Björk announced an ambitious project called Biophilia this past May, which included an iOS app album. This would be the first of its kind. While artists have begun dabbling in iPhone/iPad apps, the idea of a mother application that would feature apps for all the songs of a traditionally released album is entirely new.
It was unclear when this extension would be released, but Björk announced very early Tuesday morning that the mother app Cosmogony and the first song app Crystalline were available for download.
The free mother app will eventually house within it all of the single apps, set to be released one at a time. The songs can be purchased for $2 each, however one can pre-purchase all of them for $9.99.
David Attenborough provided narration for the introduction of the app, beautifully explaining the purpose of the mother app and the Biophilia project at large:
…but much of nature is hidden from us, that we can neither see nor touch. Like the one phenomenon that can be said to move us more than any other in our daily lives: sound. Sound, harnessed by human beings, delivered with generosity and emotion, is what we call music. And just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together: nature, music, technology. Listen, learn, and create.
Cosmogony easily embodies this meeting of elements, by using technology to access music through nature-themed presentations. The app presents the collection of songs as stars in a constellation that can be fully explored. As the user gets close to a star, a sample of the song starts to play on loop, allowing the user to preview apps not yet available. Those that are ready to be used are highlighted in the constellation, their corresponding stars softly pulsating with light.
The mother app idea is genius, providing a central hub for the individual apps. From a technical standpoint, it houses them in one place, instead of leaving them scattered across the iOS device. It also allows the Cosmogony app to alert users when new apps are available, by highlighting them within the constellation. Artistically, the mother app ties the individual pieces together, cementing the overarching theme of the meeting of nature, music, and technology. Much like how seemingly random stars can become a constellation, they are connected to create something larger and bring each song greater meaning than before.
It was not apparent until my third or fourth use that Cosmogony in and of itself is a song app as well! If the user taps the compass in the corner twice, they are able to back out and choose Cosmogony from the list of apps. Its description is:
< cosmogony > embodies the harmony of musical and planetary systems. It’s a song inspired by wonder at the cosmos and the question of how the universe came to be. the < cosmogony > app allows you to explore the universe of < biophilia > in 3d audio by travelling with your fingertips through space.
While its main function is to exist as the mother app, it still has a number of options to choose from: Intro, Song, Animation, Score, Lyrics. As they are similar to those of Crystalline, I will describe them in that app’s context below.
This branch of the Cosmogony app exists to expand on the cosmological and unifiying aspects of the housing function and how it draws on the lyrics of the song which center around creation myths. In this sense, “mother” app takes on an additional meaning by relating to the birth of the universe. The “Song” function takes the user on a tour of the constellation while the song plays in the background; it is merely a video, as the actual mother app already allows one to explore the space on their own terms.
The first available app is for the song “Crystalline.” The opening screen explains:
in ‘crystalline’ björk explores spatial and structural similarities in crystals and music, using them to express changes between closed and open emotional states, the effort to connect with other people, and unite internal and external worlds.
The user has a few options to choose from:
Play – This is the main function of the app. The song plays in the background as the screen opens up on a plain floating crystal traveling through a tunnel. The user is instructed to tilt their device to pick up colored crystals growing on the walls. I soon learned that, if picked up in a certain order dictated on the side of the screen, the user is rewarded with unlocked tunnels which expand the “game.” (Full disclosure: I am colorblind, so I was incredibly bad at this and only unlocked a few tunnels.)
As the crystal moves through the space, it comes upon junctions where the user can decide which tunnel to take next by tilting the device. This option allows for real replayability, as the user never has to take the same route twice.
If the user has collected enough pieces by a certain point in the song, the crystal exits a tunnel out into space and rides along a weaving path until reentering a new tunnel. As the user continues to collect the right combinations, the song will continue, allowing them to play longer or possibly until the end of the song.
At the end of the “game,” the user is presented with the crystal they created, and are able to save it into a gallery or share with friends through e-mail. There is also the “Unlocked Tunnels” option, which shows you how many tunnels you have unlocked, where they appear in the song structure, and what tunnels you have left. This also drives the user to play over and over again, by adding a kind of collection component.
There is an additional option called “play song,” which simply sends you through the tunnels with no crystal to direct. This is probably the least interesting part of the whole app. There are additional ways to play the song (see below), so watching empty tunnels is not really necessary.
Animation – This is essentially a colorful visualizer, showing the different pieces of the song as it plays through. The user has the choice to include the lyrics or not. It allows the user to become familiar with the piece while appreciating the different layers of what may sound like a very simple song.
Lyrics – This screen merely lists the lyrics. As they already exist in the “Animation” function, there’s no need for them to be interactive here. This may be interesting to some users who want to quickly reference the lyrics, but it is in a sense doubling up on what the “Animation” already provides.
Score – This function is a beautiful recreation of a score for the song, that scrolls across while it plays. Björk’s voice is replaced with a simple synthesizer, making it easier to concentrate on the actual notes of her voice rather than the lyrics. This may be moderately entertaining for non-musicians, but will be extremely helpful to anyone who wishes to cover her music. What better way to learn than by playing or singing along to this?
The Crystalline app reflects many of the lyrics in its make-up:
- underneath our feet / crystals grow like plants / listen how they grow
- i conquer claustrophobia / and demand the light
- sonic branches / murmuring drone
- with our hearts / we chisel quartz / to reach love
However, it is the flow of the “Play” function which really builds off of the song. As the user moves their crystal through the area, the construction of the song changes. The voices and rhythms are toned down while in the cramped tunnels, but the piece blossoms and opens wide as the crystal approaches junctions or enters the space outside.
As the “Intro” section explains,
these are moments of emotional climax and change of state – from solid to gas, from crystal to nebula, from inside the earth to outside in space. from emotional rigidity (“anxiety”) to openness to others (“sparkle”) they are also the reward for the correct solution to the app “puzzle.”
It is this property of the app that makes this more than repurposing of material, instead a true reimagining of the song, giving access to the user to dive in and explore the piece from the inside out on their own terms. Isn’t that what every listener really wants?
These two apps are beautiful, functional, and compelling. They draw the user into a real working universe, full of Björk’s music and messages. Fans can move around of their own accord, pick the functions that fit best with what they want from the experience, learn more about the songs, and ultimately forge stronger emotional bonds to the music as an active choice.
It is made very clear, through both design and the Intro essays, how these apps are extensions and elaborations on the songs and their stories. They are truly perfect examples of transmedia storytelling. This is how musicians can bring the messages of their music to other platforms in new and creative ways, while creating additional revenue streams for themselves.
Look here for additional reviews as the future Biophilia apps are released.