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Bjork's 'Biophilia' Is the First App in the Museum of Modern Art

The brave new world of interactive music looms.

by Michael Byrne
Jun 16 2014, 9:00am
Image: galaxy screen-grab via MoMA

After some four decades, the dominant form of musical extramedia collaboration remains the video. And thanks to this here internet, music videos are even more abundant and creative than ever before. X'ers still bemoan the decline of MTV, but even the depths of MTV's programming didn't come close to what we have now, which is explosive energy.

It is, however, energy that would seem to beg for more. Audio-visual is an artificial boundary and, from Dan Deacon's audience light shows to Bob Dylan's Dylan-universe cable box, interactivity is what lies beyond, a return perhaps to music's earliest days of folk collectivity, where music was an activity rather than a consumable. It's a nice thought.

Nothing so far (that I've seen) has quite gotten this notion as well as Bjork's Biophilia, a record of songs, but also an app spanning games, digital instruments, animations, and quite a bit beyond, all navigated via a graphical three-dimensional constellation of star-songs. It's pretty incredible and justifies its $12.99 pricetag (Android), even as apps generally race to the bottom cost-wise. Biophilia's a fitting addition to MoMA's collection, a move announced last week.

Something music videos have always wrestled with is how to make themselves natural extensions of music, with untold volumes of terrible band-performing-in-some-room videos being one result. Part of what makes Biophilia so satisfying is how it manages to make itself about Bjork's music itself. This isn't a suite of "related content," it's a collection with actual unity. The game/song/experience "Virus" effectively turns itself into an instrument, and rather than distract from the sonic source material, draws listeners/viewers/experiencers even closer in. Meanwhile, each song in the app comes with an animation option, a simple yet engrossing psuedo-literal translation of musical sounds into visual patterns. It gets even deeper from there.

The end result is rarely a detour from Bjork's music, offering instead new and unexpected entry points. The strange future of music will look back on the app and be bewildered by its foresight.