August 17, 2018

Pioneering Sounds: Bjork

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The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Bjork is probably not her music. If one had to guess, your first thought is probably the Swan Dress she wore to the 2001 Oscar Awards. Unless you’ve listened to a fair amount of her work you may even think of her as a “shock-rocker” or “provocateur” much like Madonna and Lady GaGa have been labeled. Both visually and musically, Bjork gravitates toward weird and strange elements, so the label may not be too far off base. What sets her apart though, after digging into her music you begin to realize her art actually stems more from an eclectic curiosity and not from any desire to be outright provocative.

At first glance, the innocent weirdness found in Bjork’s music might get attributed to her being a native Icelander. The American ear is none too familiar with the music of Iceland so it definitely adds to the alien qualities of her soundscapes, but it is only a small piece to the Bjork puzzle. Her musical influences are vast and include elements from electronica, dance, jazz, alternative rock, and classical, just to name a few. Each style on its own is quite different from the other. Even if she wasn’t from Iceland, her ever growing list of influences would be a recipe for an otherworldly listening experience from any artist of her caliber regardless of their country of origin.

Each of her albums are rife with musical experiments. Some notable examples of these experiments include “The Anchor Song,” from her 1993 album Debut, which features her vocals accompanied only by a saxophone. Some credit this album as bridging the gap between Pop music and early 90s Dance and Electronica. 1997’s Homogenic continues this thread by juxtaposing jarring electronic beats with orchestral strings on songs like “Joga.” Bjork’s experimentation also seeps into the kinds of instruments she chooses to use. 2001’s Vespertine features rhythms and beats that were created with household items such as playing cards and ice. For 2011’s Biophillia, an instrument had to be created for the song “Crystalline” called the Gameleste. Perhaps just to shake thing up, or merely to follow her next artistic impulse, she completely breaks away from her avant-garde use of strange pairings and odd instrumentation to make, of all things, an all vocal album with 2004’s Medulla.

One unfortunate downfall of all these experiments is they have largely been lost on or ignored by the radio listening public. Things like her Swan Dress making a bigger impact than her music have been par for the course. Her visual presentation and the music videos of her songs have often gained more popularity with the general public than the singles. Though, it is doubtful Bjork cares.

The unique power of her voice is what ties all of her sound sculptures together. She has the versatility to sing quiet and evoke images of an elfin pixie of the forest and then turn around and growl like a techno-banshee. Don’t let her slight frame deceive you. The amount of power she can deliver vocally can be shocking at times.

Her music has had a far reaching impact on the present. While her music is often considered avant-garde, more conventional acts may not be what they are today without her. Lady Gaga is constantly using the shock value of her visual elements to create interest in her work. Ten years after Bjork’s swan dress, Lady Gaga announced her arrival to the 2011 Grammy by arriving in an unhatched egg, only to emerge for the performance of her song “Born this Way.” Another less obvious example of Bjork’s influence can be seen in artists like Beyonce. Beyonce’s latest albums have been pushing the boundaries as to what an album is and can do. Her most recently album Lemonade aired on HBO as a movie, only to have the music from it immediately released as an album. This harks back to releases from Bjork like Biophillia that were made in conjunction with a suite of apps that gave the listener an interactive experience for each track.

Experimental is the best way to describe the music of Bjork. Unlike many artists, when she finds a formula that works, she doesn’t spend much, if any, energy trying to capitalize on it. Instead, she simply moves on to the next idea and artistic impulse she has. While this approach can be trying for casual listeners, it gives her music a persistent freshness that is absent from other musicians. This aspect of her music is especially refreshing when comparing her to her peers whose music has begun to sound stale after having been in the business for thirty plus years.

Even though Bjork’s music is firmly ensconced in the Art-Pop world, she takes inspiration from nearly everywhere and in turn spreads her influence equally as wide. One never knows what they are going to find when they dive into a Bjork album. You can be sure it will be unlike anything you’ve ever heard, or perhaps experienced.

If you’d like to check out the music of Bjork the Seekonk Library can get a hold of any album you might be interested in. Locally we can borrow from over 70 libraries in the SAILS Network and if need be we can try other Networks in Massachusetts and beyond. You can even try out our digital music service: Freegal!

Pioneering Sounds is also a discussion group at the Seekonk Library. Join us on February 20th at 6 PM for our discussion on Bjork and her seminal album, Homogenic. For more information visit www.seekonkpl.org or contact us at library@seekonkpl.org

This program is offered FREE to the public, no registration required.

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