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
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.”