Introduced by the soothing voice of David Attenborough, Björk's new app is key to her ambitious Biophilia album and promises to break new ground in the music world.
Björk originally envisaged her Biophilia album as a house she’d take over with a room for each song, which would then tour the world. Not surprisingly that proved impractical, but the launch of the iPad allowed her to recreate her vision in app form. What would have been the house is now a “mother” app, which has just been made available for free on iTunes, and which will eventually enclose the rest of the apps – one for each song.
When you open the first app, you hear the voice of David Attenborough explaining the concept as you approach an elegantly rendered 3D cosmos – you can see a video of it below. This first app works as a menu that you can navigate by swiping the screen with your fingers, passing planets named after the 10 tracks on the album (you hear a snatch of each song as you speed past). One tune, Cosmogony, is already installed. It’s a beautiful, stately song about the beginning of the universe driven by warm brass pitched halfway between the Star Wars soundtrack and the Black Dyke Mills band.
Thanks to the app, you can zoom around the cosmos as it plays, or watch the score rendered graphically with a scrolling lyric sheet. It looks extremely alluring – the overall art direction is by her long-term cohorts M/M, responsible for the visuals on umpteen classy projects including Paris Vogue.
When I first saw this app unveiled a couple of weeks ago at a press conference in Manchester I was concerned the visuals would detract from the music, but in fact it fixes your attention on the record – you can’t just switch off and read Twitter. The scrolling score is mesmerising; a bit like having an animated version of the lyric sheets I used to pore over as a teenager when I’d just bought an album, and restores – via a touch screen and headphones – some of the intimacy you can have with music.
The other song included is Crystalline, which has been out as a music-only download for a couple of weeks. The app, £1.45, includes the score, an essay by musicologist Nikki Dibben (though it didn’t seem to be included on my iPhone version) and a game, in which you collect crystals in a tunnel as the song plays by tipping your handheld device so that you scrape them off the walls. You can then save your crystals and, for some reason, email them – though to whom isn’t clear. Picking up different crystals makes the music change, though it takes a close listen to notice much difference.
The game is addictive, and playing it over and over again means you listen to the song an awful lot. Frustratingly, every time I played the game it stopped halfway through, before the wig-out drum’n’bass drum break at the end that is the highlight. There’s also an “unlocked tunnels” menu that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
For me, Crystalline is best experienced by watching the graphic rendering of the song, as the tunnels explode into colours and shapes with Björk’s breakbeats. Yet in its creation of a digital universe around her music and ideas, Biophilia does seem like the future.
There’s far too little experimentation on the iPad, which is surprising given how radical it is as a platform. While most developers (perhaps understandably) focus on apps with potential to make cash, there seem to be few experimenting for experimentation’s sake.
Open the app and you’re presented with a galaxy of Björkesque shapes and squiggles, with song titles scattered around the screen. Click on Cosmogony or Crystalline and the song opens within the app, and after a brief introduction it asks you to buy the song – even though the app is initially free.
The app is just one part of Björk’s multimedia vision for this album, which also includes live shows at the Manchester international festival, a documentary about the project produced by Pulse Films, a video by director Michel Gondry and the album itself. Songs included on the app have been stripped down and remixed by Björk and Damian Taylor, and each will become available during the build-up to the album release on 27 September.
But now for the fun bit. I’ve been a fan of Björk since the Sugarcubes, and don’t expect anything less than a riotously unpredictable visual and aural feast. Crystalline’s visuals are simplified, random, perhaps a little incoherent. But perhaps that incoherence doesn’t matter so much when providing a specially-designed space in which the listener can explore the track visually. It’s a very clever idea. The visual doesn’t look, synesthesically, like the track sounds to me, and it’s not really obvious from the interactions on screen how the choice of visual affects that deconstructed version of the track.
Much as I respect the concept, the app itself isn’t that compelling. I shudder to bring Glee into the equation, but the official Glee app does include a clever visual that shows uploaded “karaoke” (for want of a better word) versions of Glee hits by app users. Leaving aside the fact that those are about as hellish as they sound, the graphic device is a spinning glove with glowing, faint users’ songs beaming out of locations across the globe. It’s a shame there’s little of that overview in this app (bar a “share by email” feature) and also little momentum between different sections.
Good app design shouldn’t leave you in a cul-de-sac, but tease you gently from one part to another. I could also point to the kids’ app Sound Shaker, which has simple and delightful interactions generated by touching and rolling balls around the screen. It gives little incentive for users to play and explore.
Though the rest and possibly best of the album has yet to come, it would be interesting to explore a more integrated, fluid interpretation of the idea.
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