July 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Bjork’s Lead App Developer on Music, Nature, and How Apps Are Like ‘Talkies’ (Part One)

björk music cosmogony biophilia scott snibbe ios app

The "Virus" song app (screenshot above) will be distributed within Björk's album app.

You might think of Björk as a quirky, charismatic singer known for her otherworldly pipes, innovative songwriting, or perhaps the notorious swan dress she wore at the Academy Awards ten years ago. But the singer has another, less noticeable side: the ability to assemble a top notch team to accomplish her latest vision in the studio, on stage, and now in the iTunes app store.

Her latest album, Biophilia, an album app that delivers individual song apps periodically, replete with their own games, visualizations, essays, and even music-theory-teaching interactions, tests the boundaries of what is possible technically and artistically with the iPad and iPhone. After testing the two song apps that are available so far, we’re impressed by their depth, design, and playability — oh, and the music’s pretty decent too.

To make her vision a reality, the oft-described “genius” tapped Scott Snibbe (whose OscilliScoop iPhone app recently won a ZKM App Art Award) to help her build what he claims is the world’s first app album, and we agree.

Biophilia is promotion and distribution. Commerce and art. Technology and nature. And wow, is it pretty, thanks in part to design contributions by the high-end designers at M/M Paris.

To uncover the genesis of this important development and see what it means — not only for Björk fans but also for the future of the music industry – Evolver.fm spoke with Snibbe, who is Biophilia‘s lead developer. His studio is responsible for the overarching “mother” app; three of the song apps (“Cosmogony,” “Virus” [pictured above] and “Tesla”); and adding interactivity to other song apps that have yet to be released.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: I’ve reviewed one of your other music apps and written about another, so I’m somewhat familiar with your work. How did you end up working with Björk though?

Scott Snibbe

Scott Snibbe (photo courtesy of snibbe.com).

Scott Snibbe, Scott Snibbe Studio: I’ve been doing interactive music in research labs and worked with people like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson at a research lab for about 15 years, but none of that stuff ever saw the light of day. So I released several of my original works into the [iTunes] app store — Gravilux, Bubble Harp and so on — and obviously, a lot of people who first got iPads are curious about technology.

You can imagine a person like Björk getting an iPad in the first few days. My understanding is that she took a look at some of the apps that came out right when the iPad came out and identified a couple of developers that were in line with her vision.

Her whole vision of her career is the unification of technology and nature. If you listen to her music, it’s almost all electronic — except for Medúlla [which was made from vocal samples] and some early things — but she uses electronic music in the service of this emotional, nature-oriented message.

That’s her big message: this unification of music, nature and technology. I share her belief that math was invented to model nature, and that it wasn’t invented as a sort of abstract game.

Evolver.fm: I’m with you on that.

Snibbe: If you look at Gravilux and Bubble Harp, they both use math to create or recreate an alternate form of nature. So I got an email from her manager… We started talking on Skype, then in person in Paris, London, Iceland, and New York. She also brought on a couple other fantastic people like [TouchPress scientist] Max Whitby, [Sim City product developer] Luc Barthelet, Drew Berry, who won a MacArthur Award for biological animation, and [Soundrop creator] Max Weisel, who’s a really young guy, just a hotshot wiz at apps.

Evolver.fm: I wrote a story for Wired.com about two years ago called “The Album Is Dead, Long Live the App,” thinking about the app as a delivery system that’s superior to the album. But looking at Biophilia, the album and the app are clearly the same thing. Is the album still a useful way to package music — even in app form?

bjork crystalline cosmogony

According to Snibbe, the game "Crystalline" ($2, pictured here as played by the author), which combines elements of Tempest and Katamari Damacy, represents the tunnel-like structures with which Björk visualizes music.

Snibbe: That’s a great question. If you look at what’s happening in the world, the sales of pure recorded music are really collapsing and have been doing that for a long time, and normally, trends like that don’t reverse themselves. That said, if you’re dancing, walking down the street, or throwing a party, you want recorded music just to be in your life — but then if you want this more interactive, direct experience with the music, then you dive into the app.

Most musicians aren’t purely musicians — they’re performers interested in the complete audio/visual delivery of their music, and that includes costumes, performance, videos, and a lot of other things. So from a musician’s perspective, this is a great thing, because it lets them create a complete experience around their music rather than sending sound into your headphones.

Obviously, [an album app] is a lot more complicated and expensive, like the introduction of cinema and the introduction of sound into cinema. At first, it was so overwhelming –and cinema had been perfected. Those last silent films were the best silent films that had ever been made. Then the first talking pictures [or "talkies"] were so awful. We’re probably going to go through that hiccup again, where we’re saying “Well, the song is fantastic but the app is awful.”

Evolver.fm: Sure enough, a lot of the early app development has been fart pianos and things of that nature. But this “first of its kind” album app is a different story — you get the main “wrapper” app, and then you’re waiting for each single to be released within the album.

Snibbe: Björk and her team wanted to reproduce that excitement of waiting for the singles and then the album. Right now, it’s a bit difficult to reproduce that with an app. We had to do a lot of that ourselves, and there’s complexities within the app store. I’m sure Apple is working on this. My guess is that Apple would like to solve these problems as much as the artists do. But since we’re the first ones doing it, there’s a lot of pain involved in reproducing the single/album experience.

Evolver.fm: What kind of pain are you talking about?

Snibbe: Mainly that we’re taking 10 apps, and somehow we have to fit them into one “mother” app — but give you this curated experience, as if you’re experiencing each one on your own. There’s a lot involved in making sure the apps don’t step on each other, exit cleanly, and so on.

Evolver.fm: It’s a Russian nesting doll sort of thing. The album app contains the individual apps, and the songs are in there. And this is the first time this has been done, right?

Snibbe: Yeah, as far as we know.

Photo of Björk courtesy of Björk

Evolver.fm: Whenever something like this happens for the first time — like when Radiohead did their pay-what-you-want album — there are all of these articles saying “Is this the new plan for the music industry?” Björk is very cross-disciplinary, and is also a great collaborator. I think I know four people who have made music with her in various ways, and this is how she likes to operate: Figure out what she wants to do, find out who can help her do it, and then just call them up. But that’s not how a lot of artists tend to work. Is the album app something that all artists should do, or is it just for her?

Snibbe: Well, every artist makes a music video, right? And the video doesn’t make any money, and reaches a modest-sized audience. An app can generate revenue and reach as large or larger of an audience. So I’m not sure why people wouldn’t be doing it. It’s a big leap — it seems a little weird and crazy right now — but if you look at what the app offers an artist, it’s what music offered people before recording. It’s actually the primordial experience of music.

Recorded music that is delivered to your home, and you just listen passively, is a new invention in the 20th century. Before vinyl records, sheet music was the music delivery platform. That was the app of the 19th century.

Evolver.fm: Right — and it still dictates our copyright laws, too.

Snibbe: You’d get this app, which was the sheet music, and then you’d play it with your family — you’d play it longer, you’d play it shorter, you’d change the words, you’d laugh — that’s what we’re going for. I think what we’re doing is maybe old-fashioned, rather than new: making music interactive again. It’s letting people have their own personal experience with the album and even change it to experience it fresh every time they play with it.

(Read part two of this interview and stay tuned for more music app news and analysis.)