Björk’s Expanding Territory: Drawing New Boundaries
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson
Nordic Sounds 2005 - 04; pp 14 - 17
EVER SINCE HER teenage years, when she was the lead singer of adventurous punk bands like Kukl and Tappi tíkarrass , Björk has never been one to shy away from experimentation. Her first solo album (Debut , 1993) included harp, tabla, and saxophone quartet – hardly what one would expect on an otherwise upbeat, dance-oriented album. In recent years, Björk’s solo recordings have taken an increasingly refined turn. The instrumental accompaniment on Homogenic (1997) consisted largely of a string octet, and her latest full-blown album (Medúlla , 2004) virtually did away with instruments altogether, focusing instead on the infinite variety of the human voice.
Björk’s latest venture – not a solo album in the traditional sense, but a film soundtrack – takes her quest for musical novelty to a completely new level. Drawing Restraint 9 is a film by Matthew Barney, a visual artist and Björk’s partner of five years. The film, shot on board a Japanese whaling ship in Nagasaki Bay, aims to explore the “relationship between selfimposed resistance and creativity.” In essence, it is a story of two Westerners (played by Barney and Björk, respectively) brought together in unfamiliar surroundings. They fall in love and, towards the end, perform a harrowing Liebestod in which they shed their human form and are transformed into whales. As in his previous work (the much-lauded Cremaster cycle, for example), Barney’s film is directly related to his work as a sculptor. Accompanying the “love story” is a visual leitmotiv: a vast sculpture of liquid vaseline, which is moulded, poured, bisected and reformed on the ship through the course of the film.
At our meeting in a small back room at Reykjavík’s Apótekið restaurant, Björk was in a lively mood. Dressed in one of her unique all-white designer outfits, she immediately expressed her satisfaction with the response to a recent screening of Drawing Restraint 9 for friends and family. Not least because, for her, there were new challenges involved. The film contains only a single scene of dialogue; Björk’s soundtrack accompanies the remaining two hours. “I was a bit daunted by the sheer length of the tracks I had to write. I guess it’s the old punk in me. When I was starting my career it was considered a crime if a song went beyond the three-minute mark. And now I was in a situation where I had to compose 15- minute numbers! Still, the most difficult thing was not having more time. I had six months in which to compose two hours of music, whereas it normally takes me two years to produce a 40-minute CD. When I was working on my two previous CDs (Vespertine and Medúlla), I was a total perfectionist. And that’s a luxury, in a sense. I was working at home, pregnant or breast-feeding, and I would add one note here, then take a nap, then add another note. So the tempo of this entire project came as something of a shock. But I think it was good for me, and I’m actually very pleased with some of the music, especially the brass pieces.
A 15-minute score for brass and percussion would be hopelessly self-indulgent for a “regular” Björk album, but for the movie it was just right. It pushed me into areas of my creativity where I might otherwise never have gone.”
The oriental influence of Björk’s score is evident from the start. The opening scene shows a Japanese woman wrapping a gift with exquisite care. Björk’s choice of text puts the scene in context. It is drawn from Dear General MacArthur: Letters from the Japanese During the American Occupation , a collection of letters written by Japanese civilians to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The vocal line (performed by Will Oldham) is accompanied by an “oriental”-sounding harp and celeste, along with the mechanical sound of a music-box – a reminder of the subtle and intricate sounds of Vespertine .
“I think the oriental influence was unavoidable to some degree. When I was starting the project I tried to listen to a lot of Japanese music, but I gave up because I had so little time. If I had listened to Japanese CDs for days and then gone straight to the studio, it wouldn’t have been honest; I would have been stealing other people’s ideas. So I decided to build on all the Japanese music I’ve listened to during my entire life. I knew the first song was supposed to accompany a Japanese woman wrapping a gift, very ornately, so I thought: OK, a music box song. My first impulse was to use koto, and I even experimented with it, but it just sounded like restaurant music. So I used the harp instead.”
“Where I really entered new territory was writing for the sho flute. I was able to approach the performer, Mayumi Miyata, as a total equal. She could just as well have been from Norway; it really wasn’t an issue. She was just performing on the instrument of her country and we were working together to create something new. I tried to use the sho differently from how it’s used traditionally. Instead of gentle, flowing melodies, I tried to be very percussive. Mayumi had never used her instrument in that way. It was very exciting for both of us.”
What Björk refers to as the “brass pieces” are lengthy episodes scored for brass and percussion, which in Barney’s film accompany the visual images of the whaling ship. These are perhaps the most adventurous – i.e. least typical – parts of the entire score. “Hunter vessel” begins with long, rumbling notes before exploding into an avalanche of violent harmonies and unpredictable accents. It is a primitive kind of minimalism that owes as much to Jón Leifs’ Hekla as anything else. Björk explains that to her, this is nothing out of the ordinary.
“There’s been a lot of influence from classical music in what I’ve done. Mostly because growing up in Iceland, there’s not such a wide gap between popular and “high” art, and I think it’s great. I’m just trying to be honest in my music: I went to music school and studied flute for ten years, and I listened to pop music at home and jazz at my grandparent’s place. And I have always refused to create a kind of imaginary bubble of “I just listen to this specific kind of music.” I wouldn’t be telling the truth, because I’m such an eclectic listener. I mean, it’s 2005 and I think it’s OK that I listen to Missy Elliot and Jón Leifs on the same day. One thing that I’ve gained from classical music is a completely different sense of time. A Mahler symphony expands on such a vast scale, it allows you to enter a completely different sonic space. And I suppose I’ve been able to take advantage of that, particularly in this project.”
Descriptions of Björk frequently revolve around her supposed “Icelandicness.” Her character, her way of singing, the music itself – all have been described in terms that evoke images of volcanoes and elves as a matter of course. A recent interview in the New Yorker even treated the theme of Björk and the “Nordic Idea” at considerable length. Especially given her new album’s uniquely “oriental” colouring, how does Björk regard her own Icelandic stereotyping?
“Well, literally speaking I’m not particularly Icelandic because I’m always travelling. The only conscious reference in my music to anything specifically “Icelandic” was Jóga (on Homogenic), which has the strings playing in parallel fifths. That was, to me, an expression of my love for my country. But when I quit the Sugarcubes and made my first solo album, I did make a conscious decision not to fall into the stereotype of “Icelandic” being a woollen sweater and a Viking helmet. I think it’s important that someone in sneakers and a nylon jacket listening to hip-hop could be regarded as just as Icelandic. Then you’re no longer dealing with clichés; then it’s about what’s on the inside, what you’re like deep down, your beliefs and convictions. And if you put it that way, then I’m as Icelandic as anyone, for example when it comes to my ideas of freedom and equality.”
Obviously, Björk’s success is the result of her own talent both as a vocalist and songwriter. But each of her solo albums has also been shaped by her uncanny talent for choosing precisely the right collaborators for that particular project. One can hardly imagine Medúlla without the rapid-fire beatboxing of Rahzel, or the intimate atmosphere of Vespertine without the subtle electronic manoeuvrings of the Matmos duo. Does Björk choose her partners because she knows they can deliver a specific end result, or is it a creative collaboration in which both artists have an equal share?
“It depends. Usually there’s just a gut instinct. Whenever I’ve tried to restrict myself to what looks logical on paper, the end result is incredibly boring. Even when I’ve done all my homework and been really prepared. It also depends on who I’m working with. Mayumi (the sho player on Drawing Restraint 9 ) is classically trained, so she can take a piece of music and practice until it’s perfect and then record it in one take. Even though she’s incredibly flexible in her interpretation, I had to write down her part note for note before she entered the studio. Rahzel, on the other hand, joined the Medúlla project at a very late stage. He would listen to a song when it was virtually finished, and then come up with something that I would never have thought of, some angle that turned everything sideways. If I had stood there trying to tell him what to do ... forget about it!”
This listener, at least, is tempted to see in Björk’s continued bringing-together of wildly divergent materials, her straddling of the conventional boundaries of popular and classical, and her collaborations with musicians across the globe, a visionary synthesis of universal aspects of the human condition. Too high-flown, perhaps? “Well, part of it is just that I’m bored and that I’m turned on by things that I’ve never heard before”, Björk explains candidly. “But when I’m working with people I would rather collaborate on that kind of “universal level” instead of just throwing together an African sword and a Viking helmet. That’s not real fusion. I’m a very emotional being; I want there to be real fusion, not just connecting at the surface level. Of course, even though I always enter a collaboration with the best intentions, it doesn’t always work out 100 percent. But when I get really lucky there’s that complete understanding of what really connects us, not just as musicians, but as human beings.”
Árni Heimir Ingólfsson holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Harvard University and has written extensively on Icelandic music history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. He is associate professor of musicology at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.
BJÖRK – CDs
Drawing Restraint 9, 2005
Gling Gló, 1990
Family Tree, 2003
Army of Me, 2005