Björk isn’t just a pop star. She’s a songwriter and producer, as well as a composer who has done the arrangements on 90% of her music for the last 25 years. Most fans may not know this. She doesn’t trumpether musical fluency, she says, because it’s ingrained in her as a woman to stay quiet about her talents.
She’s done remaining silent on the subject, however, as she stands poised to unleash a veritable Björk-apalooza on the City of Angels with a three-pronged musical and artistic blitz. A virtual reality exhibit titled “Björk Digital” and presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic opens Friday in downtown L.A. Advance copies of her new book, “34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste,” will be made exclusively available there. Then May 30 will mark the Iceland native’s sold-out debut at the L.A. Phil’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, where she will be accompanied by a 32-piece string orchestra.
“If I were a guy, people would be talking about, and writing about, my music and not just about my love life and kids,” she said in her lilting, sing-song voice over the phone from New York. “So my input for feminism is to start putting the spotlight on my arrangements.”
If I were a guy, people would be talking about, and writing about, my music and not just about my love life and kids.
The score book alone took eight years to put together. She met two times a year with composer, keyboardist and former bandmate Jonas Sen to go through her back catalog. They merged her arrangements for choir, strings, brass and vocals into versions for keyboards. She also worked with designers on what turned into a challenging task: creating a font for her music in the same way one would be created for letters.If you’re not quite sure what this means, you’re not alone. When pressed to elaborate, Björk said she could talk about the process for hours and that a documentary could be made about it, but it still wouldn’t be easy to understand.
“We had to do a Kofi Annan situation between the [music] notation universe and the font universe,” she said, referring to the seemingly impossible negotiations undertaken by the former secretary general of the United Nations. “That actually took two years, but hopefully now other musicians can do the same with their own notations.”
It’s fitting that “34 Scores,” with its hard-won font, will be released at the “Björk Digital” exhibition, which highlights Björk’s talent for bringing multiple art forms together with technology in service of amplifyingthe effect of her music. The exhibit will be making its West Coast premiere after appearing in Sydney, Australia; Tokyo; London; Reykjavik, Iceland; Montreal; Mexico City; and Houston.
The exhibit has three distinct components. The first features six virtual reality experiences made for her most recent album, “Vulnicura,” which transport viewers in custom headsets to far-flung and unexpected places including a windswept beach in Iceland and the interior of the singer’s mouth.
The second is a hands-on educational alcove showcasing Björk’s custom instruments and music apps, which were made for her 2011 album, “Biophilia.” That groundbreaking work was the first album to be released as a series of interactive apps that stitched together aspects of musicology with science and nature to some academic effect. The album ultimately launched the Biophilia Educational Program, which adapted the singer’s programs into the official curriculum of several Northern European countries.
Finally, “Björk Digital” will have a cinema room playing remastered music videos spanning the career of the 51-year-old singer. Directors include heavyweights such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Alexander McQueen.
“It has been particularly satisfying to see the emotional reaction from people who come to the show and experience virtual reality for the first time. Audience members often hold hands, sing along, even cry while they are inside the virtual space,” said James Merry, “Björk Digital” creative co-director, by email from Reykjavik. “I think the ability to place sound in a 360-degree environment is particularly exciting to a self-confessed audio nerd like Bjork.”
For fans of Björk’s music, “Björk Digital” should feel like a natural extension of her career trajectory. As a testament to her early use of digital technology as a means for artistic expression, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015 staged a three-month-long retrospective of her multifaceted work.
Her voice is among the most distinctive sopranos in modern music, characterized by remarkable elasticity and vulnerability. Her music, no matter the genre — electronic, pop, experimental, trip-hop ororchestral — has always somehow sounded like the future itself.
Björk stresses that this has not necessarily been intentional.
“To be honest, when I do things that are technological, or with VR, or even with acoustic strings and choirs, I’m basically just trying to be functional,” she says. “I’m trying to be truthful to the lives we lead now. I’m not trying to be far-out. We are on our phones now — sharing files and ideas, making videos, photos and songs.”
As complicated as playing with a 32-piece orchestra can be, the experience has brought Björk back to simpler tasks and allowed her to explore the roots of her arrangements. She is finding new freedom in that. Prior to her upcoming concert at Disney Hall, she has performed with orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Harpa hall in Reykjavik and the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City.
Ultimately, says “Björk Digital” co-director Merry, Björk is creating a musical landscape all her own.
Collaborating with her is “like an invitation into a very specific universe that she is creating to surround her music, where she encourages you to grow and flourish inside of that world and brings the best out of you, teasing out the places where both your worlds overlap while still staying true to her vision,” he says.
What future creative innovations might populate this universe is up in the air, Björk says, adding that she’s always writing and learning new tools to enhance her craft.
“I think it’s important at any given time to re-evaluate what is relevant and not relevant, and maybe cross-connect those to create a new form that is relevant to the world we live in,” she says.
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Where: Magic Box at the Reef, 1933 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday to June 4
Tickets: Starting at $35; timed entry every 15 minutes