The Language Of Biophilia: A Q&A With Nikki Dibben

The Language Of Biophilia: A Q&A With Nikki Dibben

During Björk’s New York residency this past month, we’ve had the opportunity to talk with a bunch of people who have helped make the Biophilia “app album” come to life— from hosting a meetup with Biophilia app developers Scott Snibbe and Max Weisel to helping with the week-long education camp with New York City school kids at the New York Hall of Science.

With so many ways to experience, Biophilia, like the music, the live show, and the apps, we completed the final piece of the puzzle when we spoke with musicologist and University of Sheffield professor Dr. Nicola Dibben over Skype, who had the Herculean task of uniting all the different aspects of the project through words. If you’re familiar with the apps, then you’ll notice it’s her clear and concise essays that explain the connection between song, nature, and science.

The Creators Project: Most your work deals with the intersection of music and science. I’m curious as to what about this particular crossroads interests you?
Nikki Dibben:
Well, there are a number of things. One is that, in my previous work and research into Björk’s music prior to Biophilia, which is how she got ahold of me, I was really intrigued by the way she was bringing together nature and technology through music. It’s easier for people to think about this and see it in visuals, but to think about how sound might do that is a little bit trickier. Some people think it’s trickier just because they feel a bit put-off that they don’t have musical training. So, one thing that really interested me in this project is the way that Björk has been inspired by structures in nature and has used those as an inspiration to structure music in some cases. I’m particularly interested to see how this thread that’s gone throughout her career, of bringing together nature and technology, is suddenly sent to stage and so explicit in this project.

The other aspect is science and music. I suppose it’s the educational agenda behind what she is doing here. When she talks about her own experience with music education, it is very much in terms of a musical training that was based in Western classical tradition. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t being taught about other kinds of music and other kinds of approaches to the subject. I think she came to the conclusion that the academic approach to music was quite rigid, dry and dull, which is obviously one perspective of it. What is interesting, I think, is that she has taken inspiration from her own engagement in music and the way that she found creativity, despite some of those hampering things about education, and has tried to create interactive artworks through which people can learn about music and about whatever the science topic is that she is investigating.

I know you’ve written books on Björk before, but how did you get involved with her in the first place? What was that process like—becoming one of her collaborators?
It’s been really fascinating because it’s very rare. In fact, I can’t think of another academic who has been involved in a project and actually collaborating on it. It’s a really interesting experience for me as a musicologist seeing the process from the inside and being part of it. Given that I’m with the Music Department at the University of Sheffield, people could say, “Why on Earth are you studying Björk?” There are loads of reasons for that. One is that she is a very creative individual and musician, and I was attracted to the multimedia aspects of what she was doing. As a female, she was responsible for many different aspects of the creation process. One of the intriguing things about contemporary, popular music is the way that we are all presented with this sort of author image and persona that is the marketing brand, in a way, for many different products. What is really interesting about Björk is that she has always collaborated with other people. It’s a very upfront kind of collaboration with multimedia artists or sound engineers, and they are always foregrounded. She is working with other people and those other people are using their skills and ideas within the project, but it’s, in a way, always a realization of Björk’s fundamental idea even though it’s the product of a collaborative process. That was another thing that attracted me, how does creativity work as a collaborative process?

My work on Björk and the book I wrote was focusing on this idea of how, through music, somebody could try and unite nature and technology. What message about human relationships with nature and technology does her music tell? Not through it’s lyrics necessarily, or just through her visual appearances (which do that), but through the sound of her music. That’s what my research really was focusing on. How can sound do that? I interviewed a few of the people around her, but unfortunately she wouldn’t give me an interview for the book, so I couldn’t get an interview before I wrote it.

(Equinox Press, 2009)

Ah, it seems she’s so hard to nail down.
Well, yeah. I guess she’s a busy person who wants to spend time writing music and creating things, and not writing words about it, which is completely understandable. Anyway, I sent the book off to Derek Birkett, her manager, and to the other people (that I’d interviewed) that she works with, and then got a phone call from Derek saying that Björk liked the book and would like to collaborate on the next project.

They wanted a musicologist involved since this is such a multidimensional project and because she was deliberately using musical sound, in a way, which tried to connect with nature. So, she thought that by having a musicologist that would be communicated in another way—in words—as well as through the other kinds of media that she has created. The other reason why she brought me onboard, and asked me to write text for the Biophilia apps is that I think what she is doing is uniting something else. She is uniting the kind of spontaneous, improvisational and creative musician, who hasn’t needed a poster school music education, with academia. I’m the representative of academia and I’m being brought into the project to show that you have all these different ways to understand music.

Obviously both you and Björk have a similar kind of desire to teach people about music. How do you think your approaches are similar and dissimilar? You mentioned earlier, that in Björk’s training, she thought the whole musical education process was really dry and dull. As a professor, how are you being mindful of that.
Well, interestingly, I can definitely relate to Björk’s experience of music education in that I grew up in a household where people didn’t really listen to classical music, it was pop music that was played. I was drawn into classical music through school and then ended up going on to study it in university, but I can definitely sympathize with the idea that she expresses about how canonical it is.

Historically, music education has basically been bound up with the music of dead white men. Over the last 100 years, certainly within Britain, there’s been constant changes in music education: changes in curriculum and of teaching and learning approaches. So, we all have different perceptions of our music education partly because those educational contexts do differ. I can sort of empathize with that view point. There’s popular music within the curriculum, the use of music technology, all musics are valued equally now within educational systems. It’s certainly my perception that there’s not the same hierarchical character to judge or evaluate what is appropriate to teach in music education. Then again, that probably differs from place to place, so there might be big changes in terms of the curriculum that has happened due to other people who have made the case (the very case Björk is making now) about the kinds of ways to engage kids in making music.

What’s different about what she’s doing is the way that she is connecting it across disciplines. There’s a lot of talk about interdisciplinary education and there’s a lot of interdisciplinary work—a lot of working with people from different fields goes on in research and in teaching higher education—but I’m less aware of that happening in secondary education. I think in primary school, certainly in this country [United Kindgom], there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary work. Kids are linking science, sounds, and all kinds of things. That teaching is much more integrated, but something seems to happen at the secondary school level where it’s become much more compartmentalized. I think what the Biophilia project is doing educationally, and what’s really exciting, is that it’s reconnecting, or it’s helping us see connections between things which have unfortunately become very separated.

I was reading your essays in the catalog, and everything is so detailed and well-explained. Were you involved conceptually in any of these ideas? How were you able to gather all this information and form such cohesive explanations?
The process of writing the text within the apps took a few months to do. It took about three months of quite intensive work, which was really whole day meetings with Björk where she told me about her ideas, the project, and played me the songs. The songs, at that stage, were early versions of the songs, so without the full mix that you hear now, or perhaps different mixes in some cases. The ideas in the songs themselves were still evolving, and she was still developing and working with other people on some of the lyrics, so I think one of the key things was being involved very early on.

Initially, they contacted me in 2009, but I was on maternity leave. I’ve now been involved about eighteen months overall. So yes, having seen it evolve has been great, and also what was interesting and also problematic was that because it was evolving, my ideas about the songs and the apps were obviously changing as well. The apps were being developed and then suddenly Björk, or somebody else, the app developer, would decide that something in the app wasn’t particularly right for the track or it needed to change in some way. Those collaborative processes were very apparent to me. I mean, literally apparent as in we would be having email exchanges and looking at different versions of them as they were being developed. I was involved in talking about the ideas, but I don’t take any responsibility for the ideas of the apps or the things Björk has done within the apps. That’s not my creation at all, I dont take any credit for that, but everybody involved in the project would of course contribute ideas or feedback during the process.

Screenshot of the essay for “Mutual Core.”

Were you at all involved in setting up the education program?
I did the initial briefing for Manchester. The Manchester International Festival was the first place that the Biophilia Music School ran. At that point, only one of the apps was fully usable and the other apps were in various stages of development. So, what we did with David Sheppard, [the compositional tutor who] actually interacted with the children, is decide that there were only going to be certain apps that would be possible to use and how much of a science element we could put into it. Again, because at that stage it was still in development, and we couldn’t use some of the apps, we were much more limited than we would have liked. It was really exciting, as in right up until the last minute, not knowing what was going to be able to be used.

I think the elements, the ingredients, were all identified by Björk. She knew she wanted the kids to use the apps to learn about the themes and the relationships with musical sound that she had created, or come up with the idea for, and our job was to redefine ways to make that happen with the resources that were available at that time. That meant getting into the performance venue and giving kids the experience of what actually being in a performance venue is like. Some of these kids had never been to a concert, let alone walked on to the stage and played any of the instruments. We were within the Science and Technology Museum in Manchester and were surrounded by exhibits, but they weren’t particularly tied into to the teaching that we did.

Now that the project has all come together, is there any particular song, app or even instrument that you’re personally drawn to or like for a particular reason?
I’m particularly fascinated by the pendulum harp and the reason for that is because it’s a funny kind of compromise. I really like, and again—it’s so typical of Björk, what she’s done with the physical instruments, which is to unite and show the relationships between digital and physical artifacts. So, we have things like a music box being another kind of mechanical player, just like a laptop, and the sharps, which is a barrel harp, link to that. But the pendulum harp really appeals to me because it’s a fantastic concept; the idea that here we have an instrument which is mechanical, but that is powered by gravity brings together and symbolizes so many different elements of her project: the idea of music of the spheres, of there being equilibrium in music of the sphere, and this whole idea about the link between nature and technology. There are many different concepts that you can see around this pendulum harp, but it also shows the difficulty with these elements since you can’t actually have an instrument that’s powered by gravity because the friction of plucking a string will make the pendulum stop, so you have to power it by a motor. It’s that friction between the idea of a project, it’s symbolism and the message that it’s carrying up against the realities of making such a thing and making it work.

In fact, the long history of that instrument is that, originally, it was going to be thirty-two harps and they were going to be about 60 feet tall. The way that that instrument evolved was a really fascinating insight into the creative and collaborative processes. What has fascinated me as a musicologist is that Björk had the idea for these songs first and then tried to get the instruments made. Really, if you wanted life to be easy, you’d probably do it the other way around, but if you did it the other way around, would you have ever come up with a pendulum harp? So, although its problematic, I think it’s just part of Björk’s creativity or the kind of innovations that she comes up with. It’s not easy, and sometimes things don’t work perfectly, but you get some great ideas and some innovations.

Björk’s Gravity Harps by Andy Cavatorta.

Do you think there are any other artists or musicians out there who are embracing digitalization quite like Björk?
That’s a really good question. I don’t see anybody else doing it in music in quite such a holistic way. There are people doing really interesting things related to it that could be, but I just don’t know them. So, I wont make a judgement about them.

You’re currently writing a book on Biophilia, right?
Yeah, kind of. I’m writing a book chapter for somebody else, for some edited book, at the moment. It’s about the future of the physical artifacts and what’s happening with digital music because of the increase of downloads and so on. What does this mean for how pop artists, in particular, will make and disseminate music? So, that kind of thing has to do with what’s going on with popular music formats in the digital age.

Being involved in the Biophilia project, and seeing it through this process of creation, has highlighted to me the fact that, in terms of research and academia, people don’t really know much about or understand collaborative creative processes. What I’m doing at the moment is collecting material that might shed light on that. By that, I just mean interviewing people involved and keeping a diary of my involvement with Biophilia. What I want to do is use that material to shed light on the creation of popular music using Biophilia as a case study. It’s kind of the early days, so we’ll see what happens to it. I definitely don’t want to write and try to publish it while Biophilia is going on, which is obviously [from a] marketing/sales [perspective] very bad, but in terms of academia, it’s good because I want to see what happens with the educational projects in particular.

What else are you currently working on right now?
I’m working on looking at Icelandic music more generally and the relationship to ideas of landscape and nation. Iceland is a really nice case study for music cause it’s quite small in terms of population, but has a disproportionately large music industry. I’m part of a project that is looking at Nordic music. There are five Nordic states: Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. There are researchers from all of those places that I’ll be meeting with in the next two years to create a book that is about popular music in the Nordic countries, and its relationship to landscape, to nationstate, and those kinds of ideas.

The other area I work in is the psychology of music. In that area, I’m working with a computer scientist at the moment, looking at the relationship between perception of emotion in speech. Some people, quite intuitively, think that when they listen to music it sounds a bit like speech, or that when we speak and our voices go up and down, or faster and slower, it carries some of the same emotional connotations as when we listen to music. What we’re doing is looking at people’s perception of emotion in music and speech by doing controlled laboratory studies, and then modeling it on a computer to see if you can draw predictions. Effectively, what we’re doing is trying to see what acoustic cues people use to judge emotion in speech and music. The reason for doing this is that it suggests a kind of shared processing and perhaps a shared evolutionary past for the evolution of language and music.

What kind of other music are you interested in? What are you listening to right now?
Because I’ve been interested in ideas of nation states and music, how people use music to represent or comment on their relationship with nations a.k.a national identity, I’ve been listening to PJ Harvey‘s album Let England Shake. I’ve just been sent a whole massive playlist of Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish pop music that I now have to listen to for my project on Nordic pop, which I’m completely ignorant to, but that I’m really looking forward to getting to know as well. Other than that, just old favorites like Bach Cello Suites and piano music.