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twentieth-century music 2/1, 37–51 © 2005 Cambridge University Press

doi:10.1017/S1478572205000186 Printed in the United Kingdom

Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and


Dancer in the Dark

DANIEL M. GRIMLEY

Abstract
Björk’s collaboration with the director Lars von Trier on the film Dancer in the Dark was marked by well-publicized
personal and aesthetic differences. Their work nevertheless shares an intense preoccupation with the nature and
quality of sound. Björk’s soundtrack systematically explores the boundaries between music and noise, and the title
of von Trier’s film itself presupposes a heightened attention to aural detail. This paper proposes a theoretical context
for understanding Björk’s music in the light of her work with von Trier. Whereas Björk’s soundtrack responds to the
visual and narrative stimuli of von Trier’s film, the use of sound in her album Vespertine thematicizes more familiar
Björk subjects: the relationship between music, landscape and the natural world, and Björk’s own (constructed)
sense of Nordic musical identity. By placing Vespertine alongside Björk’s music for Dancer in the Dark, the sense of
‘hyperreality’ that defines both also emerges as a primary characteristic of her work.

Björk’s stormy collaboration with the Danish film director Lars von Trier on the production
of the movie Dancer in the Dark received a good deal of media attention at the time of
its general release in August 2000. Björk refused to appear in the awards ceremony at the
Cannes Festival, where the film was awarded the Palme d’or, objecting to the way in which her
music had been edited for use in the film apparently without her consultation. She later
claimed to have felt emotionally and physically traumatized by the experience of working
intensively with von Trier on the film set. At the same time, wild rumours circulated about
Björk’s behaviour during the filming process, including stories that she had vandalized
(partially eaten) costumes, that she had abandoned the set midway through production in
Copenhagen, and that she had returned to the filming process only after negotiation with the
director.1 These, and other lurid stories, have reinforced the ‘mad woman’ image commonly
associated with Björk in the popular press. Despite such well-publicized personal and
aesthetic differences, however, Dancer in the Dark reveals that Björk and von Trier shared an
intense preoccupation with the nature and quality of sound and its role in cinema. This paper
begins by considering what the implications of their collaboration might be for a critical
understanding of Björk’s solo music, before proceeding to a more detailed analysis of one of
the tracks from Björk’s album Vespertine.
Von Trier described the style of the music in the film as a ‘collision’ between himself
and Björk.2 Björk’s soundtrack, subsequently released in revised form as the solo album

1 For von Trier’s side of the story, see Leigh, ‘The Lars Picture Show’.
2 ‘Interview with Lars von Trier’, FilmFour Screenplay: Dancer in the Dark viii.

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38 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

SelmaSongs,3 systematically explores the boundaries between music and noise. Similarly, the
title of von Trier’s film itself presupposes a heightened attention to aural, as opposed to
visual, detail: the idea of the dancer moving in darkness (most obviously a reference to
Selma’s blindness in the film) implies an intensified awareness of non-visual modes of
perception, especially sound and motion. The audio-visual imagination in Björk’s music for
von Trier’s film offers a potentially fruitful interpretative perspective on Björk’s solo album,
Vespertine. But Vespertine, through its construction of an idealized Nordic soundscape in
purely acoustic terms, inverts the relationship between the aural and the visual explored in
Dancer in the Dark. Björk’s work for both projects articulates its own imagined sense of
Nordic identity, which in turn supports an intensely creative approach to musical sound.
Furthermore, by breaking down the barriers between sound object and visual image, Björk
explores the way in which audiences (as listeners and viewers) construct their own sense of
reality. Ultimately, this process collapses or implodes any stable sense of representation. The
audio-visual imagination at work in both Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark creates a state of
what Jean Baudrillard has called hyper-reality, the result of a process of simulation that
‘envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum’.4 Attempts to analyse
Björk’s music from this starting point therefore begin to engage deeper questions about the
nature of listening itself.
The most striking cinematic feature of Dancer in the Dark is its multi-generic character.
Von Trier combines a documentary home-video style, with its associations of simplicity,
domesticity and naturalness, with the intricate, highly stylized (‘artificial’) choreography of a
thirties Hollywood musical using contemporary (post-Madonna) pop-video techniques.
Von Trier described the movie as ‘put together from two ‘‘shapes’’: the musical scenes and
some almost documentary scenes’, and claimed that his intention was not to ‘subvert
or destroy anything’, but rather to ‘make it richer by somehow importing true emotion’
(my italics).5 Rather than trying to synthesize these disparate elements, von Trier’s film
energetically seeks to exploit the disjunctions between them, so that the whole film is
characterized by a nervous edginess. Consequently, the movie does not entirely follow a
straightforward linear sense of narrative progression, even as the plot unfolds over the course
of the picture. Von Trier’s cinematography creates various frames of reference, or levels of
cinematic reality, which Björk’s individual musical numbers both reinforce and deconstruct:
from the musical rehearsal scenes at the start of the movie (which begin disturbingly in media
res) to the stylized Gothic symbolism of the final walk to the execution chamber, or from the
gruesome reportage of the murder to the Ophelia-esque dream sequence which immediately
follows.

3 Björk conceived of the album as a ‘gift’ to Selma, suggesting a sense of personal distance between the film character and
her music. Consequently, the album has a lighter tone than the film soundtrack, and some of the darker moments
from the movie (for example, Selma’s countdown as she walks to her execution) are omitted from the album. I am
grateful to Greg Hainge for highlighting this distinction.
4 ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, 166–184 (170). Reference cited in
Dibben, ‘Pulp, Pornography and Spectatorship: Subject Matter and Historical Position in Pulp’s This is Hardcore’.
5 ‘Interview with Lars von Trier’, vi.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 39

As a founding member of the alternative Danish film group Dogme 95, von Trier’s work is
committed to a rejection of the aesthetic agenda of mainstream Hollywood cinema. As stated
in their manifesto,6 Dogme films strive to recover a sense of naturalness and immediacy,
characterized by the use of natural lighting, the avoidance of post-production studio editing,
and the preference for ambient rather than internal (off-screen) sound. Dancer in the Dark
violates many of the tenets of orthodox Dogme cinematic practice, especially through the
highly synthetic artificiality of the music-video sequences. But it nevertheless remains highly
sympathetic to the movement’s principal aesthetic aims, principally its search for a (highly
subjective) authenticity of utterance or expression.
A theoretical model for understanding the use of music in Dancer in the Dark, and an
approach which offers interesting perspectives on Björk’s attitude to sound in her own free
compositions, can be found in Michel Chion’s influential book, Audio-Vision. Chion’s work
is motivated by the argument that film criticism has tended to privilege visual modes of
perception over the aural, so that ‘in continuing to say that we ‘‘see’’ a film or a television
programme, we persist in ignoring how the soundtrack has modified perception’.7 The
pronounced bias of recent film criticism, he suggests, is not purely a question of terminology
but has detracted from the true function and significance of sound in cinema. In part,
Chion’s work can be read as a critique of the mainstream Hollywood repertoire. According to
Chion, the current aesthetic ideology is to work towards a smooth mixing of sound and
image so as to create the effect of a seamless continuity. Hence, as Claudia Gorbman has
argued,8 Hollywood cinema seeks to reduce sound to a purely supportive role: nothing is
permitted to violate the primacy of the visual message.
The cornerstone of Chion’s theoretical approach is the notion of synchresis, the ‘spon-
taneous and irresistible mental fusion, completely free of any logic, that happens between a
sound and a visual [image] when these occur at the same time’.9 Chion’s work thus draws
attention to the primary importance of sound in our perception of cinema, an inversion of
the conventional relationship between sound and the visual image that von Trier’s rejection
of Hollywood practice also vividly acknowledges. But Chion’s work goes further, to argue
that, through the process of acousmatic listening – the perception of a sound without
perceiving its cause or source of origin – sound can be allowed to ‘reveal itself in all its
dimensions’. In other words, Chion suggests that the study of sound in cinema can promote
a deeper engagement with the acoustic qualities of the sound object itself. At the same time,
his argument would also suggest that our perception of sound can possess a specifically visual
dimension: music is capable of implying particular visual images to a listener, through
associative processes that may or may not be conscious, just as images can imply certain kinds
of sounds within the imagination of a contemporary cinema audience. Chion explains this

6 The manifesto was published as a ‘vow of chastity’ online at http://www.dogme95.dk/, signed by von Trier and fellow
director Thomas Vinterberg, dated Copenhagen 13 March 1995.
7 Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Walter Murch and Claudia Gorbman, xxvi.
8 Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music.
9 Murch, Preface in Chion, Audio-Vision, xviii.
40 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

phenomenon partly through the concept of ‘added value’, namely the use of sounds whose
presence serves to intensify the sense of visual perception. Chion writes:

By added value I mean the expressive and informative value with which a sound
enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression, in the immediate
or remembered experience one has of it, that this information or expression
‘naturally’ comes from what is seen, and is already contained in the image itself.
Added value is what gives the (eminently incorrect) impression that sound is
unnecessary, that sound merely duplicates a meaning which in reality it brings
about, either all on its own or by discrepancies between it and the image.10

It is not difficult to imagine similar cases where a particular visual image works in a similar
way, to enrich a given sound object so as to heighten and naturalise our auditory perception.
(One might think of the sight of waves drawing back pebbles on a beach.) Like any
soundtrack, Björk’s music is thus potentially capable of assuming its own visual character,
both in perceptual and affective terms, independent of its use in von Trier’s film.
But Björk’s soundtrack in Dancer in the Dark also reinforces and deepens the naturalism
(or ‘emotional truth’) that von Trier’s cinematography seeks to create. Music might normally
be expected to cover the points of disjunction, juxtaposition or divergence that fracture the
film’s visual narrative, providing the impression of a seamless continuity or logical sequence
of events through what Chion calls ‘linear temporalisation’.11 In Dancer in the Dark, how-
ever, there is no off-screen sound (pit music); rather, the soundtrack consists largely of
speaking voices (in deliberately fragmentary dialogue), ambient sounds or noises such as
traffic, machinery, footsteps and other incidental sounds. There are, in fact, three marked
points of diegetic music within the film, which serve to emphasise the movie’s apparent
realism: the musical rehearsals (pointedly, of The Sound of Music), which are presented as
highly artificialized and ‘staged’; the gramophone player at Bill’s house; and the movie
soundtrack when Cathy and Selma visit the pictures. The ‘naturalness’ of such diegetic
sounds is also underlined by brief points of dialogue, such as Jeff ’s comment on musicals ‘I
just don’t like it when they get up and dance; I mean, I don’t suddenly start to sing and dance.’
Significantly, however, the film begins with ‘absolute music’: Björk’s ‘Overture’ is presented
as a ‘title sequence’ without titles. The expected opening credits are replaced with a series
of slowly mutating abstract colours and shapes on screen, a non-representational visual
sequence that responds to a particular musical semiotic. The timbral and intervallic
characteristics of the brass writing in Björk’s ‘Overture’ inevitably recall the openings of
nineteenth-century Romantic works such as Wagner’s Das Rheingold, gestures convention-
ally associated with the musical depiction of sunrise, birth and the natural world.12 The
‘Overture’ thus serves a dual expressive and syntactical function, heralding the opening of the

10 Chion, Audio-Vision, 5.
11 Chion, Audio-Vision, 17–8.
12 The musical signifiers include fanfare motifs, prominent fourths and fifths, horn or trombone figures and simple
diatonic harmony. For a discussion of their use in a Western classical context in which representations of landscape
function as a strong symbolic layer, see Hepokoski, Sibelius: Symphony no. 5, 62.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 41

movie (in consciously opera-cinematic terms), and asserting the primacy of the sound object
over the visual.
With the exception of the ‘Overture’ (and its reprise at the end of the film), each of the
musical cues in Dancer in the Dark take their starting point from a mechanical sound within
the film’s diegetic space. The second cue, ‘Cvalda’, opens with the sound of machinery in
Selma’s factory. At first, the cue is characterized as ‘noise’: a series of sound events with
unclearly defined spectral profiles (little more than a distantly heard series of rough clicks,
whirrs and scrapes) that occur in regular (but not apparently periodic) rhythmic fashion. The
cue quickly becomes ordered in a more identifiably ‘musical’ manner: the sound events
become more focused and are suddenly articulated in a periodic rhythmic pattern (the
diminution coincides with a new shot that cuts to another part of the factory, and brings a
concurrent shift in cinematic technique to the more ‘artificial’ video-based style). Selma’s
lyrics, which pre-empt the entry of any pitch-based musical material, are initially mimetic,
little more than meaningless syllables exploited for their sound colour, before becoming
‘real’ words with semantic content. The pitched music begins with a circular whole-tone
figure based on C, traditionally the scale of enchantment or magic in nineteenth-century
music. This reference to a conventional musical genre underpins the way in which the
audience is drawn into Selma’s fictional imaginary world: the sequence becomes, in effect, a
new kind of cinematic reality, in opposition to the documentary footage which preceded it,
entirely self-enclosed and independent. The orchestration – heavily synthesized swooping
strings, bright tinkly percussion (glockenspiel and celesta) and rapid flute glissandos, all
instrumental signifiers of the exotic – intensifies the ‘magical’ effect.13 By the refrain,
the music has become a big-band number in the style of the 1950s, characterized by extreme
(mechanical) musical and choreographic precision, but, in sharp contrast with the
opening, the re-entry into the film’s prevailing documentary mode at the end of the cue is
deliberately violent and disorientating. The effect is of a sudden loss of colour and vibrancy.
Consequently, Selma’s imagined musical world seems more vivid and immediate than the
music-less ‘real world’ of the characters around her. Ultimately, the disruptive effect of
Björk’s music here signifies not so much a magic realism, as the musical topics initially seem
to suggest, but a heightened or intensified perceptual awareness.
The most disturbing, and arguably significant, passage in von Trier’s film, from
the perspective of Björk’s soundtrack, centres on the symbolism of the final sequence.
Controversially, Selma’s execution is enacted with an obsessive, relentless attention to detail.
But her death can also be read as a performative act or allegory. As she is strapped within a
straitjacket, Selma’s character becomes reduced simply to her singing voice: in effect, an
essentialization of the female body as vocal object (again, a familiar nineteenth-century
operatic trope).14 The dramatic irony is that the hood she is forced to wear impedes her

13 On enchantment and the exotic in nineteenth-century opera, see for example, Taruskin, ‘Chernomor to Kashchei:
Harmonic Sorcery; or, Stravinsky’s ‘‘Angle’’ ’, especially 86, which discusses the symbolism of whole-tone scales; and
Locke, ‘Constructing the Oriental ‘‘Other’’: Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila’, especially 267–7.
14 Compare, for example, Clément’s discussion of the symbolic role and fate of operatic heroines in her Opera, or the
Undoing of Women.
42 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

breathing (and hence her singing) but not her vision, which she has already lost through
blindness, and that the platform on which her final performance takes place is a scaffold,
rather than a musical stage. Selma’s life is literally cut down in mid-verse and, as her body
hangs from the rope, the court officials solemnly draw curtains across the chamber in
theatrical fashion to signal closure. The reprise of the ‘Overture’ (‘New World’) as the credits
roll therefore seems ambiguous. On its return, the overture’s ‘absolute music’ is ‘vocalized’.
Our attention is drawn to the sound of Selma’s voice, absent from the very beginning of the
film and whose death we have just witnessed at the end of the movie’s narrative. The voice is
thus, literally and figuratively, disembodied. In the context of the closing scene’s obvious
crucifixion imagery, it might be tempting to hear this ‘disembodied return’ as a gesture of
transfiguration or rebirth (such a reading also seems congruent with the topical ‘sunrise’
associations of the brass writing outlined above). But from the perspective of Björk’s
soundtrack, and the role it performs within the movie, it is equally possible to hear the final
number as an apotheosis of music’s acousmatic identity and of its affective power within the
film. Even as the cinematic character dies, the sound of her voice is left singing.
Such a reading also offers a vital perspective on the music of Björk’s next solo album,
Vespertine. In the remainder of this essay, I shall examine how Björk’s cinematic musical
imagination pervades tracks from this album. Whereas in Dancer in the Dark Björk’s
soundtrack works in parallel (and at times ‘collides’) with von Trier’s visual narrative,
Vespertine thematicizes more familiar Björk subjects: specifically, the relationship between
music, landscape and the natural world; and Björk’s own (constructed) sense of Nordic
musical identity.
Vespertine, released in August 2001 exactly twelve months after Dancer in the Dark, is
characterized by a marked change of tone from Björk’s earlier solo albums. Indeed, if one
were seeking to construct a Björk meta-work, the light, relatively optimistic mood of
Vespertine could be heard as the complementary opposite of the darker, post-industrial
music that dominated her previous solo album, Homogenic (1999). Rolling Stone, for
example, praised ‘the physical electricity of Björk’s voice’, and described her singing presence
on Vespertine as ‘like an arrested schoolgirl, a vocal rainbow of fragile chirp, pleading falsetto
and jubilant shriek’,15 reinvoking the problematic child-woman trope that, as Morten
Michelsen observes, has surrounded Björk’s work ever since it first attracted popular critical
attention.16 But in Vespertine, the review also sensed a new feeling of depth: ‘she now whoops
and coos with the poise of an innocent primed by experience, a wise spirit with a
juvenile glow. At the age of thirty-five Björk sounds like she is eleven – going on infinity.’
Similarly, Björk herself reportedly described the interplay between the various instrumental
and electronic ensembles used on the album as a form of ‘modern chamber music’,17
implicitly appropriating notions of conversational dialogue, intimacy, maturity and high-art
seriousness more conventionally associated with the classical repertoire. Indeed, perceived
qualities of lightness and art-house sobriety have also been present in Björk’s earlier cross-

15 Review by Fricke, Rolling Stone 877.


16 Michelsen, ‘Elvermusik? En analyse af Björk’s Hyper-ballad’, 69. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
17 Review by McCormick in The Guardian, August 2001.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 43

over work with groups such as the Brodsky Quartet. In an interview in the Danish popular
music magazine Gaffa, Björk suggested that:

It was the first winter I was in Iceland – from August 1999 to May 2000 – that I
experienced the New Year, because I had been on tour non-stop ever since I was
a teenager and hadn’t stayed in the same place for longer than six weeks at a time.
So the album has a nostalgic feel about it: childhood memories and winter, sitting
indoors with a warm cup of cocoa and it snowing outside, and your best friend
coming round to visit.18

The elements in what Michelsen calls the ‘semantic field’ that define the reception of
Vespertine are relatively constant: a strong sense of place, linked to Björk’s construction of her
own Icelandic musical identity (a problematic concept engaged with in more detail below),
coupled with a sense of retrospection, inwardness, and the feeling of domestic contentment
that stands in marked contrast to Björk’s earlier work. The precise musical realisation of these
ideas, however, demands more substantial commentary.
Denis Smalley’s model of electroacoustic music provides a useful tool for understanding
Vespertine from an analytical perspective that focuses attention on the listener’s perception of
Björk’s music rather than on a possibly spurious notion of authorial intention.19 Such an
approach, I would contend, is particularly suited to popular music, though it is equally
relevant for other musical practices as well.20 For Smalley, listening to music is an intentional
act, which involves the conscious apprehension of sound. Listening is therefore distinguished
from merely ‘hearing’, which is involuntary or passive.21 Synthesizing the theoretical
approaches of Pierre Schaeffer and Ernest Schachtel, Smalley proposes a series of indicative
fields, which describe the range of musical signals received and understood by the
listener. Smalley’s list of categories includes three ‘archetypal’ fields: gesture, utterance and
behaviour. Like Björk’s previous albums, Vespertine certainly engages with these three
archetypal fields: the individual timbral quality of Björk’s singing voice as utterance, for
example, generates much of the music’s affective power.22 But Vespertine is especially rich in

18 ‘Det var den første vinter, jeg var i Island – fra august 1999 til maj 2000 – at jeg oplevede årstidernes skiften, fordi jeg
har været på turné uden stop, siden jeg var teenager, og ikke har været det samme sted mere end seks uger ved gangen.
Så albummet har bestemt en nostalgisk fornemmelse over sig: barndomsminder og vinter, at sidde inden døre med
en varm kop kakoa, og det sner udenfor, og din bedste ven er lige kommet på besøg.’ Interview with Peter Ramsdal,
Gaffa (August 2001), pp. 17–20.
19 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination: Listening in the Electroacoustic Era’. I am grateful to Ingrid Sykes for bringing
Smalley’s work to my attention.
20 This is because the model relies on a listener-oriented approach rather than one that treats the written score as text,
as is the case with much conventional analytical work in the classical repertoire. Smalley’s model obviously has great
potential for comparative ethnomusicological work, but in its attention to music as a performance event it offers
powerful opportunities for the analysis of all musics.
21 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination’, 515.
22 For a complementary model of music as gesture which is strongly listener-oriented, see Cumming, ‘The Subjectivities
of ‘‘Erbarme Dich’’ ’. Cumming writes (15): ‘Some aspects of intangibility may be seen to open up a space for the
listener which need not be threatening, but welcome, as the means by which he or she can become identified with
musical events. Because there is a space behind the question ‘‘Who is it that speaks?’’ – a lack of any possible concrete
answer – the listener may imaginatively place him- or herself in that position, becoming identified with the music’s
enunciation.’ I am grateful to Robert Adlington for directing me to this article.
44 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

musical signals that correspond to the visual field. As Smalley maintains, ‘music, and
electroacoustic music in particular, is not a purely auditory art but a more integrated,
audio-visual art, albeit that the visual aspect is frequently invisible’.23 Smalley’s model thus
supports the idea, proposed by Chion, that attention to the correlation between visual and
auditory modes of perception can promote a deeper understanding and appreciation of
actual sound events. Smalley defines the vision field as one that ‘embraces both kinetic and
static phenomena. For example, the textural design of textiles or rock formations could easily
form part of a listener’s indicative reference-bank.’24 It defines musical events whose timbral
(or spectromorphological, to use Smalley’s term) profile carries strong associative links with
particular visual images (whose qualities include shape, colour, texture, depth or lines of
perspective), and maintains that such links are a meaningful part of the way in which we
listen to music: a form of ‘added value’ similar to that proposed by Chion. In Dancer in the
Dark, these audio-visual signals are a central aspect of the music’s cinematic character, and
form a counterpoint with the purely visual images in von Trier’s film.25 In Vespertine,
however, they are particularly associated with the representation of landscape.
In some musical works, such as Sibelius tone poems, landscape can be represented
through the large-scale organization of structural events, creating lines of perspective that
correspond to the perception of landscape in visual space.26 In Vespertine, however, the
representation of landscape relies more upon the complex layering of textures whose timbral
character suggest a particular affective quality. These will be examined here through a
discussion of the album’s first track, ‘Hidden Place’, whose title alone (when emphasis is
placed on the second rather than first word) suggests a strong sense of spatial identity. The
significance of this sense of ‘spaciousness’ will be discussed below.
Formally, ‘Hidden Place’ is a regular verse-refrain-bridge structure, whose phrases
are built exclusively from simple four-bar blocks (Example 1). As in much popular music,
the relationship between verse and refrain is principally one of timbral and registral
intensification rather than contrast (many of Björk’s simpler strophic songs tend towards
this homogenous model). In the context of Vespertine, however, such a fixed, symmetrical
formal structure is relatively unusual. The shape of ‘An echo. A stain’, for example, is
accumulative while simultaneously sounding as though the song is constantly falling apart.
The texture in the later song is dominated by a series of sharp blocks of sound that grow in
intensity before suddenly being cut off, and the whole track finishes as Björk sings the word
‘complete’. Tonally, ‘Hidden Place’ operates strictly within a D-dorian modal domain, which
sounds more folk-inspired than bluesy or jazzy in effect. This distinctive modal colouring in
turn supports one of the track’s principal themes, namely the music’s sense of archaism. The
structural design of the melody is indicated in Example 2: each verse consists of two basic
pitch collections, an opening descent from e1–a, followed by a raised circular figure based on

23 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination’, 530.


24 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination’, 530.
25 See Chion, Audio-Vision, 32, for a definition of ‘audiovisual counterpoint’.
26 Grimley, ‘Landscape, Genre and Structural Perspective: the Tone Poems’, especially 106–10.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 45

Basic formal scheme

Example 1 Björk: ‘Hidden Place’ from Vespertine (2001).

f1–c1–d1. The refrain is characterized by a wider registral span, based on the following
patterns: an upper collection based on a1–d1, and a complementary lower collection based on
e1–a.
Despite this strong sense of pitch organization, however, the most important parameters
in ‘Hidden Place’ are timbrally defined rather than pitch-based. The track opens abruptly,
with a scratchy vinyl quality that adds a particular cutting edge or grain to the ambient sound.
Throughout Vespertine, especially in later songs such as ‘Pagan Poetry’, upper partials
are often excessively emphasised within the general sound-field, deliberately to create a
distinctive ‘tissue-paper’ crackle as the sound distorts. This is in sharp contrast to the sound
of Björk’s voice, which is almost always presented with near-perfect digital clarity though
slightly over-miked (producing a breathy, intimate effect that is characteristic of Björk’s

Example 2 Björk: ‘Hidden Place’ (Vespertine), melodic structure. © Words and Music by Mark Bell,
Guy Sigsworth and Björk Gudmundsdottir. Universal Music Publishing (87.5%).
46 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

Example 3 Hidden Place: timbral components. © Words and Music by Mark Bell,Guy Sigsworth and
Björk Gudmundsdottir. Universal Music Publishing (87.5%).

work beyond Vespertine). As in much of Björk’s music for Dancer in the Dark, there is little
attempt to smooth the edges between different timbral layers: the effect is rather of a series of
jagged, sharp musical lines with sudden, sometimes violent breaks in continuity that fissure
the music’s surface.
Four spectromorphological components (or, to borrow Philip Tagg’s terminology,
‘musemes’)27 are introduced at the start of the track (Example 3). The voice, which enters
after the four-bar intro, provides a point of orientation and unity, and is strongly fore-
grounded. As Smalley suggests, when listening to a recording the entry of the voice is a
powerfully stabilizing gesture:

The moment a voice is perceived in a sounding context the listener’s ear is drawn
to it and interpretation shifts to focus on the unseen human presence, trying to
decode the meaning of its utterances and the relationship of the person to the
sounding environment. Thus a musical context prior to the vocal entry may have
27 See, for example, Tagg, ‘Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice’.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 47

had quite a different indicative perspective: a human presence where previously


there was none changes everything.28

Smalley’s description highlights the way in which, when listening to a recorded performance,
the sound of the voice is experienced as an absence, as the trace of an ‘unseen human
presence’ whose identity we seek to uncover. As Roland Barthes observes in ‘The Grain of the
Voice’, in a live performance this effect is enhanced, as the sounding body of the performer
itself becomes a textual act.29 For the listener unattuned to the individual ‘grain’ of Björk’s
voice, the opening entry is a key moment in their perception of the song. The voice is
therefore placed in the foreground both literally (in the engineered balance of the recording),
and figuratively (as the focal point for our listening attention). The two ‘middleground’30
components at the start of ‘Hidden Place’ are the synthesized electronic ostinato, which
provides a neutral (i.e. unvarying) pitch element, and the percussion track, which acts not
only as the principal point of rhythmic interest but also serves a generative developmental
purpose as the song progresses. The only points at which these two components cease are at
the beginning of the third verse, after the second extended bridge passage, and in the final
fade-out at the end of the coda. The percussion track itself consists of two distinct layers: an
extremely deep bass beat with heavy reverb, a familiar drum’n’bass sound but used here
possibly to suggest heart beats or other interiorized noise to strengthen the music’s sense of
intimacy; and a lighter electronic drum riff, closer to the sound of small stones being rapped
together. The ‘background’ component is a simple held synth chord (a second-inversion D
minor triad), which provides a sense of tonal context for the music. Importantly, however,
the music lacks a regular bass until the refrain (where the bass moves in repeated four-bar
units at a much slower speed than the upper parts). In the initial absence of any identifiable
harmonic rhythm, the overall effect is polymetric: a static or slow-moving basic metrical
pulse juxtaposed against a rapid rate of busy surface figuration, over which Björk’s vocal line
is thrown with a relatively free sense of rhythmic shape.
Aside from Björk’s own voice, the most striking audio-visual component in ‘Hidden
Place’ is the female Inuit choir, first heard in the seventh bar of the first verse. The choir’s
sound is combined with a synthesized string orchestral backing as part of the timbral
intensification in the refrain, but is heard in its ‘purest’ form in the coda, so that it brings the
whole track to a close. The choir subsequently plays an important role in selected other tracks
on the album, ‘It’s not up to you’, ‘Undo’, ‘An echo. A stain’, and the two final numbers,
‘Harm of will’ and ‘Unison’. In a conventional popular idiom, the presence of a backing
group is intended to support or form an antiphonal dialogue with the lead singer(s).
In Vespertine, the Inuit choir is usually more passive or ambient rather than actively
participatory. But, as we shall see, the choir is nevertheless closely connected with the music’s

28 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination’, 541.


29 Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’.
30 ‘Middleground’, ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ are not being used here in any Schenkerian hierarchical sense, but to
describe their relative spatial relationship within the listener’s auditory field. The intention is to indicate the listener’s
sense of timbral perspective within the soundscape.
48 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

sense of authentic expression, and for the listener it is a crucial component of the album’s
prevailing hyperreality.
In its most basic form, this sense of Vespertine’s hyper-realism might be attributed to its
apparently autobiographical character. Björk’s album thus forms part of an established
repertoire of work by ‘confessional singer-songwriters’, largely though not exclusively female
artists, that constitutes one of the most substantial critical topics in the popular music
tradition. This interpretation is supported by the prevailing reception of Vespertine. Björk’s
discussion of childhood memories of winter in Iceland, for example, have invariably been
understood as referring specifically to her own, even though her interview in Gaffa is careful
to distinguish between actual events (New Year 1999–2000) and associated feelings of
nostalgia that are less historically specific. Similarly, the lyrics of many of the tracks on
Vespertine, and the album’s markedly softer, lighter and more serious tone, have often been
assumed to refer to Björk’s relocation to New York. Neil McCormick concludes that, ‘like
Kate Bush before her, [Björk] does not so much defy musical convention as subvert it to the
needs of her imagination and emotions, creating music that operates as a kind of psychology
of her interior world’.31 Eventually, however, such readings become excessively narrow, and
subscribe to a tired notion of pop divahood that relies on an autobiographical definition
of authentic musical expression without acknowledging the ways in which biography is
ultimately only another form of critical text.
If the autobiographical reading of Björk’s work therefore seems unacceptably restrictive,
Allan F. Moore’s notion of authenticity as a sense of place, or ‘centredness’, is more useful.32
It is Vespertine’s representation of landscape that is its most ‘authentic’ mode of expression,
and not its supposedly autobiographical content. The landscape evoked by ‘Hidden Place’ is
characterized by the rough, jagged quality of its spectromorphological components, readily
suggestive of a rugged, hostile Nordic environment. This image is reinforced by the sampling,
at the start of ‘Aurora’, of what sounds like the icy crunch of boots walking on snow, and by
references in Björk’s lyrics to quintessentially Nordic features of the natural world such as
glaciers. The music is also distinguished by its evocation of open space. As Moore has
suggested, this sense of ‘spaciousness’ in popular music, most powerfully presented as a
rejection of or escape from modern urban society, can be created through a number of
specific musical devices, including the use of a wide but sparsely filled registral space, a high
degree of electronic reverberation, the apparent lack of musical movement so as to suggest an
unchanging continuity, and the divergence between fast, intricate surface movement and a
slow underlying rate of harmonic change.33 ‘Hidden Place’, as analysis has shown, exploits all
of these devices in its evocation of Nordic landscape, albeit one that is interiorized (and
self-consciously imaginary). The intensification of the refrain can be heard as an exoticized
retreat from the ‘cold reality’ of the verse (which nevertheless remains detectable throughout
the whole track). Furthermore, the apparent disjunction between the closeness of Björk’s

31 McCormick, review.
32 Moore, ‘In a Big Country: the Portrayal of Wide Open Spaces in the Music of Big Country’ and ‘U2 and the Myth of
Authenticity in Rock’.
33 Moore, ‘U2 and the Myth of Authenticity in Rock’, 20–21.
Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark 49

singing voice, the apparently autobiographical domesticity that the album has often sug-
gested, and the sense of vastness evoked by the various timbral layers within the general
sound-field, ultimately reinforce the music’s spatial dimension. Smalley writes that ‘the
opposition between intimacy and immensity, or, to express it slightly differently, confine-
ment and vastness, is the most important indicative property of musical space’.34 For
Smalley, ‘this opposition is fundamental to human experience’, and arguably, it is the
primary structural dynamic that motivates Björk’s work on Vespertine.
In this context, of an ‘authentic’ musical expression as the evocation of a particular sense
of location or space, the presence of the Inuit choir in ‘Hidden Place’ appears all the more
significant. Their purpose is partly to ‘sacralize’ Björk’s musical discourse. Together with
Zeena Parkins’ harp playing and the musical box that are prominent on later tracks, the Inuit
choir forms a celestial ensemble, defined in terms of its high tessitura and bright timbral
character. The relative absence of deep, low bass sonorities that characterizes much of
Vespertine (particularly in relation to Björk’s earlier work) enhances the choir’s symbolically
angelic effect. But the choir also serves to ‘authenticate’ the sense of location or centredness
that Björk constructs. In live performance on stage, the choir is a striking visual component.
Its presence underlines the fact that Björk’s ‘Nordic-ness’ does not, in fact, rely on a
specifically Icelandic identity (in this sense, the choir is arguably ‘inauthentic’). Rather, the
choir contributes to the construction of a musical sense of place based on the more general
notion of a Northern ‘otherness’, an imaginary Arctic sonic realm characterized by the
evocation of wide, distant musical spaces, and by a vivid intensity and clarity of timbre.
Even at its most ‘authentic’, however, the musical identity revealed in ‘Hidden Place’ is a
fictive, imaginary one. Like Björk’s music for Dancer in the Dark, its intense evocation of an
alternative musical landscape threatens to collapse the distinction between subject and
object, and the real and the represented, simply to a play of signifiers. Hence, the track can be
heard more broadly as invitation to involve oneself in a private audio-visual subjectivity: the
‘hidden place’ becomes a reference to a site of pure sonic contemplation that no longer
signifies anything beyond itself. Björk’s work encourages this abstract immersion in an inner
acousmatic environment through a heightened form of what Chion (after Schaeffer) calls
‘reduced listening’, a mode that ‘focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its
cause and of its meaning’. For Chion, such listening is a privileged category, since its richness
of response is such that ‘the descriptive inventory of a sound cannot be compiled in a single
hearing’.35 But it is tempting, from a postmodern perspective, to regard such immersion as a
negation of all meaning or the possibility of representation. Thus, the lyrics which end
‘Hidden Place’ – ‘Can I hide there too?/ Hide in the hair of him/ Seek solice [sic]/
Sanctuary/In that Hidden Place . . .’ – assume a nihilist quality, intensified by the album’s
retrospective (child-like) mood. For Baudrillard,

When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.
There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality of second-hand

34 Smalley, ‘The Listening Imagination’, 532.


35 Chion, Audio-Vision, 29–30.
50 Grimley Hidden Places: Hyper-realism in Björk’s Vespertine and Dancer in the Dark

truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived
experience, a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have
disappeared.36

This emptiness fatally flaws, perhaps, the cinegraphic realism that underpins Dancer in the
Dark, its claim to emotional depth undermined by its postmodern status. As Baudrillard
suggests, in such forms of communication ‘there is no longer any transcendence or depth,
but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface
of communication’.37 Hence, despite the film’s subject matter, for some critics the final
response after watching Dancer in the Dark was one of emotional disengagement.38 But in
Vespertine, the audio-visual imagination is liberated, and Björk’s music can be celebrated
positively for its challenging and innovative approach to timbre and its exploitation of the
resources offered by electroacoustic technology. The sense of hyper-reality that pervades
the imaginative musical landscape constructed in ‘Hidden Place’ reveals Björk’s own spirit
of original musical creativity, and offers the prospect of a richer and more satisfying
engagement with Björk’s work.

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