Björk on Vulnicura Strings
The queen of the avant-garde on heartbreak and taking inspiration from the Renaissance. Click to enlarge, view the original via Wayback Machine, or scroll down to read the raw copy.
Björk on Vulnicura Strings by Christina Kenny
When it comes to bringing avant-garde music to the masses, Björk’s playful, inventive and curious musical mind keeps her right at the top of the tree. This month, the Icelandic singer-songwriter strikes out alone with an acoustic version of Vulnicura that includes her own arrangements for string orchestra and a forgotten Renaissance instrument. Christina Kenny meets her to find out more.
As usual, Björk fans are in for a surprise. Her 2011 album/app, Biophilia, was a wildly ambitious exploration of life, the universe and everything, supported by a plethora of futuristic invented instruments including a Gravity Harp, Gamaleste, Sharpsicord – even an itchy, bassy musical Tesla coil. It was, as the Icelandic singer-songwriter puts it, ‘tapping into some pretty hi-tech shit’.
By contrast, an acoustic version of her latest album, Vulnicura, includes a track performed on the viola organista – a historical instrument designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century, but never built during his lifetime. Why?
Because it’s cool, obviously.
In 2013, the Polish musician Sławomir Zubrzycki created a working model of da Vinci’s much-doodled viola organista based on designs dating back to the 1480s. To modern eyes and ears, it’s bizarre: an instrument that looks like a piano with a pedal-operated friction wheel that plays individual strings controlled from a keyboard. Footage of Zubrzycki playing the instrument soon went viral.
‘I first came across the instrument on YouTube, and like everyone else was just completely blown away,’ says Björk (pronounced ‘Byerk’, by the way). ‘Obviously, I wanted to run to Poland, like, NOW, and just record whatever. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s good to not be too impatient.’
Well, I venture, the instrument managed to exist as an idea for over 500 years. Surely another year or two wouldn’t make much difference? She giggles. ‘Yeah, and I’m glad I waited until after we’d played the album live to record it. After some time had passed, it became obvious that “Black Lake” in particular was just this weird ghost of a song. It doesn’t matter what mood you’re in, what concert hall you’re in: it’s always like going back to the Middle Ages. So I thought, OK, this is a little ancient song that would probably have a good relationship with the viola organista.’
Instead of recording the track with Zubrzycki, Björk simply sent him the score and invited him to record it without her vocals. ‘He’s an incredibly talented musician,’ she says, ‘and he has more love for that instrument than the rest of us put together. It was clear that the best thing was just to pass it over to him.’ It was a gesture typical of Björk, who, perhaps more than any other living artist, is known for her groundbreaking musical and remix collaborations with musicians from all backgrounds and genres – from Tricky and Thom Yorke to Antony Hegarty and John Tavener.
All the more significant, then, that Vulnicura is the first of Björk’s nine studio albums for which she has taken sole charge of the string arrangements. Announcing the release of the acoustic version, Vulnicura Strings (which includes the viola organista cover of ‘Black Lake’), she described the album as an opportunity to indulge in ‘the wooden, timeless side of this music. With no techno’ – a promise that both excited and disappointed various parts of her huge fanbase.
Arranging for instruments is a process that Björk has gotten involved with gradually. She recalls how, faced with a tiny budget for her debut album in the early 1990s, she got her friend Talvin Singh to take a disc of rudimentary string sketches to Bombay, where they were completed and recorded by a Bollywood orchestra.
The 23 years since Debut have seen Björk tackle a greater proportion of the arrangements of each successive album. For 1995’s Post, she enlisted Eumir Deodato to complete arrangements for string lines she composed on synths, and by Homogenic in 1997 had gained the confidence to start distributing the parts herself, in songs like ‘Joga’ and ‘Bachelorette’. Vespertine followed in 2001, and with it her first full string arrangement (for ‘Harm of Will’) – but it was at this point, she says, that she ‘OD’d on strings’ entirely. Her next album, Medúlla, would be almost entirely a cappella.
‘I think I probably learned most from that all-vocal album, because I did the choir arrangements totally myself,’ she muses. ‘Maybe it was easier for me, because I know the instrument much better – I’ve been singing since I was a kid. During Medúlla I sat with the choir working out the music, the harmonies, the Italian – you know, forte, piano, sforzando, that stuff.’
Probably her biggest leap as an arranger was 2011’s Biophilia, which employed a 24-piece all-female choir along with that host of brilliantly quirky invented instruments. And now, Vulnicura. She may have OD’d on strings before, but the arrival of Vulnicura Strings suggests that she’s proud enough of these arrangements to put them centre stage. So why the return?
‘It was kind of perfect timing – I mean, I’d given strings a 12-year break,’ she reflects. ‘When I came back to them, I felt a lot more confident, and arranging and transcribing felt much more natural. It’s the first time I’ve really done all the arrangements myself: coming up with the melodies, but also distributing the parts and printing out the scores. Oh yeah, and “doing the Italian”!’
Björk’s jokey lack of precision belies a serious knowledge and understanding of music. Growing up in Reykjavík, she studied music theory and musicology for ten years. Although her musical vocabulary and composition method differs from, say, a conservatoire-educated composer (she works mostly with software including Melodyne, Proteus and Sibelius), there’s no doubt that she knows her stuff. Vulnicura Strings isn’t ‘symphonic pop’; the arrangements are interesting, challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, always true to her distinctive musical voice.
She took the unusual step of recording some parts using clip-on microphones attached to the instruments. It creates an unusual effect: stripped of their bloom, the strings parts can sound immediate, sometimes harsh and at times almost computer-generated. Easy listening it ain’t. It isn’t new technology for Björk, who recorded much of Vespertine using clip-on mics for different reasons.
‘That album was all about micro detail: taking tiny sounds and making them huge,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted a very precise, futuristic sound, like a frozen winter world. But in Vulnicura, I was after a different emotional effect. This album is about anyone who has ever had their heart broken, whether that’s now or a thousand years ago. Even when I was thinking “Ugh, no, boring, I’ve got a heartbreak album”, part of me understood that the way forward was to make it timeless.
‘For me, strings stand for the nerves of the human bodies,’ she continues. ‘The voice and wind instruments are the lungs. Beats are for dancing and your heart pumping, but when you stroke stringed instruments, it’s like your nerves vibrating. It’s why we sympathise so easily with strings, I think, especially when you’re going through painful stuff. You just want to grab a clip-on mic and get that’ – she thumps her chest – ‘”urrrrrrrrr”. It creates this angsty, almost uncomfortable sound – the sound of really raw emotion.’
So what was she listening to when she made the album? Björk describes herself as ‘weird’ when it comes to her listening habits. ‘I will go into one niche and listen really intensely for a year or two, or sometimes longer,’ she says. ‘It’s like I’m getting some vitamin that I need, and suddenly, two years later, I’ll figure out what it was that I was feeding.’ Right now, for example, she’s into Arca (her co-producer on Vulnicura), the American singer-songwriter Kelela (‘I’m reaaally excited about her!’) and a few artists from Tri Angle Records – including The Haxan Cloak (who also has a Vulnicura production credit), Rabit and Lotic.
‘I listen to a lot of what people call world music, although I don’t really like that term,’ she adds. ‘African music, Japanese acoustic music… mainly instrumental, and it’s not all recent. I make really odd playlists.’ She pulls out her smartphone to demonstrate and yelps with excitement as she scrolls past a track by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and musician Caroline Shaw. ‘She’s been doing pieces for the voice that are great, and she’s also part of this vocal group called Roomful of Teeth. I love her work.’
What of her relationship now with ‘classical’ music? As well as that famous collaboration with the late John Tavener (who wrote a piece for her), Björk has worked with percussionists Evelyn Glennie and the Heritage Orchestra (who toured Vulnicura with her this summer); she includes music by Mahler, Berg and Steve Reich in her favourite records and in 1997 even managed to score an interview with the notoriously reclusive Arvo Pärt. Does classical feature large in her listening habits?
‘I’d say that overall, it’s 50/50’, she says, ‘if I can call some of the music I listen to classical. There’s a lot of music which is sort of on the boundary. That’s the sort of music I like the best, to be honest.’ She’s ‘obsessed’ with the contemporary Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, whose music she discovered via The Kronos Quartet’s 2012 album of his works (the first track, ‘The Beatitudes’, is below). ‘When I was making Vulnicura, I got obsessed with this album. He takes pieces of music from his childhood and chops them up – for example, he edits and loops ten minutes of Mahler’s “Der Abschied” so it’s 40 minutes long. It’s like taking this devastating piece of classical music and turning it up ten times. I know it sounds like a concept job that could go horribly wrong, but it really works.’
Her Vulnicura listening also included string quartets by contemporary classical composers Paweł Szymański and Keeril Makan. Makan has a brilliant new opera too, she says – Persona, which she has heard, but not seen. The composer sent it to her direct; Björk seems to be in the happy position of maintaining personal friendships with many of the musicians she admires. (I find myself glancing at her smartphone again, wondering if she has Pärt on speed dial). At the time of our interview in London, a few days before Halloween, she was looking forward to meeting up with British composer Mica Levi (‘I wonder what she’s going to wear?’) whose BAFTA-nominated score for Under The Skin had got her ‘really excited’. It seems the feeling is mutual, if Levi’s ‘kareokieijd’ remix of ‘Lionsong’ is anything to go by.
So what’s next for Björk? Back in August, she cancelled several forthcoming Vulnicura shows, alluding in a subsequent Facebook post to the unusually ‘intense’ experience of performing the emotionally charged album. There are currently no plans to reschedule the dates: instead, she has announced her intention to ‘let this beast flow its natural course and start anew’. What does that mean, I wonder – more song writing? More collaborations? More arranging? Or all of the above?
‘It does feel like there’s a few of me now,’ Björk acknowledges. ‘There’s still the person who writes the songs, but then there’s another me who sits on a laptop editing a single two-hour recording for weeks and months. That part, the editor and arranger, is the biggest part of me now.’
Vulnicura Strings is released on One Little Indian on 6 November 2015 (CD) and 4 December (vinyl).