How Bjork is Mining the Historical Intersection of Science and Music

Cover art for Biophilia. Bjork's new album uses, among other things, Tesla coils and pendulums to create sound. 

Science and music have always fascinated me, but for different reasons. I turn to one for its promise of explaining nature and humanity, the other for its emotional and introspective qualities. This is why I was surprised to learn about Icelandic singer and electronic musician Bjork’s latest album, Biophilia.

In Biophilia, released last month, Bjork presents what she calls the intersection of music, nature, and science. This includes the transformation of scientific instruments into just, well, instruments: historic milestones like the Tesla coil and pendulum are actually integral parts of the album’s sound. And true to her production process, Bjork performed at the Manchester International Festival in July with a Tesla coil and pendulum on stage. You can see her pendulum-harp in action here.

I don’t know of any other musician that has exploited the sound qualities of scientific instruments before, but there are many historic connections between science and music. In the 19th century, for example, the study of acoustics became a popular field. During this time, physicist Hermann von Helmholtz used a mathematical analysis to describe sound waves, making contributions to the physical understanding of waves and how they move through unobservable mediums.

Going back a little further, we can find an early science and music connection in the work of the Greek natural philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras used the idea of a monochord to demonstrate his ideas about the universe, with the different musical tones within the chord representing the mathematical foundation of the universe. Bjork, too, uses this connection, but with a very different style. For her, music is more than an example. It’s a way to explore how life is connected to both science and nature.

Ryan Carty is an editorial intern at CHF.

The Science of Song, The Song of Science [NYT]
Biophilia [Pitchfork]
Scientific Instruments [CHF Collections]

Posted In: History | Technology

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