While the Icelandic performer Björk is a famously eclectic multidisciplinary artist, one of the most consistent themes across her oeuvre is the coalescence of nature and technology. She began her career as a child star in the 1970s, before moving on to punk and new wave bands in the 1980s,
coming to international attention with post-punk band The Sugarcubes.
However, since departing from the group and going solo in the early 1990s, she has made it her mission to meld avant-garde electronica with themes of flora and fauna, the elemental extremes of her homeland, and the cosmos. In doing so, she has blurred and transcended binaries constructed around gender; humanity’s connection to the natural world; the distinction between technology and nature; and the relationship between tradition and modernity.
Let us explore these contrasts within her work and their relevance to our constantly evolving world.
Perhaps the most obvious entry point into this multilayered topic is Björk’s inimitable voice. Shaped by the volatile landscape of Iceland, it has been described variously as celestial, primal, visceral, and ancient. She is able to move effortlessly from a gentle whisper, to a volcanic scream, all within a single breath. Whether the eruption is one of joy or sorrow, its efficacy at communicating emotion transcends language. With such an expressive and powerful instrument at her disposal, its addition to even the coldest accompaniment would be an example of the bridge between technology and nature that her work creates. But beyond this, Björk has long proven herself an expert at imbuing electronic music with humanity and warmth.
“People saying ‘techno is cold’ is rubbish”, she said in an interview (Pytlik, 2003). “Since when do you expect the instruments you work with to deliver soul? You do music with computers and get a cold tune, that’s because nobody put soul into it. You don’t look at a guitar and say, ‘Go on then, do
a soulful tune.’ You have to put soul into it yourself.” Her skill in this area is not only a major source of her immense success and critical acclaim, but also an example of the ways in which she challenges gendered expectations within the male dominated field of electronic music.
In Western culture, nature has historically been considered a feminine domain, while technology, and electronic music by extension, has been thought of as a masculine domain (Lysloff and Gay, 2003). When a woman sings atop synth heavy production, it is often assumed that male producers
are responsible for the pulsating beeps and beats, while the female singer comes in at the end to provide the human element. Due to the history of sexist power dynamics within the music industry, this is sometimes the case. But while Björk has often worked with male producers, she is also a true auteur, and remains heavily involved in each and every aspect of her art.
She has frequently stated that she only collaborates with people she feels are as strong as her musically, or stronger (Lysloff and Gay, 2003). For example, her 2001 album, Vespertine – a sumptuous array of glitchy microbeats and hushed odes to sexual ecstasy and domesticity – was coproduced by the American IDM duo, Matmos. Although they have often been incorrectly credited with the entirety of its production, Björk had already produced 80 percent of the record herself over a three year period, before they became involved (Hopper, 2015). The results are both technically intricate, as well as deeply feminine and naturalistic. Like much of her work, it dismantles both social and artistic gender roles, and exposes the flaws in our binary assumptions.
Beyond gender roles, Björk also blurs the boundaries of where technology ends and nature begins in her art. “For me, nature and technology stand for hope, and for a movement onwards to the future”, she said in a 2016 interview with The Creative Independent (Stosuy, 2016). “…I think it’s also some sort of instinct, just knowing that if there is to be hope, we have to unite technology and nature. You have to make them coexist, and they have to be able to work together. I mean, it has to happen, if we’re going to survive.” This sentiment is more relevant than ever in our futuristic times.
Technological advancements have provided us with increased abilities to better explore and understand the hidden depths of our own planet, as well as the outer reaches of space. As climate change accelerates at an alarming rate, such advancements may also provide hope for the future of our planet, and of our species.
But more relevant to Björk are the opportunities technology provide to incorporate nature into her music, not only thematically, but also compositionally. There is no better example of this than the multimedia spectacle of her 2011 album, Biophilia.
“Welcome to Biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations, from the tiniest organism to the greatest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe”, says David Attenborough, in his introduction to the iOS app released alongside the album. “Just as we use music to express parts of
us that would otherwise be hidden, so, too, can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together – nature, music, technology.” Björk achieved this by working with world-class programmers to create interactive apps themed around each of the albums songs, with titles like Moon, Crystalline, Thunderbolt, and Mutual Core.
“When I did Biophilia, I was so excited about finally mapping out how I feel about education and how I feel about musicology”, she said to The Creative Independent (Stosuy, 2016).“…when I was a kid in music school, it was almost offensive, how I was forced to study music, or resonance, or
timbre, or scales—everything from a normal book…If it’s being seen and heard, it was something that needed to be felt and become visceral and physical.” By making the apps playable along with the albums songs, and as instruments in their own right, they also demonstrated many fundamentals
of music theory, and have since been adopted as part of the music education curriculum in Iceland.
Perhaps even more impressive than the app based album is its associated live show. Björk commissioned new and fantastical instruments, like the gameleste, a hybrid between a gamelan and a celesta that can be controlled via MIDI. On Thunderbolt, the bassline was provided by a Tesla coil, which appeared on stage in all its high voltage glory. For Solstice, a song about the rotational axis of the Earth and the sun, English sound sculptor Henry Dagg provided his 2.5 tonne solar powered sharpsichord – a hybrid between a harp and a barrel organ. Also on Solstice, a bespoke pendulum harp is featured. The pendulums were attached to stringed cylinders, passing a plectrum as they swung, allowing the audience to see and hear the force of gravity at work.
Many of these innovations exhibit another major dichotomy within Björk’s work – the combination of the traditional and the modern. To better understand this element of her art, look no further than her 1997 album, Homogenic. Conceptually focused on her native Iceland, its combination of traditional instruments with hypermodern production resulted in music without precedent. For example, on Unravel,
Björk uses a half spoken, half sung vocal delivery associated with Old Icelandic choirmen (Lysloff and Gay, 2003), while a church organ and strings provided by the Icelandic String Octet combine with distant electronic beats. “I asked myself if there is such a thing as Icelandic techno, and how it could sound”, she said in a 1997 interview (Oor, September 1997).. “…in Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers…But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern…That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring. Homogenic is Iceland, my native country, my home.”
These contrasts can also be seen in her visual art and music videos, particularly those made in promotion of Homogenic. In the Paul White directed video for Hunter, a bald-headed Björk sings directly to camera over pounding techno beats, while she gradually morphs into a computer
generated polar bear. Michele Gondry’s video for Jóga pans across a series of shifting Icelandic vistas and tectonic plates. At the end of the video, the camera zooms in on an opening in Björk’s chest, revealing rocky terrain and a floating island. The video for All Is Full of Love, directed by Chris Cunnningham, features a gleaming white robot, modelled on Björk, singing the song as it is assembled by machinery. Upon completion, it approaches an identical robot, and the two embrace and kiss passionately.
Another example of Björk combining old and new is her 2004 album, Medúlla. Almost entirely acapella, she worked with beatboxers Rhazel and Dokaka, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, rock vocalist Mike Patton, and both the Icelandic and London Choir.
The title of the album is drawn from a Latin word for marrow; “Not just your bone marrow, but marrow in the kidneys and marrow in your hair, too”, she said in an interview with The Independent (McNair, 2004). “It’s about getting to the essence of something, and with this album being all vocals, that made sense…I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000-year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient spirit that’s passionate and dark and survives.” The lyrics frequently focus on nature; Oceania is written from the point of view of the ocean, remarking on human evolution, while Who Is It and The Pleasure Is All Mine are themed around motherhood. But while the albums arrangements draw on classical and folk traditions, and Tanya Tagaq uses ancient vocal techniques, these elements are digitally layered, processed, and altered.
More recently, on her 2017 album Utopia, Björk explored environmentalist and ecofeminist themes. “It’s a proposal of how we can live in the future with nature and technology in the most optimistic way possible”, she said of the album (Sphères, prismes et Utopia pour le nouvel album, 2017). “We have Trump, we have Brexit, we have our issues in Iceland, we have our environmental issues – if there was ever an urgency or necessity to come up with another utopian model, how we’re gonna live our lives, I think it’s now. And this is my proposal.” She went on to say that air is a major theme of the album: “I arranged flute, I started a 12-piece Icelandic flute section and spent a few months recording and rehearsing with them…The whole album is a little bit about air, because we decided to have synths that have a lot of air in them, and we have flutes that sound synthy, so there’s that sort of crossover there.”
This is a recurring characteristic of Björk’s music; the organic becomes electronic, and the electronic becomes organic. In our ever modernising world, it can be easy to feel disconnected from nature. Our skyscrapers get taller, our connections become increasingly digital, and jobs once performed by humans become automated by machines. Although our technological age presents us with near limitless possibilities, it also puts us at risk of losing touch with our natural humanity.
But Björk consistently utilises the most advanced technology available in the present, while constantly looking forward to the future, and never losing touch with nature or the traditions of the past. In doing so, she reminds us that we are all of nature. No matter how much we build up our cities, we are a part of the animal kingdom. The synthesizers and computers she uses to create her music may seem artificial, but they
were born out of the ingenuity of clever primates. Now, more than ever, we need artists like Björk to remind us that the distinction between the natural and the artificial is, in itself, artificial.