Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez


Audio CD (October 11, 2011)
Original Release Date: 2011
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Nonesuch
Price: 17.00 EUR

Also releasedin the form of a series of apps
(interactive application software for Apple computers)
Price: 10.49 EUR

Tribute to Nature

Björk’s latest album is an interdisciplinary project that translates nature into an audio and visual experience; not easily available, though.

Our tendency to appreciate tone or to move our bodies to melody is not completely understood. Even the British neurologist Oliver Sachs gropes for an explanation, “it lies so deep in human nature that one is tempted to think of it as innate”. Sachs calls this “musicophilia”, comparing it to what the American father of sociobiology E.O. Wilson has named “biophilia”, our love for living things.

The Icelandic singer and songwriter Björk admits that Sachs’ book about music and the brain inspired her new project and its title. The album, Biophilia, was released at the end of last year and, although its name could be associated with living things, the songs rather deal with different topics related to nature in general, such as the universe, geology, crystals and viruses. It talks about the cosmos and, amongst others, describes the nanoscopic molecular landscapes inside us.

Björk’s free Biophilia app is an unusual, interactive approach, providing multiple ways of presenting music on mobile devices such as smart phones (pictured here: the 3D starscape interface that includes features such as games, musical gadgets and some creative play-along tools).

“My romantic gene is dominant”

The lyrics incorporate scientific concepts into mystical or romantic contexts. For example, there is a song about a putative connection between moon phases and certain human cycles; another describes mating rituals through what Björk sees as a female sacrifice; and one more plays with the idea of DNA as an, “everlasting necklace” that connects the performer with her ancestors.

The sound patterns also remind us of physical and biological phenomena. The song about the lunar phases, for instance, goes through a series of tunes that could probably represent each phase and the accompanying transitions. Another one, Virus, a love song comparing a human relationship with a viral infection, starts as a melodic vibration emitted by an instrument, representing the healthy cell. As the song progresses, a second instrument appears and, discreetly, becomes stronger until it silences the original one, an event that represents the host cell being killed by the virus. Like those described above, each track is musically and conceptually connected with a natural process but, as I anticipated, the experience goes beyond solely listening.

Not just about music

Eccentric, progressive ideas have always been present in Björk’s projects. Her new release is certainly different from others as it offers a multimedia experience not yet seen in the music industry. Biophilia is available as an app for iPad and iPhone users, where each song is accompanied by games and animations, along with other accessories.

It starts with an introduction narrated by the British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, famous for his work on the Life collection from the BBC. His voice inevitably reminds us of natural worlds and promises that the tribute offered by Björk is neither trivial nor unscientific.

Each song app is further complemented by essays written by Nicola Dibben, who works at the University of Sheffield in the UK, studying music, mind and culture. The essays analyse each melody and help us to understand the concepts behind them.

An invitation restricted to Mac users

There are two apps that might be particularly enjoyed by anyone interested in life sciences. One is the app for Virus. It shows a group of cells, where the central one is being slowly invaded by pathogens that eventually kill it. The visual story is captivating and dramatic but also, for those unfamiliar with how viruses attack, instructive.

My favourite app is, however, the one for Hollow. It is a wonderful trip through the biomolecular world inside our cells. The animation was designed by Drew Berry, a biomedical animator, and it begins in the blood and skin tissue, driving us into the cells during division. It eventually takes us to the cell nucleus, where the replisome does its job. Again, the visual experience is pretty impressive and, connected to the idea of ancestry that inspired Björk to compose the song, it is awe-inspiring. I’m sure that people familiar with these molecular machines will enjoy it, and those who have never heard about them will definitely feel like learning more.

Unfortunately, the whole concept can only be enjoyed by iPad and iPhone users: my only and big complaint. Thus it seems that Björk is – wilfully or not – performing undercover product placement for Apple, too.

If you don’t own a “hip” Apple product, you can simply buy the CD and listen to the music. For iPhone users, however, the app purchase is definitely worth it.

Letzte Änderungen: 29.07.2013