At just over 45 minutes, the short-form documentary When Björk Met Attenborough is more or less supplementary material for the brilliant Biophilia Live concert film. The documentary’s central conversation between the idiosyncratic musician Björk and famed naturalist David Attenborough is philosophically stimulating, but is not all the film has to offer. The movie also serves as a key to understanding exactly what Björk was trying to accomplish with the muli-media Biophilia project, especially her ambitions in trying to change the way we “see, hear, think about and make music”. She says early in the run time that “It seems to be around this age I am now you have to make a sort of spiritual statement” and When Björk Met Attenborough does a great job of detailing just how ambitious her statement is.
In her attempt to position Biophilia as a spiritual statement, Björk looks back on the way she experienced music as a child. She speaks fondly of singing on her lonely walks to school through inclement Icelandic weather, music serving as a private conversation between her and Nature. She also expresses frustration with how schools taught her to interact with music through ancient Europen composers and non-intuitive instruments. With Biophilia, Björk attempts to rewire how music, nature, and technology interact with each other into a more innate process. She begins this journey with a tour through London’s Museum of Natural History, the largest natural history collection in the world, guided by Sir David Attenborough.
The central conversation between Björk and Attenborough is unfortunately a little stiff and, well, unnatural. Ignoring the artifice of the encounter, though, the ideas discussed about where nature & music meet are thoroughly engaging. Lyrebirds mimicking ring tones & chain saws, the evolutionary advantage of a beautiful singing voice, and the prevalent sexuality in modern pop music all make for great philosophical fodder. The true highlight, however, is their discussion of the Biophilia song “Crystalline” in the museum’s massive crystal room. Attenborough & Björk pick apart the “mathematical beauty” of crystal formations & other natural phenomenon and how Nature’s patterns are mimicked in music’s time signatures. It’s a lofty concept, but one made convincing by two abstract minds who love to look for such connections between science and art.
The “Crystalline” segment opens other threads for the film to follow, especially in how technology can be exploited to harness the stated connection between nature & music. First, the film demonstrates through cymatics (the study of sound’s visible patterns) how the song “Crystalline” looks, as opposed to how it sounds. Other inventions like the sharpsichord, a rigged Tesla coil, and swinging pendulum harps that use gravity to play their notes all prompt the audience to consider “the way we see, hear, think about, and make music”. Björk also collaborates with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and several software developers to utilize touchscreen technology in computer apps that create new ways of making music in a more intuitive way. She not only integrates existing technology in Biophilia, but also pushes to create her own.
When considered in isolation, When Björk Met Attenborough is an interesting intellectual exercise. When considered as part of Biophilia as a larger multi-media art piece it’s a Rosetta Stone, documenting a vastly ambitious work that tries to encompass music, nature, and technology in one definitive whole. The matter-of-fact tone of Tilda Swinton’s narration and Björk’s titular conversation with Attenborough makes this ambition seem perfectly natural and reasonably attainable. It’s not the kind of documentary that’s going to pick apart the ideas at play and question their validity. After all, the movie ends with Attenborough paying Björk a huge compliment. Instead it’s the kind of film that offers strange ideas at face value so the audience’s minds can run away with them and draw their own outlandish, philosophical conclusions.