bjork-2004-medulla

Highbrow Notes Into The Mainstream:
Björk’s Oceania, a not so unconscious tribute to Stockhausen


Icelandic Björk is one of the most avant-garde popular artists of our time. Since 1993’s Debut she has been experimenting with unusual instrumentation and rich arrangements, picking her inspiration from both popular and classical music.

2004’s Medúlla album, the fifth in her career, makes no exception. A journey through the possibilities of human voice, it features, among others, the influential composer Robert Wyatt, Faith No More‘s vocalist Mike Patton, the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and the beatboxes Dokaka and Rahzel. Its concept seems to pay homage to mid-1900’s studies of vocality and the materiality of the voice à la Roland Barthes.

‘Oceania’, the last song written and mixed for the album yet its very first promo, fully represents its mission. Composed for the 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, it is made solely of human vocals. Apart from Björk’s leading line with her signature Icelandic pronunciation, it includes a London choir, Wyatt’s samples and Leeds-based beatboxer Shlomo. The suggestive lyrics, authored by Icelandic poet Sjón, tell it all about the evolution of humans from the ocean’s point of view: “Your sweat is salty, I am why”.

Several other versions of this song were released, but I will concentrate on the “authentic” one you can find on Medúlla, which is remarkably stripped-down. Björk’s immediately distinctive vocals are enhanced by the choir, that evocatively imitates waves and aquatic creatures and seems to dart in and out of water, producing an effect of displacement.

At the beginning, the soprano voices are manipulated, while Björk sings in her usual “raw”, passionate and abrupt way that has often been compared to Meredith Monk’s style. To me, her vocals indirectly draw on Luciano Berio, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s experiments with the human voice.

After all, the Icelandic artist attended a music school and has known contemporary repertory since she was a kid. German composer Stockhausen has always been one of her favorites, and we can clearly hear his influence on Medúlla and on ‘Oceania’ in particular, with its way of “using the voice as a sound and exploring the nuances of it in a microscopic way” (which is precisely how Björk herself defined Stockhausen’s Stimmung).

She met him on various occasions, interviewed him and stated that “he was one of the pioneers that started a new root in music. The electronic root, whose aesthetic is very specific”. Tracks on Medúlla convey a sense of  tonal ambiguity and offer us an avant-garde experimentation on naked sound.

The very first time I’ve listened to ‘Oceania’, its composition concept has made me think of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge”(literally “Song of the Youths”). Composed in the mid-50s, it is built around human voice, just like Björk’s song – they both create a bridge between “natural” sound objects (i.e. voice) and electronic signals.

In the early 50s the German composer had started working in the studios of the West German Radio broadcasting system, where he tried to fit the electronic sounds into the serial system. He had studied linguistics and phonetics at the University and this inspired him to combine artificially generated sounds and speech, as Luciano Berio did a couple of years later in ‘Thema. Omaggio a Joyce’ and then in ‘Sequenza III for voice’ – filtered white noise and sine waves sounds were inspired by the linguistic spectrum.

However, Stockhausen’s piece stands out for its supernatural suggestions – no wonder Björk defined him as a man “obsessed with the marriage between mystery and science.”

The voice we hear in ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’ belongs to a a twelve-year-old boy chorister singing fragments of the ‘Song of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace’ from the 3rd Book of Daniel, in which 3 young Christians are cast into the fiery furnace fire by King Nebuchadnezzar and eventually rescued by an angel.

Voice is layered, echoed, manipulated and appears in different levels of comprehensibility, from simple sound fragments to totally intelligible words – we can distinctly hear the phrase “Jubelt den Herrn” and “Preiset den Herrn” (“Praise the Lord”).

Speech is at times in the foreground and at times in the background and this conveys the impression of an infinite space. In its “concert version”, ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’ was very different from the two-track recording available on CD – it was recorded in five channels although finally mixed on four tracks for technical reasons, and consequently meant to be spread by four loudspeakers.

During a performance, listeners are literally surrounded by sounds and this spatialisation is an essential feature of the composition.

Björk‘s experimentations with concerts, turned in all-round performances, is a further sign of her fascination for Karlheinz Stockhausen. But this is another story.


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