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The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Nicola Dibben

NikkiDibben_workingOver the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next up: Nicola Dibben, who brings a great deal of academic credentials to bear in approaching her volume in the series: she’s Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Sheffield, UK, co-editor of the journal Empirical Musicology Review, and former co-ordinating editor of Popular Music. Her research addresses music, mind and culture with a focus on the science and psychology of music and on popular music studies, and she has published over 40 journal articles and book chapters in her field. Whew!

Her forthcoming 33 1/3 on Björk’s 2011 album Biophilia not only extends her scholarship on the beloved, eccentric Icelandic musician (Dibben’s also the author of 2009’s Björk), it’s also the direct result of her involvement in creating Biophilia itself. Yes, you heard that right: Dibben was one of the artists who collaborated with Björk on the multimedia app album in question. In this way, Dibben’s not only the best mind to approach a book about Björk, she’s also a 33 1/3 precedent: the first author of a book in the series who also helped create the album being profiled.*

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
ND: This book was crying out to be written: Björk’s Biophilia was the first audio album to have simultaneous release as an interactive app for smartphone and tablet. It challenges the very idea of what an album is, and what its future might be in the digital age. Amid speculations about the death of the physical artifact (CDs, vinyl, DVDs, books) Biophilia was a bold experiment which showed the potential of interactive digital technologies for music-making, listening and learning. For these reasons I wanted to write the book. I also thought I’d be able to offer an unusual perspective as someone who collaborated on the Biophilia app.

“Having worked on [Biophilia], I had unique insight into the creative process during the making of the app album, so I also want to incorporate that: it’s not often you get to read about how things get made in the music industry.”

What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
ND: I’ve already published a book about Björk’s music (Björk, 2009) so this is an opportunity to focus on what’s unique about the Biophilia album and its wider implications. There has been a lot of really interesting media coverage of Biophilia which touches on some of the issues it raises, but what I want to do is unpack some of this in more detail, by putting it in its broader context, and by connecting the ideas to what’s going in the music. This context includes the relationship with the album genre, physical versus digital formats and implications for the music industry, changes in habits of music consumption and ways of listening to music, new kinds of music visualization (computer games, visualization of sound, interactive video), Biophilia‘s educational agenda, the potential of touchscreen technologies for music production and consumption, and what Björk’s music (its sound and meanings) have to do with this. Having worked on the project, I had unique insight into the creative process during the making of the app album, so I also want to incorporate that: it’s not often you get to read about how things get made in the music industry.

How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
ND: I love the convenience of MP3s, but I hate the “stripped down” experience. Listening to music on MP3 (from laptop, phone, tablet) is great because its so quick and easy. All my old CDs are on a server so I can listen to them anytime (not that I do, of course!), and I love streaming services, [including] YouTube and Vimeo for the same reason. But for that in-depth, immersive experience I get much more pleasure from listening with a good set of speakers or headphones, the volume up really high, and mulling over the cover art and liner notes of the physical packaging. There are some fantastic packaging designs, for example, which for me can be a really important part of the musical experience.

Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
ND: Ah, it has to be “Thunderstorm, come, scrape those barnacles off me”, from the track “Thunderbolt.” Not something one gets to say everyday! For me it encapsulates some of the things that are so distinctive in Björk’s work: The theme of human connection to the natural world, which I also find in the way she takes on the persona of natural phenomena (rocks or wood normally have barnacles on them, not people!); energy and action (it probably sounds fake or naive, but Björk and her team are some of the hardest working people I’ve met); and humor–not being afraid to laugh at oneself occasionally.
Next time: Charles Fairchild on Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. Stay tuned.

*Correction: Thanks to Dave Heaton for pointing out that this is the not the first case of an author being credited on an album in the 33 1/3 series. See LD Beghtol’s 69 Love Songs.

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