Sheffield professor’s insight into world of music star Björk

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A Sheffield university academic is speaking on Sunday about her work with international music star Björk ahead of a showing of a film of one of Bjork’s typically innovative new albums.

University of Sheffield musicologist Prof Nikki Dibben is introducing the film Biophilia Live, where Björk explores links between music, technology and the natural world.

Nikki first got in touch with the Icelandic star in 2009 when she wrote a book about her.

She said: “Björk is one of the few female musicians who is in control of all of the aspects of her work, including in the studio. She does her own programming of beats and mixing.

“I was interested in her because women are quite under-represented in that part of the pop industry.”

Nikki was also fascinated by the way that Björk fuses together all the aspects of a piece of work, from the CD cover art to the costumes she wears to perform it.

“She creates a whole universe about her project, including a character, and that’s realised through all these different things,” said Nikki.

Björk refused to be interviewed for the book, although Nikki did speak to her manager and collaborator, Derek Birkett, and many other people working with her.

Although she checked the accuracy of some parts of her work with Björk and Derek Birkett and sent a copy of the book to them, she was completely unprepared to be approached by the star to become involved in her latest project, Biophilia.

Nikki said: “I got a phone call from her manager, saying she really liked the book and was I interested in working on a project that had an educational aspect to it? Would I be interested in collaborating?

“It end up being Biophilia, which was the first album to be released as an app for touch-screen iPhones and iPads. It’s now available as a record.

“When I met her in 2010 she had an idea for this project. At that point she had some meetings with app developers. I didn’t even have an iPad at that point!

“She was showing me the prototype and described what she wanted to do with this project.”

Björk also played Nikki the songs she had written for the album.

“She saw my role as maybe writing a few paragraphs about the musical ideas. It was that vague. From that there were lots of other meetings with her and the rest of the team involved.

“There was nine months of collaborative work with emails going backwards and forwards. She was working all over the world at the time.”

Björk wanted Nikki’s help because she thinks music education is too traditional and abstract and should be much more connected to how people actually experience music.

Eventually, Nikki found herself alongside other collaborators in Bjork’s cabin in Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik, with a view of the volcano that had caused disruption to international flights when it erupted.

Part of the meeting was filmed for a documentary on Björk’s encounters with naturalist David Attenborough, linked to the Biophilia album.

Nikki said that Björk was trying to show how people can use technology to link with the natural world and how nature can influence music. For instance, one track explores the effect of the Moon on the Earth, like changes in the tides, and what effect this may have on people as well.

The apps that were created give the listener the chance to explore the songs and ideas interactively as well.

Nikki said she learned a lot about the star from working with her.

“I used to think of her as a really talented and innovative musician and artist. What working with her added to that was the creative entrepreneur. They’re producing something every three or four years.”

Nikki said that Björk has created different images, from quirky and elf-like to aggressive and punky, but “in my interactions with her she was completely straight and normal.

“When we met up she was making cups of tea and cooking dinner for people. She was not affected at all. But even in that everyday life I could see those different elements of her.”

Nikki will be introducing the film Björk: Biophilia Live at 6pm on Sunday at the Showroom Cinema as part of the University of Sheffield spring concert series, which has a Nordic theme.

Recorded live on the final date of a tour that spanned two and a half years. Biophillia Live captures the audacious staging of the 2011 album, performed in the round with a dazzling array of unique, rare and custom-built instruments.

To book tickets, go to http://www.showroomworkstation.org.uk/bjork or call 0114 275 7727. For more information on the university concert season, which explores the works of Grieg, Delius and Sibelius and other composers, go to http://concerts.sheffield.ac.uk/read-all-about-it/spring-is-here