I revere Björk above most other musicians. She knows how to balance the coldness of electronic production with hotly unpredictable vocals and instrumental textures. Not everybody loves Björk as much as I do; her approach is eccentric and her sound gets on some people’s nerves. It took me a couple years to be convinced by her. I’m glad I hung in there, because she’s been one of my best teachers in the art of making music with computers.
Björk famously is from Iceland. She did for her homeland what the Beatles did for Liverpool — she put her country on the hipster map forever. Anna and I were lucky enough to get to go, and we’re looking forward to hopefully going back. It’s an easy place to be an American tourist. Almost everyone speaks English with a BBC inflection, except one guy who did a flawless California surfer dude. The accent is a little otherworldly — all the r’s are rolled, even the ones in the middle of words.
Icelandic shares a common ancestor with English in the not very distant past. Two languages are alike in a few weirdly specific ways. Icelandic and English are unusual for both using the th sound. Icelandic has two different letters of the alphabet devoted to it: one voiced, as in that, the other unvoiced, as in thing. Tolkien’s Elvish is partially based on Icelandic, thus mithrandir and mithril and way Sir Ian McKellan rolled the r’s in Sauron and Mordor. Mirkwood comes from mirk, the Icelandic word for forest. So outside Reykjavik is Thorsmirk, Thor’s Forest. I was in nerd heaven with the road signs.
They wanted to shoot Lord Of The Rings in Iceland but it was going to be too expensive. It would be a perfect spot to shoot science fiction if money were no object. Iceland has volcanos and glaciers and black cliffs looming over black sand beaches with puffins circling over them. There are places where superheated steam just shoots out of the ground with jet engine force. There are earthquakes and landslides and occasional catastrophic eruptions. We went by a restaurant that bakes bread by burying it three feet underground and leaving it there for a few hours. The middle of the country is like Yellowstone if it was on the moon.
Björk and sampling
Björk has access to the same popular culture as any European with a music background, but she’s viewing it through this peculiar cultural lens. Nobody interprets the computer music they play in clubs and at raves quite like Björk does. She comes from classical training, so she mostly writes on the keyboard. But she uses samples too, or at least her producers and collaborators do. They choose their samples well. Here’s one of her first big hits, “Human Behavior,” produced by Nellee Hooper.
Here’s a mashup I did of the Quincy Jones/Ray Brown tune, every version of “Human Behaviour” I have, and a hip-hop track by Heiroglyphics:
Here’s a diagram of all of Björk’s samples and quotations. Click to see it bigger.
Almost every Björk tune is a remix of a remix right out of the box. The tracks she releases are wildly different from what she works out on the keyboard or on paper. She and her producers use Pro Tools to merge composition, notation, performance and recording together, the way Brian Eno does with tape recorders.
Once everything is all gridded out in the audio editor, it’s easy to do alternate mixes and versions. You can toss chunks of audio in and out of the grid effortlessly, so you can do radical remixing just by muting and unmuting a few tracks. Björk has released quite a lot of these alternative versions officially. Every single she puts out is backed by three or four remixes. She’s put out entire albums and compilations of them, like Telegram, which is mostly remixes of the tracks on Post.
Björk naturally takes a relaxed attitude toward unauthorized remixes, and has managed to convince her label and management to be cool about them too. As a result, the internet is loaded with Björk fan music. There are web sites like bjorkremixes.com and the bjork remix web archive. “Army Of Me” in particular seems to inspire a lot of new interpretations.
Maybe this is due to its hybrid nature, since the song itself includes drums from “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin and “Get Thy Bearings” by Donovan. Björk releaseda charity album comprised entirely of “Army Of Me” remixes and covers. The standout is the unhinged Morris dancing version by Dr Syntax ‘n’ CB Turbo vs Rivethead. There’s also a bluegrass version, a metal version and a lot of terrifying experimental techno.
Björk’s singing and songwriting
And how could we not talk about her voice? Björk’s unearthly, chameleon-like sound gives her music some of the same pleasures as Michael Jackson’s, who she quotes explicitly in “I Go Humble.” The first paragraph of this quote of Thomas Bartlett’s Salon article could just as easily refer to MJ.
‘Childlike’, ‘feral’, ‘alien’: All three words have been used repeatedly in describing her pipes, and their apparent incompatibility alone gives some sense of just how unusual the sound is. Billie Holiday’s voice famously combined childishness with world-weary wisdom. Björk has pushed the paradox a little further, combining childishness with ferocity and unbridled sexuality.
She is the only major songwriter in recent memory for whom the apparently inescapable influence of Bob Dylan is irrelevant. Her lyrics stand out for a simple reason: They don’t rhyme. Other songwriters have experimented with non-rhyming lyrics, of course, notably Lou Reed and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it remains an unusual technique.
David Byrne is another great user of nonrhyming lyrics. Björk’s vocal melodies and lyrics remind me of ee cummings, whose peoms she has set to music a couple of times.
Her phrases are anything but regular; rather than a series of four-bar phrases, she might have one of three followed by two of five, finished with one of four.
Even more singular, her melodic phrases often display little or no connection to the beats beneath them. The melodies themselves are often developed through motifs, with short phrases repeated and elaborated, in a manner more similar to Brahms than to other popular songwriters. Björk’s ten years of conservatory training show here — the influence of the composers she despised is clearly in evidence. Listen to the opening of “Hidden Place” from Vespertine: The verse melody is a four-note motif, resolved differently each time. It repeats more frequently as it becomes more agitated, never matching up comfortably with the beat beneath it. Finally, it snowballs into the chorus.
Because of these irregular melodic phrases and unrhymed lyrics, it always takes a moment to adjust to Björk’s songs. They can sound clumsy at first, strangely forced, unfocused or simply incomprehensible. The end result, though, is that her music has a freshness, an air of the unexpected, that is unusual. In most pop songs, an attentive listener can pick up the basic structure almost immediately. Consciously or not, he or she anticipates the rhymes, the call and response of the phrases. Björk’s songs keep even the most exacting listeners a little off balance. There are no rhymes to guess at, no way of predicting what will come next. They force you to listen intensely.
As a songwriter, Björk is less of a pop musician and more like an avant-gardist with enough personal charisma to have attracted a pop-scale audience. She’s the only contemporary songwriter I can think of who will set a whole tune in diminished scale, as in “An Echo, A Stain.” She uses melodic minor and lydian on “Possibly Maybe” and lydian dominant on “Pluto.” Even when she writes in plain-vanilla major scale, her angular phrasing can make it sound awkward and dissonant, as on “Anchor Song.”
Björk and jazz
The harmonic and rhythmic complexity of her music makes Björk irresistible to jazz musicians. What’s a jazz arrangement but an analog remix? Every jazz group I’ve ever been in has done her tunes. Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra is a seventeen-piece big band based in NYC that plays nothing but tunes by or associated with her. Their arrangements are a little too fuzak for me, but it’s such a cool idea. I think NYC could do with some more all-Björk jazz bands. This city at one point had two different rock bands who only played songs about hockey. Surely we can support more Björkestras. Björk herself did a jazz album called Gling-Glö with an Icelandic trio, which was a good idea but sadly is nothing too special in its execution. I’d like to hear her do more jazz, but maybe not with Icelandic musicians, who, and I say this with all due respect, play extremely white.
Björk’s sonic palette
Sonically, Björk’s palate is as diverse as anyone who’s ever recorded. She seems to be one of the only high-profile white musicians who understands that rock and roll is over. There’s almost no guitar in any of her work. There’s a sample of distorted electric guitar on “Human Behavior,” nylon-string guitar on “So Broken,” pedal steel on live versions of “Possibly Maybe” — I think that’s about it. Her stringed instrument accompaniment of choice is the harp.
Like the hip-hop artists she admires, Björk contrasts her vocal asymmetry with the posthuman perfection of electronic beats. Most of her tunes rest on four-four grids, using drum loops and MIDI patterns in groups of two and four and eight and sixteen. Björk brings out the best in her tech-savvy collaborators. Nellee Hooper’s work with Massive Attack can sound too much like the lobby of a high-end hotel, but behind Post he’s brilliant. Matmos albums are so experimental as to be unlistenable, but on Vespertine, they’re heartbreaking. More from Thomas Bartlett:
Her wholehearted embrace of electronics, combined with her unquestioned dominance of them, makes her our most optimistic musician, blasting the matrix apart.
It’s ironic that this guy should describe Björk as such an optimist, because from what I can tell, she’s also a high-functioning clinical depressive with social phobia.
Björk and depression
I’ve noticed that Björk’s lyrics make several references to suicidal ideation and self-harm. From “Hyperballad:”
Every morning I walk towards the edge
and throw little things off
like car parts, bottles and cutlery
I imagine what my body would sound like
slamming against those rocks
and when I land, will my eyes be closed or open?
From “All Neon Like:”
Don’t get angry with yourself
I’ll heal you
with a razor blade
I’ll cut a slit open
The video for “Pagan Poetry” includes graphic closeups of Björk’s flesh being pierced with large needles. Some of my friends think she might be kidding. She isn’t. Her body language in interviews and onstage indicates to me that she’s as serious as a heart attack.
This is music’s greatest optimist? In a way, yes. Björk’s affect may be bleak at times, but it doesn’t keep her from being a fearless sonic adventurer. The coolest and weirdest track on Telegram is “My Spine,” a duet between Björk and the deaf Scottish classical percussion sensation Evelyn Glennie playing a set of tuned exhaust pipes. You have to be confident to be a deaf drummer. You have to be confident to be an Icelandic person singing in English. You have to be confident to play very far outside the standard western tuning system on a weird instrument. And you have to be confident to stick this song in the middle of a bunch of remixes of your previous album.
All electronic musicians face a challenge when it comes time to play live. Standing onstage and pressing “play” on your DAT machine or laptop is pretty lame. Björk’s solution is an ingenious one. She has a DAT of the basic tracks, the drums and crucial synths. Then she can layer whatever live sounds on top that she wants. So, like, she can tour with a tabla player, harpist and pedal steel, or a symphonic string section, a choir and two laptop guys, or ten horn players, a drummer and a reactive touch surface controller. Because the beats are sequenced, her onstage drummers are free to play outside of grid mode. Hear Björk and Konono No 1 live in concert, courtesy of NPR.
Björk did MTV Unplugged early in her solo career and took the opportunity to do analog remixes of her first album right down to the foundations. “Human Behavior” is just voice and harpsichord, and then “One Day” has like thirty-five percussionists. Happening!
Here are a couple of my Björk remixes. As she says in “Enjoy:” enjoy.
Follows a blog post about the MJ song.
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