The Björk Songbook

September 7, 2017

Most popular music since the British Invasion was created by ear, so I’ve always found it interesting when these songs are transcribed and published in song books, using traditional notation and scored for piano (despite being played on guitars). To me, such collections do not reflect the true creative aspect under which these works were conceived and transmitted between the musicians, themselves (with the exception, of course, of highly orchestrated pop charts or the music of Frank Zappa).

Björk’s songbook for voice and keyboards

But in the topsy-turvy world of digital music distribution, artists have begun re-evaluating the concept of sharing music via the printed page. In 2012, Beck made the definitive statement on the subject with Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, a collection of 20 song scores and 100 pages of visual art that was ultimately finished off as a CD recording featuring guest musicians.

This summer saw the publication of 34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord, and Celeste, a book of 29 songs by Björk chosen from across her discography. Created in collaboration with Jónas Sen, the unique keyboard arrangements and stylized look of the scores make this collection stand out as an appealing artist-designed project.

Bound by a bright green spiral, the arrangements are made up of a vocal part and a grand staff, using a specially designed font and printed in different color combinations. For example, “Atom Dance || for Piano” places black notes on red staves with blue bar lines.

In the notes accompanying 34 Scores, Björk explains how the project is a follow up to her Biophilia Educational Project (biophiliaeducational.org). “I also wanted to question how I felt about musical documentation, when CDs were slowly becoming obsolete,” she writes. “I was curious about the difference of MIDI (digital notation) and classical notation, and enthusiastic in blurring the lines and at which occasions and how one would share music in these new times.”

Each of the pieces in 34 Scores is arranged with a specific keyboard in mind. “Desired Constellation || for Organ,” for example, includes an alternate right-hand passage of sextuplets that will “only work if the organ is reasonably large and the reverb adequate,” according to a note in the score. Some songs are presented in multiple orchestrations. “Oceania,” for example, is scored for solo piano, for piano in an “easy version” (more rhythmic than the former and very interesting), and for two pianos, which cleverly combines the two solo versions.

While few of us have access to all four of these keyboard instruments in their acoustic form, anyone with a software synth can call up virtual versions to play these pieces. And I heartily recommend this approach due to the care with which Björk arranged each song for a particular instrument. A piece like “Pagan Poetry,” for instance, would sound fine using a standard piano tone, but the arrangement takes on a special quality when played using a harpsichord-like timbre (if an acoustic instrument is unavailable).

34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord, and Celeste is an elegant songbook. The imaginative arrangements are fun to play, and I highly recommend it, whether or not you’re familiar with Björk’s music.

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