Bjork’s latest project, Biophilia, is, without a doubt, her most ambitious one. In addition to being an album, it’s also a series of apps, live shows, and installations. One of these installations is currently at the NY Hall of Science, where Biophilia, and its music, are being used to teach children about science…and music!
Now, I’m sure that Bjork isn’t the first artist to tie the natural wonder of our world & universe into her music, but she might be one of the first to do this so purposefully, and so…specifically. According to Bjork herself, and the Hall of Science installation as summed up by The New Yorker, each song’s structure relates to some biological or physical process. For example, “Moon” has four distinct sequences (each played by a harp), signifying the phases of the moon. Its meter is 17/8 – one of the most unusual rhythms possible (check out “Moon” here). This draws (to me) the comparison to how the moon’s cycles supposedly make people crazy, or throw them off their natural rhythms (think werewolves – where would such a legend have come from if not early people blaming the moon’s cycles for the cycling moods and strangeness of their peers and families?)! And it helps the metaphor that Bjork sings so damn eerily; her fascinating voice is why I became a Bjork fan years ago.
The song “Thunderbolt” is built from arpeggios. For those who don’t know, arpeggios are broken chords: when the notes of a chord are played in sequence, instead of simultaneously, creating a sort-of dampened effect of the chord. Arpeggi are at the heart of improvisation, and occur in all genres of music. Bjork used the song “Thunderbolt” to teach children about arpeggi, which she feels are a good metaphor for the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. In an arpeggio, notes of a chord go together, but are not played together – much like thunder and lightning are paired with each other, but can never occur at the same time! I think (and I think Bjork would agree) that there are certain patterns of sound – of music – that appeal to us precisely because they occur often in nature. Symmetry is all around us, and we like art that reflects that symmetry (although our minds like getting tricked, too). Our brains wouldn’t even possess an idea of rhythm if it weren’t for evolving in a world with rhythms.
Bjork goes further and the analogies get more abstract (“Virus” is about the damaging relationship between a virus and its prey; “Dark Matter” is sung in gibberish because dark matter is inexplicable), but in concept, I think that Biophilia is wonderful. All teaching tools are best when they can connect many disciplines; by exciting people about physics and biology and music and the interconnections between them, Bjork is encouraging them to think in a different way. She is teaching them that they can gain creativity by exploiting the similarities between two distinctive fields. And obviously, I support that.