When Björk Met Attenborough: The Icelandic punk, the national treasure and a display of rather remarkable human behaviour
Ahead of the airing of a documentary made with the acclaimed naturalist, the eccentric musician tells Sarah Morrison how the pair found common ground in each other's fields
She is the Icelandic “punk anarchist” with a love for eclectic music and bonkers fashion; he is Britain’s greatest living naturalist and an established national treasure.
Despite diametrically-opposed careers, Björk and Sir David Attenborough are the latest showbiz collaborators. They first met in the 1990s, and have teamed up to make a documentary on the world of “nature, technology and music” which airs on Saturday.
Taking a break from her latest tour, Björk told The Independent that Sir David, who is 40 years her senior, was a constant inspiration. “I have learned so incredibly many things from him,” she said. “This man is a natural teacher. Apart from the things in nature he has introduced me to, I appreciate his enthusiasm and his hope has always been inspiring to me.”
And it seems the naturalist is a fan of the singer’s work too. In the Channel 4 documentary When Björk Met Attenborough: The Nature of Music the 87-year-old broadcaster told her: “I put on your music when I really want to think about something.” He added: “Your music is so challenging … because it does require thought…so much of what you do is completely new, [and] hasn’t been done before.”
The documentary was inspired by Björk’s Biophilia album and multimedia project. Sir David narrated its accompanying iPad suite and has provided spoken introductions to performances. Björk said he did not need much persuading to get involved.
“I simply asked him if he would be interested in collaborating on Biophilia and he said ‘Yes!’” she said. Once you delve into the project a little deeper, it is easy to see why. The broadcaster explains how the structure of music can mirror that of nature – for example in its use of symmetry.
He described music as something “used by humanity to take us beyond territory, beyond success; into something that is transcendental.” He added: “It is an essential part of what makes us human. It has something very profound; it provides a profound reaction in us all.”
He enters more familiar territory when discussing music in nature. “The more beautiful the bird, the simpler its music,” he said. “The lyrebird song is probably the most complex bird song, ever…If you listen in the bush in southern Australia, you may think you’re surrounded by 10 different species. But they’re all actually made by that lyrebird singing 10 songs.”
He described current pop music as “hugely sexual” and even lets slip that if he were not one of the world’s most famous broadcasters, he would like to try his hand at academia. “I wish I was a mathematician,” he said. “I know a mathematician would talk about the beauty of an equation. And you can sense that when you hear a five-part fugue by Bach, which also has a mathematical beauty.”
As for Björk, her inspiration has always been closely linked to her surroundings. “I would walk 40 minutes to school and back [in] any weather, and my little way of dealing with that was just sort of sing … So for me the line blurs so easily between music and nature because that’s almost like the same thing for me,” she said.
Ian Cross, professor of music and science at the University of Cambridge, said: “If there has to be something about music on television on a Saturday evening, I’d rather hear the views of Björk and David Attenborough than those of the music hedge fund manager Simon Cowell.”
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