Micro-Björk: A Magnified Look at Her Most Miniscule Innovation
by Mateo Rispoli
“Vespers” are prayers said at dusk, deriving from the latin word “vesper,” which means “evening.” Each denomination has their own rituals and traditions as night falls, different hymnals and canticles to welcome the moon. On Vespertine (2001), Icelandic experimental bastion Björk delivers a hymnal sung by romantic comfort, a congregation comprised of her and her emotional betrothal to American artist, Matthew Barney. The songs range from minimalistic electronic pop ballads to winterous celeste lead prayers. Very few albums capture the look of love with such encompassing aesthetics. Vespertine is an unkempt bed, furnished with white silk sheets. Björk takes no pause when inviting the listener to see what's under the comforter; a world of greyscale seemingly endless in scope yet snug and focused. Her discography often reads as a chronicle of ceaseless creative fluctuation, however Vespertine is her most cohesive and fully realized project to date.
One of the key creative components in this feat was Björk’s insistence on further developing her concept of “microbeats.” Microbeats are beats constructed from small, more often than not, household noises. They’re usually composed in short phrases, looping and layering gradually or all at once, often building upon one another. Microbeats have an intrinsically reserved sound to them, epitomized by their chirps and clicks. She describes the process of implementing them into tracks as “crocheting a blanket with a tiny needle.” The pitter-patter tones of the microbeats opens up a percussive landscape as large as the instrumental.
“The less room you give me, The more space I've got”
Calling the microbeats a gimmick would be a massive oversimplification of a unique set of aesthetic innovations that serve a large thematic role over the length of the album. Vespertine, being the direct follow up to 1997’s big beat, electronic masterpiece Homogenic, acts as its mild mannered counterpart. Everything about Homogenic was maximalist. “When I did Homogenic, it was all about boosting things up, and being extra extra extra large, being extra attention seeking. We ended up finding almost always one beat, so just one big beat, that's all you need.” On tracks like the techno march of “5 Years,” the snare (if you can call it that) collides with the wavelengths and sounds more like an explosion from an NES game than any drum machine. “Alarm Call,” which hypnotizes with its catchy vocal sampling and jagged synth bass is another blossoming of grandiose pop ambitions.
By the time of Homogenic’s release in 1997, Björk had been a touring artist for 11 years and recording artist for 20 years. There was a sense of home lacking in Björk’s life. Her increasingly public professional and artistic life in kick starting a solo career after leaving The Sugarcubes in 1993 kept her on the road. What came so far, or what hadn't yet, served as the inspiration for what came next. Homesick, Björk comments on the source of motivation for her drastic shift in style, saying “Maybe the amount of travelling I had done in 15 years, so anything domestic became a paradise, you know this perfect and beautiful thing.”
Vespertine was indeed the opposite of Homogenic. In an interview with Verity Sharp on BBC4 in 2002, Björk described Vespertine as “the shy one, the introvert one, the gentle one, the patient one… the album that stayed indoors, being passive in the house.” This served as the production philosophy for the project, and Vespertine is an unwavering execution through a variety of techniques and collaborations that saw Björk meticulously stitching these microbeats along the borders of each track for nearly 3 years after her initial songwriting duties were finished.
By the midpoint of those 3 years, the industry that Björk starts Vespertine in grew unrecognizable. On June 1st, 1998, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker released the first peer-to-peer mp3 file sharing application, Napster. The revolutionary software peaked (80 million users) and shutdown all before Vespertine saw a commercial release. However Björk still saw its emergence as something to account for. In an interview with NME, she details her instrumental choices: “I use microbeats, a lot of whispery vocals, which I think sound amazing when they're downloaded because of the secrecy of the medium. The only acoustic instruments I would use would be those that sound good after they've been downloaded, so the harp, the music box, celeste and clavichord.”
She often refers to Vespertine as her “laptop album,” due to the setting in which it was recorded in, and of course the method of distribution that it caters too. Her use of Sibelius, a musical notation software, to write the string parts for the album kept her in the house. However, this moniker has an ideological tinge to it that further paints the picture of Vespertine as a shrine to four walls and floors. Björk, at least when speaking to Interview in September 2001, believed that the most ideal “music situation” was when small scale classical chamber performances, or chamber music, was the method of in-home entertainment. This is a much grander meaning of home than the one this album represents; a string quartet seated at the center of an ornate palace chamber, bellowing and consuming acoustics and nothing less. No, instead what was reserved for the elite is now in the hands of the common man. With the internet becoming the portal through which listeners access new music, their reach extends far beyond what can be found in a record store. In the same interview, “I think we’ve come full circle and the most ideal music situation now, through Napster and through the internet and downloading and DVD, is back to the home.”
Soft Spoken Percussion
The question of how to create a “shy,” “gentle,” and “patient” album could be answered in a variety of less inspired ways than what is on display on Vespertine. Starting its life under the working title, “Domestica,” Vespertine staunchly plants itself indoors. In collaboration with the raving IDM samplists, M.C. Schmidt, and Drew Daniel, the duo known as Matmos(further reinforcing the albums subject matter, they’re a couple), Björk scoured a dormant living room, a library, and other places of quietus for tiny, containable sounds. In Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir’s documentary on the 2001 Vespertine Tour, Miniscule, Björk recalls, “At the library, I was working with programmers and we would basically just gather together lots and lots of sounds.” Among these sounds were cracking ice, shuffling cards, and fittingly, a laptop closing. Daniel lovingly reflects on the most difficult of Björk’s request, saying “We’d call nature conservancies and natural recording societies and said ‘Hi we’re working for Björk and we need the sounds of pussywillows bursting open,’ and they just couldn’t do it.”
Enter Pro Tools, a software developed by Evan Brooks and Peter Gotcher, initially published by Digidesign, in 1989. With the software approaching home relevancy and accessibility in the late 90s, it serves as the needle, stitching together each piece domestic sonance into a quilt of the house’s voice. All throughout Vespertine, the pitter patter of a cavalcade of these tiny beats approaching in the distance, ricocheting and echoing from channel to channel. It creates a hierarchy of the tiny and the infinitesimal, traveling as a school rather than an individual.
Dubbing these systems of soft spoken measures of percussion, “microbeats,” Björk embarks on a three year-long labor of weaving “microcosmos of 30 or 40 beats, interacting.” If Homogenic’s percussive backbone is boisterous and confident, with a sturdy rigidity that could skip down the street structurally unscathed, then Vespertine’s is made of paper mache, with each piece being glued to the next in support of one another.
Restoring My Blisses
“Cocoon,” one of the lead singles, is the most successful implementation, audibly and symbolically. While the album is sonically introverted, its subject matter is revealing and intimate in a way pop music rarely is. Bjork, no traditional popstar under any circumstance, waxes on intimacy for the first time in her already decade long career, focusing on the calm in between bouts on this flagrantly post-coital track. The track opens with some of the most distinctively audible microbeats on the entire album, following the lead four note synth melody. Quintuplets skip from the right channel to the left, comprised of what sounds like gentle taps on a hardwood floor, mixed with page lightly clashing in a closing book. They’re thin and brief samples that in sequence can almost tickle the inside of your ear with the right audio setup. Björk’s voice enters the fray with a similarly ticklish timidity. Her words peek out of the teapot falsetto crackle, “Who would have known/that a boy like him/would have entered me lightly/restoring my blisses.” Hammering the intimacy home, Björk holds the microphone close and leaves each breath and imperfection in, offering more texture to an already impressionistic sound. The microbeats continue to patter on under her voice, only ceasing for short vocal breaks, before they usher the rest of the instrumentals back in.
In tandem with the subject matter, and Björk’s equally mousy delivery, “Cocoon” is an intentionally hushed track. It’s hiding itself under the sheets, and all that remains is the outline of its fragile frame. As it starts to speak, the listener is encouraged to lean closer as to not miss anything. In the Miniscule documentary, Björk claims of her intentions with the microbeats was to take “something very very tiny and magnifying it up to big, and it sort of gave you a sensation that you’ve been told a secret.” She reveals the innately clandestine details of her ‘night prayers’ with Matthew Barney. All the while, the house whispers and tells the listener what it knows, almost as an ever present third character in the insatiable romance of Vespertine.
On Cocoon’s lyrical content: “I can assure you there are 900 things I’d like to say that I keep to myself.” (BBC4)
Cross-Pollination Among Beats and Countrymen
Part of the genius of Björk’s discography since Vespertine, is that she latches onto a wildly original concept and then stretches it to the ends of the universe, proving its versatility. “It’s Not Up To You,” an eerie pop ballad about sexual tension and power dynamics, is carried to and from its emotional choruses by a collaboration of microbeats. Chirps and rattles open the track, and by the time the first instrumental hits, four microbeats run serpentine (ha) in the background of the track. They come and go as they please, and it allows for a building and breaking down in intensity. This fluidity gives the track a fine gradient, and it’s a marvel of electronic sequencing.
The microbeats on more skeletal songs such as “Undo,” take on a more choral form, where the harmonies and pecking order are clear. The left channel is a singing a muted nondescript crackle and roll for most of the track, while the right is the main percussion at the forefront of the mix. Think of the kicks and bass hits as the skeleton and the surrounding microbeats as the rest of the body, softer and more malleable.
While the technicality of microbeats doesn’t allow for easy implementation (remember it took three years), that hasn’t stopped other bands from taking inspiration. Fellow Icelandic experimentalists Múm quickly followed suit on their 2002 album Finally We Are No One. With possible cross pollination from another fellow countryman, the producer, engineer, mixer, Valgeir Sigurðsson, the influence is immediately apparent on the sole single for the album, “Green Grass of Tunnel.” While featuring more traditional beats as well, the track opens with what sounds like a malfunctioning music box, before a crackly microbeat is layered over top.
In Her Hands
Björk’s first single to follow Vespertine was introduced as the closer to tour of the same name. No stranger to extremity, and a friend of bombast, “It’s in Our Hands” answers the question of “how far can we take this?” The lyrics remain introverted, encouraging the listener to “look no further” than within themselves for happiness. She points out the self-critical nature of human beings, “Cruelest, almost/Always to ourselves/It mustn't/Get any better off,” and how it’s these self imposed obstacles that keep us from happiness. With this message of manifestation, the microbeats too boil to a frenzied form unmatched anywhere on Vespertine.
It's a maximalist execution of a minimalist concept, even incorporating some familiar scratchy and crushed sounds, reminiscent of the Homogenic palette. During the chorus, and eventual crescendo, there is anywhere between 30-60 microbeats running at the same time. They become hard to distinguish from one another; it's almost like they're falling all over each other. If this is the way a house speaks, then the house is collapsing in on itself.
The live incarnation of “In Our Hands” that introduced it to audiences in perfectly acoustic theatres and concert halls around the world, is a bit different however. The cacophony of beats is sometimes replaced by the claps of an Inuit choir from Greenland. Matmos lathers on some genuine crash cymbal sounds, and the harpist the goes of the god damn rails. It definitely veers into Aphex Twin territory, and it serves as the ultimate execution of microbeats as a viable percussive innovation, as well as the perfect end cap to the Vespertine era.
The only time I ever felt the need to interject myself in the process of writing this piece is this caption: This is one of *nastiest* live performances of all time, recorded at the Royal Opera House no less. It also gives you a better look at the key players in the effort of Vespertine.
That’s A Lot of Beats
Earlier, I referred to the microbeats as “impressionistic.” They congregate in a joint percussive prayer. Their grain is a fine grit rather than a structural bed of spikes as the drums served on Homogenic. Bjork created the Pierre-Auguste Renoir of percussion sequencing with Vespertine. While it’s a concept that she has yet to return to in the 18 years since the Vespertine release, it’s left a lasting impact on her songwriting, pushing her towards more variable structures and production innovations. It rang in a tradition of conceptual experimentation that she continued on 2004’s vocal sample laden Medulla, and most recently with the flute-led Utopia. While in lesser hands, these would likely prove gimmicks, Björk thrives in an environment of cohesion. Even narratively, Vespertine weaves a love story filled with abundant candor and intimacy, echoed by a set of masterfully catered instrumentals. She kneads and works each of these concepts to their limits, only furthering her prestige as one of pop music’s great innovators.
Since I started writing this article I’ve listened to 26 hours of Björk total.
14 hours of Vespertine, 5 hours of Homogenic, 7 hours of the other 7 albums.
Data via snd.wave for iOS