The magic of reality the realilty of magic
Nordic Sounds 1996 - 04; pp 8 - 11
In November the Icelandic singer Björk was awarded the Nordic Council's Music Prize 1997. Along with ABBA, A-Ha, and Roxette, Björk is among the few Nordic musicians whose music has spread across the Western world. But unlike the others she has avoided making music that fits into the international popular music mainstream. Music critics have cast her as the »pixilated« ice queen of the North, but on closer inspection of her music, this cliché melts into thin air.
For the past few years the small Icelandic singer Björk has caused some confusion on the international music scene. Her music and her personality are hard to come to terms with, and in the Anglo-American music press the tag 'pixie' has been the most common word used to sum up what Björk is all about.
The word conceals quite a few paradoxes: that she is a girl and a woman; that she is a rock star who doesn't act like a rock star; that she has control of her own career without making an issue of it; that she is but at the same time unpredictable and irrational; and that it is impossible to classify her music as belonging to any single genre. This makes her seem very strange to the press, and her 'alienness' (she is from Iceland, she has exotic looks, she is a woman) is - at least partly -thought to explain these paradoxes.
If the gentlemen of the music press knew Nordic children's literature better, Björk would not have caused such confusion. Her weird dress code and strange hairstyles make her stand out, but she has at least one role model for this. The great Swedish author Astrid Lindgren describes "the strongest girl in the world", Pippi Longstocking, thus: "Her hair was the same colour as a carrot, and was braided in two stiff pigtails that stood straight out from her head. Her nose was the shape of a very small potato, and was dotted with freckles. Under the nose was a really very large mouth, with healthy white teeth. Her dress was curious indeed. Pippi had made it herself. It was supposed to have been blue, but as there hadn't been quite enough blue cloth, Pippi had decided to add little red patches here and there. On her long thin legs she wore long stockings, one brown and the other black. And she had a pair of black shoes which were just twice as long as her feet."
And Björk's reasoning recalls Pippi's. Most things become perfectly logical as long as you have an unbiased attitude. Pippi walks backwards so she doesn't have to bother to turn round when she comes back home; she wants to go to school so she can have Christmas holidays; and her horse is kept at the front porch because he would be in the way in the kitchen, and doesn't feel comfortable in the drawing-room.
One of Pippi's favourite games is 'turnupstuffing' — a turnupstuffer is someone who finds the stuff that turns up if you look for it. And turnupstuffing seems to be very much the way Björk and her many associates work when they make music. Musical bits and pieces turn up from the most unexpected sources, and they are used in the most unexpected ways, but to great musical advantage.
But where do the bits and pieces come from? Björk draws on a wide variety of styles: jazz standards and big band jazz (Like Someone In Love, It's Oh So Quiet), film music (Isobel), techno (Violently Happy, There's More to Life Than This), dance genres (Army of Me), salsa (I Miss You), and pop (Big Time Sensuality). They are often mixed so it is impossible to define the style -for example in Hyper-ballad, where techno, indie rock, film music and ambient are mixed together and strewn with references to jazz, older styles of rock and soul, and world music.
In these cases we can at least name the different styles; but other songs are simply impossible to classify stylistically. The Anchor Song is for voice and classical saxophone quartet, and Cover Ale is for voice, harpsichord, hammer dulcimer and ambient noises. They are simple, strophic songs, but the instrumentation and the harmonies put them in a class by themselves.
Another song that is impossible to categorize is Headphones, a subdued collage of sounds and half-sung words - and she even uses this one as a concert opener! It seems natural to suggest that the Björk musical trademark is stylistic diversity. Very soon you come to expect each song to be different from the others. It is this musical trademark that causes the confusion among the music journalists.
Cooperation is essential
Björk's songs are the result of close cooperation with a lot of different people. On the CD Post there were four co-producers, quite a few programmers, and a wealth of recording and mixing engineers. With the musicians, they have helped to make the eleven songs point in different directions, using all the potential of the modern recording studio and computerized, digital instruments as compositional tools for the filmic soundscapes.
Björk has the ability to attract some of the most interesting producers and musicians from the British dance scene, and she has succeeded in involving them in her musical ideas. When the 'proper' CDs have been recorded, remixers of all persuasions are given the opportunity to leave their mark on her music, often changing it beyond recognition.
When you see that eleven remixes of Hyper-ballad are now in circulation, you begin to wonder which one really is Hyper-ballad. They are radically different, ranging from a hard-core techno version to the Brodsky String Quartet mix; only the text is common to all of them.
Her latest album-length release Telegram sums up all the remixes from her Post period. Nine of the ten tracks are remixes of nine of the Post tracks, but in fact it sounds like a whole new CD. She has had a hand in some of the mixes and has contributed new vocal lines to some of the others. Basically, it is a new Björk CD, and it is just as impossible to pigeonhole as Post.
The lack of a constant identity - the fact that pieces of music bearing the same title can be totally different - can be quite confusing. But it is the modern-day answer to the old saying that music can't be pinned down. The release of a recording has a strong tendency to do just that; but with so many mixes around, the tendency is kept in check.
In all this musical diversity there is at least one fixed point, Björk's vocal delivery. When she sings, she expresses all sorts of different emotions like anger, affection, joy, or earnestness very distinctly. The shifts between the personae (little girl, mature woman, languishing or ecstatic lover) are also extremely distinct. With her foreign accent, she pronounces the English words either very clearly or very slurred, and she uses a whole range of vocal expressions besides singing (laughing, shushing, screaming, sharp inhalations of air before singing). She often uses different singing techniques for verses and refrains, tending more towards speech in the former and singing in the latter.
Picture left and previous page: Cover photo from Björk's latest release, "Telegram". Picture page 8: Two of a kind? Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking has made the illustrator Ingrid Vang Nyman famous as well. (The quotes in the text from Pippi Longstocking were translated by Edna Hurup, Oxford University Press, 1954.)
Most of the albums and all of the singles have been released in several versions with different music.
In contrast to the dance and techno tradition, but in keeping with the rock tradition, Björk's voice is the absolute centre of attention on Debut and Post. There are hardly any rockish solos on the two albums to divert the attention from her voice. It is surrounded by bass and synthesizer riffs and drum-machine patterns, but always up front, never obscured, in the mix. That voice is crucial to the Björk songs, and you can identify her immediately if you have ever heard her before. You could say this about any well-known rock singer, but normally a voice reminds you of others or at least of other vocal traditions. Not in Björk's case. She sounds like nobody else.
While the mixes, the instrumental parts, and the lyrics can be sources of confusion, Björk's voice is the fixed reference point; it observes the rock tradition in the sense that the human voice is at the absolute centre of the musical event. Her voice and vocal mannerisms are the constant elements amidst the extremely varied instrumental settings where the instrumental sounds function as a foil for her vocal performance. Björk's music is on the one hand about vocal consistency, on the other about stylistic and instrumental diversity.
Rock music is normally put together with small motifs or "cells" The same goes for modern dance music composed on computers. Björk, her co-producers and her remixers use this composition technique to the full, coupling it with some of the best pop hooks. The cells are joined like pearls on a string and they can be repeated ad infinitum. To create variation some cells are silenced and new ones pop up to take over.
This makes the music very static in detail, yet it still keeps changing. Sometimes strings are used to create extended passages and sometimes sudden ideas like Sugarcube Einar Örn's mad trumpet are used to interrupt what threatens to become monotonous. In some of the songs (e.g. Army of Me, Enjoy) there is an incredible tension and forward thrust thanks to the producers' ability to create break beats with grooves second to none.
Pixies or Pippis
With this combination of extreme diversity and extreme constancy it is not strange that the critics' responses to Björk keep coming back to the 'pixie' label. There are good musical reasons for this: there are oppositions everywhere, but they are hard to grasp without repeated and very detailed listening. In this sense the music is indeed 'pixilated' or whimsical, but the pixie doing the pixilation is not. As die singer of the song she is a persona widi very clear-cut characteristics -like any (extra)ordinary rock or pop singer.
The vocal is the fixed point in the pixilated music, the firm vantage point from which we can enjoy being confused by the bits and pieces of musical debris. But this prompts us to reevaluate the 'Björk-as-pixie' image. She is not a pixie, but a very individualistic musician who aas out the Pippi Longstocking logic: "This tin can be used for a lot of tilings. One way is to put cakes in it. Then it will be one of those nice Tins With Cakes. Another way is not to put cakes in it. Then it will be a Tin Without Cakes, which isn't quite as nice, but it will do well enough too".
The world of Björk is a world filled with things that have meaning. The things are everyday things: household objects, car-parts, speed, sex, dinosaurs, the impossible, mountains. Things we all know, but have perhaps j forgotten. But like Pippi, she can draw attention to the things, not to give them new meaning, but to give them renewed meaning. Her texts and music are utterly realistic and down-to-earth but imbued with a certain kind of glow. She gives reality a certain magic, where things, feelings, and people can once again be intensely sensed and felt. And – incidentally – it's all great fun.
The following discography covers the central titles released in Björk's own name. Collaborative works with her groups (The Sugarcubes, Kukl, Tappi Tikarrass) and guest periormances (with among others 808 State and Tricky) have been omitted as they would have taken up a couple of pages.
Björk. Falkinn Records, FA 006 (1977). Gling-Glo. Smekklaysa, s.m. 27 (with the Gudmundar IngolfssonarTrió) (1990). Debut. One Little Indian, TPLP 31 (1993).
The Best Mixes from the Album Debut: For all the People Who Don't Buy White Labels. Mother Records, 853 881 -2 (1994). Post. Mother Records, 527733-2 (1995). Telegram. One Little Indian, TPLP51T (1996).
Human Behavior. One Little Indian 112 TP 7 CD (includes original "Close To Human Mix", Underworld Mix, Dom T. Mix, Bassheads Edit) (1993) Venus As A Boy. One Little Indian 122 TP 7 CD (includes Edit, Mykaell Riley Mix, There's More To Life Than This (Non Toilet), Violently Happy (Domestic Mix)) (1993) Play Dead. UK Island CID 573 862-2 (includes Tim Simenon 7" remix, Tim Simenon Orchestral Mix, Tim Simenon 12" remix, Tim Simenon Instrumental, Original Film Mix) (1993)
Big Time Sensuality. One Little Indian 132 TP 7 CDL (includes The Fluke Minimix, Dom T. Big Time Club Mix, Justin Robertson Lionrock Wigout Vox, Morales Def Radio Mix, The Fluke Magimix, Justin Robertson's Prankster's Joyride, The Fluke Moulimix} (1*9941 Violently Happy. One Little Indian 142 TP 7 CDL (includes Fluke (Even Tempered), Massey Mix (Long), Masters At Work 12", Vocal, Fluke (Well Tempered), Massey (Other Mix), Vox Dub) (1994) Army Of Me. CD5 PolyGram 579 153-2 (includes Army Of Me, ABA All-Stars Mix, Masseymix, Featuring Skunk Anansie, Instrumental ABA All-Stars Mix) (1995) Isobel. One Little Indian 172 TP7 CDL (includes Isobel, Deodato mix, Siggtriplet Blunt Mix, Isobel's Lonely Heart (Goldie mix)) (1995) It's Oh So Quiet. OLI182TP7CD (includes It's Oh So Quiet, You've Been Flirting Again (Flirt Is A Promise Mix), Hyperballad (Over The Edge Mix), Sweet Sweet Intuition) (1996)
Hyperballad. OLI 192TP7CD (includes Hyperballad (Radio Edit), Robin Hood Riding Through Glen Mix (Howie B.), The Stomp Mix (LFO), The Hyperballad Fluke Mix, Subtle Abuse Mix (Outcast Productions), Tee's Freeze Mix (Todd Terry)) (1996)