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Please don’t misunderstand Björk. While she might be returning to New York for her first concerts here since 2007 with a residency of conceptual dates premised on her eco-obsessed recent album Biophilia—not to mention specialty instruments and a 24-piece Icelandic choir—the singer would hate for you to think she’s putting on any undue airs.
“I always feel a bit odd when people start to call me a composer. . . . I think what I do is really simple,” Björk says on the phone from Iceland. “I don’t think I’m so complicated or something.”
Well. Let’s not be hasty there.
In the event that 10-foot “pendulum-harps,” a MIDI-controlled pipe organ and something her promotional tour materials describe as “musical Tesla coils,” don’t much resemble your idea of paring things down, Björk is prepared to ride for a broader conception—really, her own private definition—of minimalism. Whether speaking about matters of production design or musicology, it’s clear the word has a special significance in her aesthetic philosophy.
“It’s just kind of loaded with urban problems, the word ‘minimalism’: something about civilization and repetition and the irony of mass production,” Björk says. “In Iceland, we don’t have this history. We definitely have history, but that’s not our history.”
After recalling how her “happy punk” teenage coterie was quite “passionate” and in thrall to everything Romantic in nature—an anti-minimalist crew, if you will—today Björk credits the erratic distribution of music from New York’s old “downtown” scene for exploding those distinctions.
“Which albums came over and which didn’t, it was almost coincidental,” she remembers now about the appearance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in her life. “Especially the minimalism of Philip Glass or something, it felt very intellectual . . . though I’ve always felt Steve Reich had a lot more soul, for me.” (At the behest of The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, Björk recently identified the ECM edition of Tehillim as one of her 10 favorite recordings of all time.) And while Björk is careful to append her enthusiasms with humble disclaimers that she’s not officially schooled about classical music, her listening habits speak for themselves when she wonders aloud whether she could sing Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music all the way through from memory.
“I’m influenced by so many folk singers—and I guess what is called ‘world music’—but if I should name any minimalist albums . . . I would name [Tehillim and Dolmen Music, which] don’t have this kind of urban-irony, post-modern feeling. They feel more passionate and more like folk music.”
And there’s the challenge Björk faces: She has to keep making her highly idiosyncratic approach to genre definition go over. In today’s hashtag-reductive listening culture, it’s far from obvious that even the singer’s hardcore followers will keep up with Björk if her brand of folk music continues to betray the influence of Reich and Monk. (For evidence, check the multiple harps and antiphonal choral groupings on Biophilia‘s “Moon,” as well as the slowly thickening organ textures on “Dark Matter.”)
Although Iceland’s avant-pop mainstay has already achieved “career artist” status, her albums over the past decade have been regarded with some suspicion among fans who would prefer a stylistic return to the more unambiguously pop heyday of Debut and Post. Instead, in 2007, she gave them the percussive battery of Volta (which featured free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale). Last year’s Biophilia, which boasts the songs that anchor this month’s New York shows, is a more serene affair—as befits its themes of environmental consciousness—but is no less compositionally complex, as the combined instrumentation being imported for her concerts attests. Her most devoted fans will take each new album, though their number might be slipping. (While Volta netted a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200, Biophilia couldn’t manage to sneak into the Top 25.)
Asked whether she has a sense of the challenge that her instructional ambitions might pose even with a contemporary “indie” audience, Björk starts an answer and then questions the premise. “I was gonna say in Europe, it’s more accepted to use complicated music—and then I was thinking about Latin music and jazz—I mean, come on. You have so much music that’s complex,” she says. “And modern folk music, if you want, it has some moments of simplicity with moments of complexity and virtuoso musicianship in between. I feel like I’m in that sort of category.”
This month, Björk will try to sell this pan-stylistic vision of folk by taking on the role of music teacher. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a music teacher; that was like my dream,” she says. “And then this pop thing just kind of happened. . . . I never knew at what point in my life I would get to music teaching—but it felt so natural to do it now and not to separate it from my music, but sort of make it the same thing.”
More than half of her Biophilia shows in town will take place at the New York Hall of Science, mirroring the “Biophilia Educational Program” first tested in England and Iceland last year before making this month’s stop in Queens. (Students at Middle School 185 in Flushing, a music and science magnet school, had to write admissions essays to get into the program.) Designed as a week-long music-education course for children, Björk’s syllabus takes songs from Biophilia and pairs them with phenomena from the earth sciences and musical elements in order to form three-part lessons. That means, for example, that the song “Thunderbolt” equals lightning proper—and thus merits talks from a scientist and a music teacher. The latter will speak on the subject of the arpeggio, which Björk equates with lightning. (If you go to one of the New York Hall of Science shows, just go with the analogy.)
Adults attending the evening concerts at the Hall of Science won’t get precisely the same experience as the approximately 50 New York City kids who attend the Biophilia Educational Program, though the singer does intend for the adults-only shows to communicate some of the same principles. “I don’t want technology to be in one corner and nature in another and music over in a third—it’s all the same thing,” she says. (Her subsequent Roseland Ballroom shows will employ some of the same gonzo instrumentation, though not in as pure an art-installation fashion.)
“I only realized last week why everything’s so crystal clear in the music: It’s because I wanted that simplicity. Where Volta is kind of chaotic and sort of the state before a solution, Biophilia is the solution, in the broadest sense of the word. And if you think of teaching arpeggios with lightning—I hope it doesn’t sound too far-fetched—but it’s part of the same kind of mind-set. . . . And I think this 21st century is going to be very much about that.”
Does that sound far-fetched? Perhaps just a little. But Björk will hardly be the first lecturer to spice up her patter with quasi-mystical concepts and props. And macro-sales figures to the side, her classes in Queens this month are sure to be full: The New York Hall of Science shows will only accommodate 650 adult-aged students a night. Prepare yourself for a waiting list.
Björk performs at the Hall of Science on February 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18 and at Roseland Ballroom on February 22, 25, and 28, as well as on March 2.