pro Tools. The popular software studio was first released in 1991, but was only widely adopted later that decade; Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca’ was the first number one record to be made fully inside a hard disk using the software. It was then that Björk started learning Pro Tools, using the software on every one of her albums from 2001’s Vespertine onwards.
Whereas DAWs such as Logic or Ableton Live allow you to make music using instruments inside the software, Pro Tools is focused on recording and editing audio. Instead of simply using Pro Tools as a basic mixer for multi-tracking however, Björk has previously used it as an instrument in its own right. “I like that it isn’t on a 4/4 grid, and I can be more focused on the narration, look at the music from a film perspective, rather than as a ‘house’ club thing,” she told Sound On Sound in 2015. “With Vespertine I recorded all sorts of noises around the house, very quiet ones, and I then magnified them up in Pro Tools, and created rhythms with them. It took me like three years, very enjoyable, but it was like crocheting a huge blanket with a tiny needle.”
While Pro Tools has mainly been the domain of studio professionals since its release, in recent years its owner Avid has tried to expand its appeal by releasing a free version; if you want an idea of how Björk makes music then downloading it is a good starting point.
Another key piece of software that Björk started using during around the time of Vespertine is Sibelius. Primarily used for creating string arrangements, Sibelius is a bit like having an orchestra inside your laptop, except you can export your score both as an audio file and as sheet music. While Björk had already developed the skills required to write the string parts for Homogenic‘s ‘Bachelorette’ and ‘Jóga’, in 1999 she started learning Sibelius to take her arrangements to the next level, using it to write most of Vespertine.
“On Vespertine it was a huge orchestra, panoramic sound, so I got more involved,” she told RBMA in 2016. “On Medúlla I did all the arrangements myself with a choir and everything. That was easier for me to work with a human voice, something I’m very familiar with. And then the brass arrangements on Volta and the choir arrangements on Biophilia, I was printing them out and handing them out the members. On Vulnicura I did the dynamics and everything on the score. It’s been a really slow, gradual progression.”
As she does with Pro Tools, Björk likes to push the boundaries of what Sibelius is intended for. According to her RBMA interview, she has even used it for making beats, “really weird chunky sounds, and then transferring it to live musicians”. There’s no free version of Sibelius, but the cut-down version, Sibelius First is just $4.95 a month (there’s also a free 30-day trial).
The third and final piece of Björk’s software puzzle is Melodyne. As with the notorious Auto-Tune software, Melodyne can be used for pitch-correcting vocals, but it’s become more of a sound design tool over its various iterations. Björk has used the software extensively to craft the harmonic elements of her albums, using it to build intricate choirs from her own voice, a process she’s compared to “painting the cathedral ceiling”.
“What I did a lot for string arrangements for Vulnicura for example, I use Melodyne a lot,” she told RBMA in 2016. “I love Melodyne. I will put all my vocal takes, and I will make one of it, and I will make many of the same one, and I will make harmonies so there are five-note harmonies, but no two harmonies will be the same. So I will spend weeks on harmonies that you can maybe hear in the beginning of “Thunderbolt” in the choir arrangement – that’s the most obvious.”
Björk uses Melodyne in tandem with both Sibelius and Pro Tools, recording improvisational vocal lines into Melodyne and transforming them into MIDI notes, which she then uses to create string arrangements on Sibelius. A full version of Melodyne will set you back $699, but there’s an entry-level version for just $99. You can also make use of a 30-day trial.
Long before Apple made touchscreen music-making mainstream with the iPhone and iPad, a device called the Reactable offered an early take on gesture-controlled sound design. An instrument that lets musicians manipulate sounds by moving glowing blocks on an interactive table, it’s a bit like a modular synthesizer without the wires, with each block (or “tangible”) representing elements such as VCOs, LFOs and sequencers; values are modified depending on their proximity to one another.
Björk adopted the Reactable for the live shows around her Volta album in 2007. It was used on stage by collaborator Damien Taylor, specifically on the track ‘Pluto’, adding to the track’s, visceral, chaotic synth sound. “When I first got it, I thought, ‘Why don’t I just make a funny noise on the Moog?” Taylor told Wired in 2007. “But, as soon as you start to use it, there’s really no comparison – it’s a completely different animal. They designed it so you draw your finger across the board, but I just wound up picking stuff up and banging it on the table and playing it more like rock ‘n’ roll power chords. We had to replace the bottoms of each of the blocks because I was wearing away the patterns.”
According to Taylor, what piqued Björk’s interest in the Reactable was the element of visual feedback that allowed the audience to see how the music was being made; it’s also an instrument that fits perfectly with her unorthodox approach to creating music. The Reactable wasn’t widely adopted by musicians, but it still exists today, both as an iOS app and as a system called Rotor, which gives you the same blocks for placing on your tablet (albeit a very reduced version of them). They’re affordable too: the Reactable app costs just $9.99 and a set of Rotor controllers are €39.99.
Björk was also an early pioneer of making music with a touchscreen. The Volta tour saw Damien Taylor and Mark Bell use more than just the Reactable, they also harnessed the power of the Jazzmutant Lemur, a MIDI interface that offered musicians a customizable multi-touch control surface five years before the first iPhone hit the shelves. “Once the tour was finished in 2008, I was excited not just to perform with touch screens, but to write with them or kind of use it as much as you could,” Björk told CNN in 2011, seeing touch screens as a liberating technology that tied into musical ideas she’d had since childhood.
Before she started writing Biophilia, Björk gave Taylor a set of specifications for a suite of virtual instruments that he created using the programming language Max/MSP. These were written for several unusual input devices, of which one was the Lemur (the Reactable and a Logitech video game controller were two others). “I wanted the music and themes of each song to correspond, so the arpeggio in the lightning song, for instance, is in the shape of lightning, and the musicology of the crystal song looks like a crystal,” she told Pitchfork in 2011.
Once the album was written, Björk wanted to translate the experience into an interactive experience. Initially it was going to be a house in Iceland where “each room was like a song”; this then became into a 3D movie directed by Michel Gondry that never came to fruition. Eventually, Björk decided to release Biophilia as an ‘app album’ for iOS and Android platforms, employing some of her favorite mobile app developers to develop a different experience for each of the album’s 10 songs. More than just a listening experience, it allowed fans to play versions of these instruments and create their own music at home.
Reviews for the Biophilia app experience were mixed at the time and it looks a little dated today, but very few musicians have been quite as creative with mobile apps since. It’s still available to try now, though it’ll set you back $12.99 – not including the $9.99 you need to pay to unlock the instruments.
While Björk’s dream of a series of 3D videos to accompany Biophilia came to nothing, the idea of creating an innovative film series wasn’t completely forgotten. When Vulnicura was released in 2015, it was accompanied by an ambitious series of virtual reality videos by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang, frequent Arca collaborator Jesse Kanda, and Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, who took the audience everywhere from the highlands of Iceland to the inside of Björk’s mouth.
Speaking to Creative Review in 2016, Bjork cited the 360-degree sound options and possibility for heightened synaesthesia as part of the reasons for working with VR. “What usually drives me towards making a special effort into other things than music is when you feel a potential to set up a unique merge between sound and vision that offers that extra special magic … so in short, I like that it can enhance music.”
These videos weren’t the first time VR and music met head on, but they coincided with the launch of YouTube’s 360-degree video function at the beginning of 2015, meaning that viewers at home could easily view them thanks to Google Cardboard, an inexpensive way of turning your phone into a pair of VR goggles. The best way of viewing these videos was probably as part of last year’s Björk Digital exhibition, but Björk’s suite of Vulnicura videos are still arguably the most interesting examples of the technology in music.
Scott Wilson is on Twitter