THE ICE QUEEN

The fu­ture of mu­sic, for singer-song­writer Bjork, lies in 3-D. She ex­pects her Vivid Syd­ney show to be a truly im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Apixie voice tip­toes down the line — breath­less, singsong, stud­ded with r’s rolled so ex­trav­a­gantly they stretch words into strange and baroque shapes. Who else could it be­long to but Bjork, the Ice­landic high priest­ess of art pop?

It’s evening in New York and the singer, 50, is busy mar­shalling di­rec­tors War­ren Du Preez and Nick Thorn­ton Jones and the rest of the cre­ative crew work­ing on her new vir­tual reality work, Not­get, based on the sin­gle from her award-win­ning “heart­break” al­bum Vul­ni­cura.

The clock is tick­ing. “We’re try­ing to do what­ever we can to fin­ish it,” she says in that child’s voice so fa­mil­iar to gen­er­a­tions of fans; she could still be the pre­co­cious 11-year-old who made her start singing Ice­landic folk songs in Reyk­javik. “I just spoke to them to­day and they’re try­ing as hard as they can. I think there have been some tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. That’s the thing when you work with things that no­body has worked with be­fore. Some­times you have dif­fi­cul­ties, hin­drances. So fin­gers crossed.”

Not­get will get its world pre­miere in Dig­i­tal Bjork, an exhibition cel­e­brat­ing her mu­sic, videos and dig­i­tal art creations, pre­sented by Car­riage­works in Syd­ney’s Red­fern next weekend as part of Vivid Syd­ney. Bjork, who has not vis­ited Aus­tralia since the Volta tour in 2008, will also DJ two sold-out shows at the venue.

Dig­i­tal Bjork is a homage to the queen bee of mu­si­cal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, with five sep­a­rate spa­ces de­voted to her sprawl­ing 10-minute mu­sic video Black Lake, the Aus­tralian pre­mieres of vir­tual reality works Mouth Mantra and the panoramic 3-D mu­sic video Stone­milker, a cu­rated pro­gram of some of her more star­tling video col­lab­o­ra­tions with the likes of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cun­ning­ham (he of the in­fa­mous 1999 ro­bot sex mu­sic video), and a trib­ute to Bio­philia, her fu­tur­is­tic 2011 mul­ti­me­dia al­bum fea­tur­ing a mot­ley ar­ray of strange mu­si­cal in­stru­ments from grav­ity harps to Tesla coils.

Over her 24-year ca­reer, Bjork has proved to be one of pop mu­sic’s true icon­o­clasts and shapeshifters, push­ing bound­aries across mu­sic, film and video, and col­lab­o­rat­ing with artists, de­sign­ers, sci­en­tists, in­stru­ment mak­ers, writ­ers, app mak­ers and soft­ware de­vel­op­ers. Now, vir­tual reality is get­ting her ex­cited. “To me it is the nat­u­ral con­ti­nu­ity of the mu­sic video, this to­tal merge of sur­round sound and vi­sion,” she says. In De­cem­ber, the vir­tual reality app for Stone­milker, shot on a des­o­late beach at Grotta in Reyk­javik and fea­tur­ing an ex­clu­sive strings mix of the song, was re­leased for iOS de­vices. In this she’s lead­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary shift in the mu­sic video land­scape, with even old-school bands such as U2 jump­ing into bed with VR col­lab­o­ra­tors — Ap­ple Mu­sic in this case — as mu­si­cians seek to cre­ate ever more im­mer­sive, whole-body lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for fans.

Com­pa­nies, see­ing the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial, are scram­bling to cre­ate user-friendly head­sets, with the Ocu­lus Rift VR head­set just one of many con­sumer mod­els on the mar­ket.

Even­tu­ally, Bjork says, she would like “to gather all the VR apps to­gether on a Vul­ni­cura al­bum so that peo­ple can watch them at home in chrono­log­i­cal or­der. But since most peo­ple don’t have head­sets, I like do­ing this in mu­se­ums and shows to ex­hibit the videos af­ter they had been made.” She likes the “in­ti­macy of the head­phones and the head­sets. Mu­sic, to me, seems to do best when you are re­ally in­ti­mate and pri­vate, lis­ten­ing to it one on one, or in a huge place, like a fes­ti­val or some­thing. VR is ob­vi­ously go­ing to be amazing for a lot of things — films for sure, and Skype, where you can spend time with your loved ones.”

She loves vir­tual reality’s “al­most Wag­ne­r­ian the­atri­cal­ity, it’s al­most like you’re in the mid­dle of a stage like in a huge opera or some­thing … this is not just touch­ing a screen but more like ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the world.” Cer­tainly, the abil­ity to don a head­set and step into Bjork’s mad, bril­liant land­scapes adds a layer of rich­ness to the lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: last year, fans were seen spin­ning, danc­ing in in­tense fits of emo­tion as they sam­pled a VR ver­sion of the plain­tive Stone­milker in a Lon­don record store. When told that many of them were in tears, she is struck. “Oh wow,” she says softly.

A mu­sic critic, wit­ness­ing the phe­nom­e­non, wrote that as head­sets be­come more com­mon­place and “more artists fol­low Bjork’s lead, per­haps this sort of in­ti­mate, in­tense, ex­pe­ri­ence could be­come com­mon­place — the mu­sic video as some­thing truly im­mer­sive, an all-en­com­pass­ing, fo­cus­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, rather than one dis­tracted tab on your lap­top screen.”

It’s mu­sic to the ears of the singer, long an early adopter of new tech­nol­ogy, whose video ex­per­i­ments of­ten re­quire be­spoke creations, De­tail from Bjork’s Stone­milker, right, and a vi­sion of the singer from Bjork Dig­i­tal, above; a queue out­side last year’s ret­ro­spec­tive at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York, top left such as the four pairs of spe­cially mod­i­fied sports cam­eras di­rec­tor An­drew Thomas Huang came up with to shoot Bjork alone on the beach in Stone­milker, or the spe­cial cam­eras and hi-tech mouth mod­els that Lon­don-based di­rec­tor Jesse Kanda in­vented to film in­side her mouth for Mouth Mantra.

“Yes, in­side my mouth,” she in­tones solemnly — and she means it: you’re treated to an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly den­tist’s-eye view of her teeth, tongue and ton­sils in all their wet and squirmy glory. She pays trib­ute to Kanda’s ded­i­ca­tion in help­ing her bring to life “a lit­tle ther­a­peu­tic song about the throat”. Kanda has said that “mak­ing this video was as much a ter­ri­fy­ing, hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ence to me as it was a dream come true and pure ec­stasy”.

For Bjork, who made her first app in 2011 for Bio­philia, there is im­mense sat­is­fac­tion in “solv­ing things dif­fer­ently, so it’s been quite pi­o­neer­ing. Ob­vi­ously it has its ups and downs, and the downs are that you make a lot of mis­takes. But the ups are that the re­wards are tremen­dous.”

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