Björk's new app album pushes interactive boundaries

Björk's new science- and nature-themed album, Biophilia, coming out Sept. 27, aims to make her music accessible in an audacious way — with the help of smartphone apps and science museums.

Developer Scott Snibbe hopes project will gets kids excited about arpeggios

Björk's new Virus app compels users to destroy a host cell to complete the song. (Courtesy Scott Snibbe)
Subject matter on Björk's newest album ranges from crystals to DNA. (Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin/Wellhart/One Little Indian)

With an electronic album featuring throat-singing samples and a world tour with an all-female brass ensemble behind her, Icelandic performer Björk has never shied away from risk. Her new science- and nature-themed album Biophilia, coming out Sept. 27, aims to make her latest musical experiment accessible in an audacious way — with the help of smartphone apps and science museums.

The title of the album comes from a term coined by biologist E.O. Wilson to describe an affinity between humans and the rest of the natural world, and the songs explore everything from the way in which the movement of tectonic plates relates to human interactions to the origins of the universe. Audiences were riveted when Björk premiered the songs at the Manchester International Festival on June 27, wearing a bright orange wig and platform shoes. What makes the project unique, though, is her ambition to use the music as a tool for broader education about musical and natural structures.

To that end, she's assembled a team of collaborators who designed a suite of software applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch exploring the album's concepts. Two apps have already been launched, and a third, called Virus, is being released Aug. 9.

Along with a series of music residencies at museums and other education and art centres around the world, the apps are intended to allow for a much deeper engagement with the music than a straightforward recording.

Classically trained, looking for more

"Björk was trained classically from a really early age," explains interactive artist and entrepreneur Scott Snibbe, whose studio led the development of the Biophilia apps. "She knows music head to toe. However, she was really frustrated studying music in a classical way, because I think for all of us, music is the most emotional medium. And yet, the way music is taught is extremely formal and obscure, using techniques invented in Germany in the 17th, 18th centuries. "

The project is partly an attempt, he says, to help people understand music in alternative ways.

The main Biophilia app allows users to access the other applications, presented as constellations, by navigating a galaxy. (Courtesy Scott Snibbe)

The apps, which are presented as constellations in a "mother app" galaxy, use video game-like programs to do things like draw lines radiating from a star toward its planets as a way of visualizing gravity and sound. Björk also got biomedical animator Drew Berry to animate one of the apps with models of DNA and proteins.

"Some of the apps are almost like instruments … but then others are really far out," Snibbe says. "Crystalline, the first app that came out, allows you to restructure the song in a video game that's structured like a tunnel.

"The idea came right out of Björk's head. She said this is actually the way she sees music —especially popular music. When she's listening to it, it's as if she's going through a tunnel, and the number of sides of the tunnel relates to the structure of the music."

Along with contributing to the development of Crystalline, Snibbe's studio produced and engineered the overall project and built apps for the songs Virus and Thunderbolt. Snibbe has already gained accolades for his interactive art exhibits and another musical app called Oscilloscope, which allows users to manipulate electronic beats by carving out a rotating cylinder with their finger.

It's hard to imagine that the apps are a mere gimmick. Biophilia reportedly went through several incarnations, including a proposed collaboration with National Geographic and 3D movie with director Michel Gondry, before it took its current form. The emergence of the iPad, Snibbe says, was a serendipitous way for Björk to distill her ideas about uniting technology and nature.

Björk on Q

Hear Jian Ghomeshi's Canadian broadcast exclusive interview with Björk during the season launch of CBC Radio's Q the week of Sept. 6.

He adds that the development of touch-screen tablets and smartphones has enabled artists like himself to make their work available in a way that is unprecedented.

"There's this big hole in media," Snibbe explains. "If you're a writer, you can write books and sell them inexpensively. If you're a musician, you can sell records. If you're a filmmaker, you can sell tickets and movies. But if you're an interactive artist, up until last year or so, you could only sell work through galleries for tens of thousands of dollars. So, I was always looking for that way to distribute work freely."

Music residencies around the world

Besides putting the music literally in listener's hands, Björk will, of course, be touring the Biophilia material. Rather than embarking on another back-breaking tour of dozens of cities, though, Björk and her team will be setting up residencies in several locations around the world, alternating between performing and guiding educational programs.

In an Aug. 2 interview, Björk told U.K. radio station XFM that she has already had offers from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, New York's American Museum of Natural History and a technology museum in Tokyo.

'Björk is really in line with the philosophy that I most advocate, which is to go with fun and joy and social excitement first and foremost.'—Scott Snibbe, app developer and interactive artist

The on-site educational events will allow children to use the apps to explore and manipulate Björk's music themselves. Snibbe says Björk's team is working on a way to let them use tablet computers to play some of the custom-built instruments Björk performs with on stage.

"I have another company that creates science museum exhibits, so I really understand the dilemmas that educators face," Snibbe said. "Björk is really in line with the philosophy that I most advocate, which is to go with fun and joy and social excitement first and foremost."

Teachers are still the best resource when it comes to detailed knowledge, he says, but too many of them forget that excitement is often the first point of engagement for learning.

"Like if you say the word 'arpeggio' to a kid," Snibbe says, "they're not going to immediately say, 'Arpeggios, arpeggios! More, more!' But if you show them this app Thunderbolt that is creating lightning under your fingertips and creating arpeggios at the same time, that's going to create excitement and enthusiasm for this topic. And then when someone mentions it later in class, they'll be interested to learn more about it because it's connected to something they had so much fun with."

Non-interactive recordings a 'blip' in history

This kind of attempt to make recorded music more interactive is not unprecedented, of course. Canadian composer Glenn Gould famously looked forward to an era when listeners could manipulate his recordings as they wished, arguing that no perfect version could exist anyway. Radiohead pushed the envelope further when they released their 2008 single Nude with tools to manipulate and remix the track.

"The thing is, it was only when phonograph records came out that pre-recorded music began to exist," said Snibbe. "So, I'd like to argue that music really in its essence is interactive, and it's only a blip in history that music as a finite, non-interactive recording exists.

"Even in the West, look at the history of music. What was the app of the 19th century? It was sheet music. People would take it home, they could play it on their piano, could play it on the violin. They could make a song 10 minutes or two minutes long. They could change the words, sing with their family.

"That's the way music's meant to be."