Biophilia by Bjork (Polydor / One Little Indian)
Ringing Roger, September 2013
I was prompted to write something about this album after I saw a fascinating television documentary recently, called ‘When Bjork Met Attenborough’ (Channel Four, 27-7-13). The programme was partly about the singer’s preparations for the world premiere of the album in 2011, with lots of insights into the new instruments which she and her collaborators had created. Just as interesting, though, were the conversations between the most famous Icelandic pop icon and the esteemed English naturalist. I hadn’t realised how much Sir David reveres her work, and how much attention he has paid to her methods of composition. He praised the mathematical structures of her music, and the way she tried to marry science, nature and song. One of the great moments for me was when he explained that the human larynx is capable of far more than ordinary speech – as witnessed by Bjork’s own remarkable voice – and that it is highly likely that the capacity to produce song must have been a crucial stage in human evolution.
Turning to the title of the album … Have you ever wondered why we enjoy hearing birds singing? Or why we are so moved by the sight of the sun setting over the distant hills? Or why we get better faster when we can see a tree outside the window? According to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, it’s because we have an inborn need for connection with the natural world. The term he uses to describe this phenomenon is ‘biophilia’: love of life, or more specifically love of nature. This may seem rather a bland notion, but what’s interesting about Wilson is that he argues that human beings evolved precisely through understanding and appreciating their natural environment, and through respecting all the wonderful diversity of nature. True, we have since developed in such a way that we have found it possible to do damage to the natural environment, but we suffer if we do – not only physically but also psychologically and spiritually. Today, in the face of the pollution and overpopulation of the planet, it is more than ever important to reaffirm that fundamental bond with the earth, and to relearn ‘biophilia’.
Rather than offer a track-by-track analysis, I’d simply like to indicate what it’s like to encounter this extraordinary musical event. We know what a crystal looks like, but what does it sound like? Can we hear the motion of the planets, the changing of the seasons? Bjork thinks we can. Granted, when you play the first track of Biophilia you might think you are entering into a whole new soundscape; but despite all the invention and experimentation, the harmony of the spheres soon makes itself felt. If I wanted to convert someone to Bjork’s enterprise, however, I’d probably advise them to start with track 3, ‘Crystalline’, or with track 4, ‘Cosmogony’, or perhaps with track 9, ‘Mutual Core’. Even if the very prefix ‘techno’ brings you out in a rash, here is new technology put at the service of a genuinely liberating music, which opens your eyes / ears / mind to the miracle of nature.
If pressed, I’d say that ‘Cosmogony’ is the ‘best tune’. It sounds like a new kind of hymn, identifying the sacred entirely with the earthly. It outlines various half-remembered stories of how the universe came into being, with each creation myth being echoed by the beautifully simple refrain: ‘heaven, heaven’s bodies / whirl around me / make me wonder.’ It is that sense of wonder that informs this whole masterpiece.
By way of a postscript, we might mention something Wilson himself has noticed about our current way of living. Far too many children, he says, are suffering not only from ‘attention deficit disorder’ but also from what he calls ‘nature deficit disorder’. (We should note that the term is not his, however: it was coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.) They need to be encouraged to spend time in the natural world, and to develop their own affinity with it. Bjork seems to understand this: hence she’s sponsored an educational programme in her native land – a biophilia project – which helps children engage with music, with science and with the earth so that they see how everything is connected. The album itself certainly encourages a childlike sense of wonder in all those listeners, of whatever age, who are prepared to give it a go.