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Experiencing performance in innovative ways

In 2009, Professor Nicola Dibben at the University of Sheffield published the first large-scale musicological analysis of Icelandic musician Björk’s artistic output developed from her 2006-2007 AHRC project, The Music of Bjork. As Björk herself said in a 2011 article in The Guardian, ‘[Dibben] seemed to be able to cover both the electronic and more academic angle of my music which is rare … You either have the pop folks being intimidated about the string and choir arrangements or you get the semi classical lot who … want to rescue me from pop. Dibben seemed not to care about either of those hurdles.’

As a result, Björk invited Dibben to work with her on her next album project, Biophilia. Her research contributed to a new type of musical artefact, the “app album”, which is widely referred to as a reinvention of the album format, and a touchstone for future developments in mobile devices. The graphical user interface of the app represents Biophilia as a star field via which users can navigate to access each song in various formats – audio-visual playback, scrolling graphic and traditional notation, essays (by Dibben) and interactive games foregrounding relationships between music structures and natural phenomena. The New York Times described it as, ‘among the most creative, innovative and important new projects in popular culture.’ It is now part of the collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and was adopted as part of an educational program by the Nordic Council. Dibben explains, ‘One of my roles as part of the project team was to communicate the concepts embodied in the various interactive components of the app, which I did through my understanding of Björk’s compositional aims and techniques. It was a fantastic opportunity to be part of a project aimed at showing that music-making can be spontaneous and that music theory can be understood intuitively – it doesn’t need to be dry or abstract’.

"Fig 8.2" - Graphical User Interface of Biophilia app album (2011), Credit Nicola Dibben
"Fig 8.2" - Graphical User Interface of Biophilia  app album (2011), Credit: Nicola Dibben

Dibben’s AHRC-funded research contributed to the essays within the app and physical album releases, documentary films, and exhibition text for Björk Biophilia Live tour. Dibben’s book Björk (2008), which was a research output of the AHRC project, was also a central source for the curators of the Björk retrospective exhibition held at MoMA (March – June 2015). This material enabled Björk’s fans to gain a deeper, and sometimes new, understanding of her music. Björk’s manager commented that although he has known Björk’s music for 20 years, Dibben’s research has given him new ways to understand and appreciate it. Bjork: Archives, a career retrospective to accompany the MoMA exhibition, includes feature contributions from Dibben and was published in March 2015.

This case study featured in the 2014/15 AHRC impact report.

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