The Sound Science of Björk's 'Biophilia'

Björk is no stranger to the laboratory. From “Human Behaviour” through Medulla (Latin for marrow), to songs about planets, comets, vertebrae, and pneumonia, science has always been a part of her music. But Björk’s latest album/tablet project Biophilia is her most scientifically-influenced yet, with songs based around biology, physics, astronomy, and geology, a tour that will incorporate educational lectures and nature footage, and a publicity campaign that included unusual stops such as National Geographic and the scientific journal Nature Medicine. “I’m not much of a scientist,” Björk told the journal’s podcast. “I’m more of a groupie -- a science groupie.”

Befitting a science groupie, the Icelandic singer did not coin the word “Biophilia.” The inventor was entomologist and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, a fine scientist and an even better writer, who, in his short, scattered 1984 book Biophilia defined the term as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Wilson’s book is as interested in philosophy as physiology; there’s a 145-page essay where Wilson tries to organize the emotions experienced while collecting ants in exotic locales into a theory that is part secular religion, part scientific hypothesis, and part argument for ecological conservation. In short, Wilson argues that our curiosity about the living world around us -- the drive to study not just our own inner workings, but those of apes, trees, insects, and bacteria -- is hard-wired into our DNA, conferring a survival advantage. “Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life,” Wilson wrote. “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organism.”

It’s easy to see how such a theory might appeal to Björk’s Icelandic nature-worship sensibilities. But Ms. Guðmundsdóttir expands Wilson’s theory to cover not just the living world, but all of nature, borrowing imagery beyond biology. With songs that deal with topics like dark matter, lunar cycles, tectonic plates, and lightning storms, the album instead brings to mind the famous scientist-to-scientist smack talk that “all science is physics.” Then again, Physiphilia doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily.

"Björk’s project is, after all, an experiment, and in both the laboratory and the studio, experiments fail far more often than they succeed."

Björk is also less concerned with a cohesive scientific statement than she is with exploring the relatively unexplored use of science as a lyrical metaphor. The genesis of the project, she’s said in interviews, was a fascination with tablet technology and an urge to portray the creation of music in visual form. That original goal eventually led her to the imagery of science. “I wanted to map out on a touchscreen how I experience musicology and then write with it,” Björk told The Atlantic. “The most natural way I could make music visual for me was to compare it to elements in nature. So shapes of songs are like crystals, arrangements multiply like viruses, chords are like strata in tectonic plates, rhythm like DNA replicates, arpeggios like lightnings and so on... sound is pretty abstract and sometimes hard to explain it and talk about it, unless you compare it to something visual that everyone knows.”

To Björk’s credit, she made substantial efforts to get the science right through collaboration with people such as Australian biomedical animator Drew Berry and Jennifer Frazier, associate curator of the life sciences gallery at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. For the most part, the analogies she chose are effective and educational -- though often more instructive about the structure of music than the structure of life.

The most effective (and accurate) pairings are those rooted in biology. The bittersweet message of the song “Virus,” a delicately chiming track about the cruel interdependency of love (where the host and parasite may be interchangeable), is enriched by a gorgeous animation of a cell being invaded, hijacked, and destroyed by viral pathogens, emphasizing the song’s tragic undercurrent. “Hollow” features an incredible video created by Berry that’s like a James Cameron remake of Fantastic Voyage, a 3-D journey into the center of the cell that captures all the chaos of DNA replication and other nanometer-scale molecular machines scientists have only recently been able to glimpse.

Which is not to say that the full Apple-enhanced experience always redeems the musical impenetrability. Creative as they are, many of the games grow dull before the song is done playing fully through the first time, and the scientific heft of apps such as “Moon” (some pseudosciency link between lunar cycles and biorhythms) or “Dark Matter” (all musicology, no theoretical physics) is much thinner. Some seem far more motivated by graphic design than accuracy: The gyroscope-enabled flying game of “Crystalline” makes an already claustrophobic song even more suffocating, and the geologic-layer chord visualization of “Mutual Core” is pretty but nonsensical. In apps where the song and concept don't snugly fit, the interactive game is beat out by the simpler side-scrolling abstract shape animations that create a kind of synthesized synesthesia for each song.

But even where Biophilia strays scientifically on a visual or lyrical level (“My romantic gene is dominant,” is the most egregious clunker), it still finds common ground between art and science far deeper than the usual intersection. Björk’s project is, after all, an experiment, and in both the laboratory and the studio, experiments fail far more often than they succeed. It’s also a project that lends evidence to another theory proposed in E.O. Wilson’s book -- that artists and scientists use similar methodologies, both striving for elegant metaphors that describe the universal and the unseen. “Whereas art and science are basically different in execution, they are convergent in what they might eventually disclose about human nature,” Wilson writes. “In principle at least, nothing can be denied to the humanities, nothing to science.”

Rob Mitchum writes about science and music for the University of Chicago, Pitchfork, and some other places. He has a Ph.D. in neurobiology, but has never written a song or designed an app about it.