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Creative Collaborations: How creative research found a new side to Bjork

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It's not just start-ups that benefit from working in creative clusters.

Bjork, one of the most critically-acclaimed musicians of recent times, benefitted from finding common cause with an academic – and in turn she helped drive their research forward.

“Working with Bjork allowed me privileged access to a team pushing the boundaries of what was possible with music and technology,” says Professor Nicola Dibben, University of Sheffield.

“In return, I was able to help them communicate what they were doing and better express their work exploring the links between sound and ideas.”

It all started in 2009 when Professor Dibben 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.

Although she didn't actually speak to Bjork for the research, Professor Dibben did interview her manager. When she had finished, she sent him a copy of her work. And to her surprise, he got in touch.

“I never imagined that my research would lead to a direct collaboration with Bjork,” she says. “But I was absolutely delighted that she and her team saw something in my studies that they found useful.

“They felt I was able to communicate her work in a way that they weren't doing.”

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.”

Because of this Björk invited Dibben to work with her on her next album project, Biophilia.

Graphical User Interface of Biophilia app album
“Fig 8.2” – Graphical User Interface of Biophilia app album (2011). Credit: Nicola Dibben

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.

“What was particularly interesting was that the album had an educational, musicological aspect.

“They were looking for someone who could help communicate the link between musical composition and structure, and musical ideas... They wanted to make theory more accessible and understandable, and I was able to help with that.

“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.”

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 entirely 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.

From Professor Dibben's perspective, her work benefitted hugely from proximity to Bjork's team: “I was able to see how a creative team work, which enhanced my understanding of the constraints and possibilities of this kind of project and how they can drive forward what is possible with art and technology.”

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