Bjork and Attenborough

I have always admired Bjork as a vocalist and as a musician.

Last week’s documentary on Channel 4 changed my view. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/when-bjork-met-attenborough/4od

She is a genius. Let me try to do justice to the Biophilia project.

Bjork was frustrated with the academic approach of her musical tutors, and influenced by her 40-minute long childhood walk to school, singing as she passed through the dramatic landscape of Iceland, she has decided to come up with a completely radical and revolutionary way of teaching music, and of how we communicate with each other as a species. Instead of the daunting jargon and paraphernalia surrounding music – musical notation, the intricacies of learning a complex instrument, the Western canon; Bjork wanted something intuitive and natural. Finding inspiration in nature, Biophilia (meaning “lover of life”), is an attempt to re-connect the human species with the original roots of music – a drum beat around a campfire, a bone flute, the human voice.

David Attenborough, evidently a true Bjork fan, eloquently makes the point about our vocal range having evolutionary usefulness to humanity, and compares this with the great song of the gibbon – the whooping and wailing of our primate cousins as they find a mate.

But Biophilia is so much more than even this seemingly massive task. Bjork described her project as presenting “Nature on stage like a rock star”. Biophilia seeks to reconnect us with mathematics, echoing the fractal geometry of crystals and galaxies; connecting with us on the level of neurones; the movement of tectonic plates; the moon’s circuit around the Earth. These are basic and common knowledge, which makes music making instinctive once again. Bjork is connecting biology, physics, music and chemistry at a fundamental level.

These ideas have been translated into an epic 3-year tour across the globe, programmed into Android apps, and translated into priceless, custom-built instruments such as the Sharpsicord and gravity pendulum and is accompanied by an all-female choir, some of whom have been singing together since the age of six, with months and months of rehearsals. The sounds soar over the crackle of a Tesla coil, the belching of lava. Bjork whirls magnificently around in a DNA dress.

So what? You may ask – it is just a CD. Yet the neurologist Oliver Sacks, explained the deep emotional connection we have with music – it lights up the brain like no other activity, and can revive even people whose brains have become dormant with dementia, if a suitably evocative melody is played. Art makes us human.

Bjork has described Bophilia as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think she is being overly modest – this has huge potential to transform the creativity of the human race as a whole, and has already been taken up enthusiastically by Iceland, who have made it a compulsory part of their school curriculum.

Biophilia is a truly mindblowing experiment, which has the potential to bring about a cultural renaissance and link people across the globe, in the realisation, as George Orwell put it – “We are on a life-raft sailing through space”. The one thing we all share is nature, and we had better look after it.

For that, we need to be grateful to Bjork’s inspirational idea.

Of course, there is always the possibility that music will continue to be usurped by big business, ground down to the karaoke of the X-factor, reduced to catchy phrases and meaningless soundbites. Biophilia shows what can be done, if our human potential can be fully realised.

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