Ask someone to pick a song that has to do with science, and they will almost invariably point to the 1982 song “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby. Ask them to pick another, and they will likely be stumped.
It’s fair to say that science has not proved as popular a subject in music as love or drugs or politics. Yet artists are beginning to use the creative canvas that science provides as a source of musical inspiration. Taking this idea to the extreme is the Icelandic singer Björk, whose stunning new concert film, Biophilia Live, presents a live, multimedia display of science-themed music in one of the more unique examples of science outreach that has been undertaken.
In 2011, Björk released Biophilia, a concept album that attempts to unite music, nature and technology into a single experience. With song titles like “Virus” and “Crystalline,” the album sees Björk using science to express a range of emotions, from helplessness (“as fast as your fingernail grows the Atlantic ridge drifts”) to attraction (“my romantic gene is dominant”). Musically, the album relies on a number of unique instruments and musical arrangements that help synthesize Björk’s vision into an unsettling sonic outburst. In a podcast, she describes the project as “both zooming out like the planets but also zooming into the atoms, and in that way aesthetically sympathising with sound.”
A show from the ensuring promotional concert tour was filmed and released as Biophilia Live, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in April 2014. Perhaps the first concert film to feature a chromosome smear in its opening sequence, Biophilia Live begins with a spoken introduction from naturalist David Attenborough set against a backdrop of images and video clips that could easily have come from a National Geographic nature film. Viewers are then transported to the Alexandra Palace in London, where Björk and her band run through the album in its entirety (along with several other songs).
To help support and amplify the science-themed music, the 360o stage setup features technical and sonic wizardry in the form of Tesla coils and pendulum harps. Cameras are set up around the entire arena, providing shots from a wide variety of angles and depths that cut from darkly-lit audience shots to disorienting close-ups. Video screens above the stage project a menagerie of scientific images, including dividing cells, plate tectonics and colorful crystalline rock formations, which occasionally morph to fill up the entire movie screen, before giving way to shots of the performers. All of this takes place as Björk cavorts around the stage, sporting an enormous, multi-colored afro wig, wearing a lacquered bubble dress and exercising her stellar vocal chords (backed by a 24-person Icelandic choir), all in the name of science.
Though the immersive experience offered concert attendees was undoubtedly amazing, the concert seems somehow better fitted for the cinema. Given that the entire Biophilia project originally began as a 3D film, it is no surprise that Biophilia Live comes off as an IMAX film set to music. Between the audio and visual production, it is impossible to sit through the movie and not feel completely immersed in science: the only thing missing are 3D glasses.
So go check out Biophilia Live if you want to be a part of Björk’s unorthodox approach to musical expression. Or if you want to see how the artistic components of the natural world can be used to expand the universal creative repertoire. Or if you just want to be able to name another science-themed song.
Check out where you can watch Biophilia in your hometown: http://www.biophiliathefilm.com/