What’s That Sound? How Björk really created electricity on her song ‘Thunderbolt’
“I basically would take takes of myself and just play with Melodyne and just go nuts with it and then it definitely does something. You just do things differently you’re working with the actual performance, with the emotional ting inside it.” – Björk
The Icelandic singer-songwriter, DJ, record producer and actor Björk Guðmundsdóttir has been ruling the genre of experimental electronic music for five decades like a queen. Being an eclectic musician, she has drawn influences from genres such as classical, pop, trip-hop, curating a series of avant-garde creations. Harnessing the power of technology, Björk has been using it in a well-balanced manner, ensuring that technology is used to enhance and complement creativity and not supplement it.
Her song ‘Thunderbolt’ taken from the 2011 album Biophilia exemplifies such experimental works. With the 2008-2011 Icelandic financial crisis as a backdrop, Björk structured Biophilia as a concept album where she explores the lost links between music, nature and technology. The album bagged major critical acclaims along with the award of Best Recording Package in the 55th Grammy Awards.
The growing concern about the environment and a desire to re-connect with mother nature can be noticed in the lyrics of ‘Thunderbolt’. Björk’s wishes to be struck by a bolt of lightning or hit by crashing waves are indeed intense. In fact, the song is full of vocabulary that depicts strength, appetite, desire, craving and need — a need to be in a “universal intimacy” that is “all-embracing.”
A thunderbolt, the deadliest natural force, has a typical sound that is created by colliding ice or volcanic particles that produce electrical discharge. Interestingly, Björk has inculcated this distinct sound in the track of the song. As per Nikki Dibben, “The buzzing, booming bassline of thunderbolt is played by a Tesla coil — a type of transformer invented by the nineteenth-century physicist and pioneer of electrical engineering, Nikola Tesla.”
Explaining the arpeggio technique used by Björk, Dibben further explains: “In the app, you can make your own arpeggios of electricity by changing their speed and pitch range. In the track, the arpeggio technique is most obvious in the bassline of the chorus (‘may I, Should I, or Have I too often craving miracles’). Each time the chorus returns the notes of the bassline stay the same (it’s always the ‘home’ chord — notated in the score as a B minor) but the range of the arpeggio and its speed changes.”
The use of arpeggios in such an innovative manner is proof of Björk’s musical intelligence. The arpeggios not only contribute musically but also uplift the lyrics. The alternate pattern of quick arpeggiation and big intervals in between gives an auditory dimension to the visuals of crashing waves and fierce wind that scrape the barnacles off.
Björk’s song gains a meditative quality, sounding much like religious or prayer songs because of the parallel movements. The use of organs has enhanced that quality further. Talking about Björk’s harmonic structure, Dibben added: “A second unusual characteristic of the song’s harmonic structure is the sequence of harmonies which rise by step in each verse and help create its striving mood.” The harmonies in the song were made through a pitch altering software that created harmonies with notes next to each other, a phenomenon musically known as “cluster chords.”
Björk’s magnificent use of the tesla coil not only makes a jaw-dropping impression on the audience but also makes them appreciate the creative impulse that pushes her to “just go nuts with it.”