Björk and Iceland
Iceland is a nation whose general relationship with nature varies from other north European nations. The career of arguably their most famous musician is an expression of this.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir (b. 1965) is our eco-artist of the month for September. Björk grew up on a remote island nation of 372,000 people. On that island, there exists an Elf Lobby that has blocked roadwork and other construction projects to protect the habitats of the ‘hidden-folk’. While such beings survive only as fairy-tales in most European minds, elf-culture still holds political sway in Iceland, and there are seers who claim to communicate with them via telepathy. What led to Iceland’s uniqueness? Björk herself talks about this in a 2011 interview for her Biophilia project. While England and the rest of Europe had already been building factories for 200 years, Iceland was a suppressed Danish colony whose technological development remained in mediaeval times.
This led to Icelandic people living closely to wild nature, which accounts for 80% of their main island. Following their 1944 independence, they teleported straight from this cultural context to having the trappings of modern existence that most of us in the Global North were already familiar with – involvement in the neoliberal world financial system, videogame companies and internationally-touring popstars.
Ecology in Björk’s Music
Björk’s art from the past two decades is epitomic of Iceland’s simultaneous holding of two usually contrasted worlds. Of the ancient more natural world that’s usually seen as superstitious by the new, and the ‘brave new’ technological world that’s usually seen as nature-destroying by the old.
For example, the aforementioned Biophilia. The album extension of Biophilia is comprised of tracks named after natural processes, e.g.: ‘Thunderbolt’, ‘Dark Matter’, ‘Virus’, and ‘Solstice’. Dark matter and viruses are phenomena in nature that have always surrounded us, but that have only come into human awareness in recent times thanks to technological and scientific innovation.
And in Biophilia’s soundscape, Björk doesn’t clichédly opt for ‘earthy’ stripped-back acoustic instruments to communicate her love of nature. She instead went so far as to invent new instrument technologies in order to capture natural sounds. For example, tesla-coils to represent electricity and pendulum harps for gravity.
A grander idea is at work here. Björk asked Dr Nicola Dibben who lectures in science and psychology of music at University of Sheffield to write the intro to a leaflet handed out during the Biophilia live-shows. It read:
“Biophilia celebrates natural phenomena from the atomic to the cosmic, and presents musical sound as part of a whole. Biophilia’s celebration of scientific discovery and new technologies takes us forward into nature – the idea that, by combining nature with new technology we can create a more sustainable future.”
The possibility of such a harmonious techno-natural future remains to be seen as our history unfolds. However, it is telling that Björk made an hour-long Channel 4 documentary with David Attenborough, who inspires millions of people around the world to come closer to nature through the latest filmmaking technologies and scientific discoveries.
‘Biophilia’ itself is a term popularised by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and biologist Edward O. Wilson to mean, “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms”. It is often used to denote a desire, an innate need, of humans to come closer to nature and to life.
Björk still contends with the aspect of modern human innovation, which sees humans encroaching destructively too far into the rest of nature. Her Volta song ‘Earth-Intruders’ which warns against ‘metallic carnage’ and steamrollers exemplifies this. Her song ‘Náttúra’ featuring Thom Yorke was even released as part of a campaign to stop Icelandic industrialists from creating new aluminium factories in the Icelandic highlands.
There is of course a contradiction that catches many internationally-active famous nature lovers who otherwise fight for a more sustainable Earth, especially touring musicians. It takes a lot of carbon to bring a show like Biophilia around the planet.
Björk is aware of such criticisms. and in recent years, rarely exceeds ten concerts in a year. That’s much less than most musicians operating on her scale.
(Written by Callum Bruce Bell)