Experimental music, by its very nature, stays out of the mainstream. All styles of music begin as experiments, but most sooner or later, in one form or another, find their way to popular acceptance. But if one living musician personifies the intriguing borderlands between the popular and the experimental, Björk does: since at least the 1980s (and, technically, the 1970s), she has steadily put out records that constitute master classes in how to keep pushing forms forward while maintaining a wide fan base, seemingly giving the lie to John Cage’s dictum that making something 20 percent new means a loss of 80 percent of the audience.
Cage, an icon of minimalist experimental music who still caught the public ear now and again, doesn’t appear in the BBC’s Modern Minimalists [part one, part two], but only because he died in 1992, five years before it aired. But this Björk-hosted whirlwind tour through the company of a selection of innovative minimalist composers of the day actually feels, at points, a bit like Cage’s 1960 performance of Water Walk on I’ve Got a Secret: we not only hear them talk, but we hear their music, see them make it, and get an insight into the way they work and — perhaps most importantly — the way they think.
“When I was asked to do this program,” Björk says in her distinctive Icelandic inflection, “it was very important for me to introduce the people I think are changing music today.” That roster includes Alasdair Malloy from Scotland, Mika Vainio from Finland, and, most famously, Arvo Pärt from Estonia. Björk not only draws out their musical philosophies, but responds with a few of her own.
“People have moved away from plots and structures, and moved to its complete opposite, which is textures,” she says over a series of postmodern landscapes, “A place to live in, or an environment, or a stillness.” And the role of the musician in that modern reality? “To take these everyday noises that are ugly, and make them beautiful. By this, they’re doing magic.”
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.