This week, we count down to our AES presentation “The Studio As An Instrument” with panelist Damian Taylor (The Prodigy, Arcade Fire, Austra) who tells us about using custom interfaces and robotic instruments to create Björk’s Biophilia.
When Damian Taylor tells me about the making of Björk’s Biophilia, it’s with the inflection of someone who’s been raised all over the world. He has the mild, blended accent of a man who spent a decade each in Canada, the UK, New Zealand before ultimately settling in Montreal.
It’s also the kind of voice that sounds younger than its years. Even now with a wife, small children, and studio of his own, Taylor is always on the ready to laugh at absurdity, and himself. His default tone seems to be one of mild enthusiasm.
Similarly, Taylor’s roles with Björk have been varied as his upbringing, and he seems up for anything. He’s credited in all sorts of capacities, from musical director on her tours, to engineer on her albums to, even as a co-writer of a select few songs on her latest release. The best he can muster is to say that his role is “constantly evolving”:
“On Vespertine, I was in traditional programmer’s role, where on Volta I was with her through the whole thing. My responsibilities would vary from programming and studio engineering to driving a van and carrying a roadcase around,” he laughs.
Although Taylor did the lion’s share of engineering work on her latest albums, there was also room for downtime as Björk took more than two years to conceive and create the album. “If we went to work with Timbaland, Jimmy Douglass would be there with him of course. He’s just an absolute Don, so I might just get to just kick back and hang out with Jimmy Douglass for ten days. But the next month we might be on tour, and so much of it is constantly working or preparing. I think the best way to describe it is that I’m her technical enabler.”
“Björk is a huge lover of technology,” Taylor says, “but she’s not a very technological person herself.”
It’s that kind of attitude, he thinks, that leads Björk to have the kinds of insights she does into how we relate to and interact with new technology.
Her latest album, Biophilia went through several conceptual stages before Björk ultimately decided to release it as an album and an Apple iOS application. As the first major musical release to really take advantage of the new medium, the Biophilia App has been getting a lot of press.
But Taylor reminds us that all the songs on the album except one were written before the iPad was even announced. At first, Björk conceived of the album as a literal house that listeners could visit, where all rooms would be filled with devices that would each play part of a song. At one point, the album was re-imagined as an IMAX film, complete with a working script that had a whole narrative plotted out.
Finally, the decision was made to release the music as both an album and as an interactive App that allows listeners to control the music and the corresponding visuals.
“Björk really came to love the iPad,” says Taylor. “She thinks the way you can interact with it is just an entirely different experience of computing. It wound up being the best vehicle for trying to present those ideas.”
In some ways the presentation of the album mirrors the way it was created. In the making of Biophilia Björk and Taylor became very interested in “electronic music and how you could control it in an instinctive way; without being bound by the normal rules of sequencers and samplers.”
THE “Apps” BEHIND THE MUSIC
Taylor says that the Biophilia App itself is like a “stripped-down, consumer version” of the very tools Björk used to capture and manipulate the sounds. He would know. He designed most of them.
“We thought it would be a cool idea to have an acoustic album, but to have the music all be generated electronically. In other words, we were using robotic instruments, but the performances were still being guided by a human.”
Instead of relying on conventional instruments to write the songs for the album, Taylor worked within Björk’s specifications to create a suite of unique virtual instruments in Max/MSP that she could then manipulate with a variety of unusual devices while singing.
In place of a traditional instrument or sampler, she would be able to trigger and manipulate her sounds with a Logitech videogame controller, the Telsa-esque tabletop Reactable system, or a first-generation multi-touch screen called the JazzMutant Lemur.
“I think the simplest way to describe what this system allowed her to do, is that there’s no way you could have written these songs on a piano. Compositionally, it allows you to form your ideas and control them very precisely – but in a way that’s completely different from what I’ve experienced playing any other instrument.”
The resulting music is captivating, even when the song forms are unconventional.
“It’s kind of polarizing, which is always funny to see. You’ll hear one amazing review ‘Oh my god – it’s just so stunning’ and then you’ll hear another person going, ‘What!? It’s just an unformed bunch of improvisatory crap!’,” Taylor laughs earnestly, heartily. “What people are pissed about, and what people love about Biophilia is that the structures are very unusual. They feel like they’re unfolding in the moment. To some, that’s ‘improvised bollocks’ and to others, it’s this unique and refreshing flow.”
Oddly enough for music that was captured using pioneering new software systems, the album itself is mostly comprised of first takes. Even though they were using digital technology, Taylor thought of the process as being a lot like tracking to tape; at least as far as performances were concerned. Although Björk’s voice and performances on the controller would remain largely etched in stone, the sounds of the instruments could be easily replaced.
This is where the idea of robotic instruments comes in.
On the song “Hollow” for instance, Björk’s voice was recorded, and her performance on the controllers were captured as MIDI data. But for the final version of the song, they brought their rig back to Iceland where Björk knew an organ-builder with novel device. He had a special robotic bar that could sit above the keys of a church organ, and was rigged to accept a regular MIDI input.
As the performance data was transmitted, tiny levers would descend from this robotic arm to push the organ’s keys while Björk made adjustments to the organ stops.
The record is filled with sounds that might be unexpected to some mainstream listeners. According to Taylor, Björk tends to have an idea of what kind of sound palette she wants to use going into each project. On this one she talked a lot about copper, which is where the Gamelan chimes and pipe organs come into to play. But when she was writing the songs, Björk also favored harps for their more “neutral” sound that allowed her “to focus on what was going on musically”. These tones made it into the record as well, most notably in the single “Moon”, where Taylor even received a co-writing credit.