I came out of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art after viewing the Matthew Barney Drawing Restraint exhibit and thought, “I wonder if a mutual friend of Matthew Barney’s and Björk’s went to the Icelandic diva and said ‘Björk, have I got the man for you!'” Matthew Barney is a wildly divisive figure in the art world, many seeing his work as extremely important pieces while others find him to be very self-indulgent. Björk’s later works like Medulla and recently, Volta have become more divisive albums the more she experiments with sound. Perhaps it’s Barney’s creative energy and his cowboy attitude about artistic expression that has rubbed off on Björk. The music world hasn’t seen a truly “pop” Björk album since 2001’s Vespertine (roughly around the time Bjork and Barney met) and Drawing Restraint 9 acts as a collaboration between two wildly creative forces.
It’s nearly impossible to review Drawing Restraint 9 based on the score alone. The music Björk composed is so closely tied with the images Barney created, that some of the tracks don’t stand alone as songs. That isn’t to say that this isn’t a successful soundtrack. In fact some of the best soundtracks feature songs that are forever linked to a scene in a film. The basic premise of Drawing Restraint 9 is that Björk and Matthew Barney portray the Occidental Guests who come together on the Nisshin Maru, a large Japanese whaling ship. Since there is only one scene with dialogue, the score anchors the film with emotion and tension.
“Gratitude” opens with a delicate harp and Will Oldham sings an adaptation of a letter to General Douglas MacArthur. The meaning of letter is only fully grasped if one is pretty well versed in MacArthur’s ties with Japan and the link to the whaling industry. Since I am not, I also saw the letter as further exploration of Barney’s fascination with the guest/host dichotomy. “Pearl” can be seen as an extension of Björk’s work on Medulla. The song is built around vocal noises by Tagaq, echoing the gasping of breath before going underwater. Accompanied by Mayumi Miyata playing the Sho (a traditional Japanese harmonica-like instrument), the song is haunting and creates tension for the things to come.
“Ambergris March” is not only one of my favorite tracks on the soundtrack, but also one of my favorite scenes in the film. A large piece of ambergris (a solid substance of hard-to-digest parts of food ingested by whales often used to make perfumes) is being brought onto the ship, accompanied by a procession of boys. Largely inspired by traditional Japanese music, it also harks back Björk ‘s background in electronica. Take the pitter of ticks that recall “I Miss You” from Post, and you have something that comes close here.
One of the few tracks with Björk’s vocals, “Bath” is an eerie exercise in minimalism. Björk’s voice is layered and is only accompanied by minimal “piano treatments” by Akira Rabelais. It works perfectly in the film as Björk and Barney become introduced to the unfamiliar environment of the whaling ship.
The later half of the album is probably the most exciting (which also reflects the climax of the film). “Storm” plays appropriately enough during the storm scene in the film. Utilizing the sound effects of a storm and electronic exaggerations to reflect the sound of thunder. Björk’s voice soars and she sounds like a banshee howling in the wind, echoing the sense of chaos. Like in “Bath,” the lyrics in “Storm” are not in English and there is no translation in the accompanying exhibition catalog. It’s no matter as the effect of Björk’s voice transcends translation and her emotional emphasis comes through.
“Holographic Entrypoint” is one of the more remarkable songs on the album. It’s a ten-minute song that has been translated to Noh and it’s a stunning example of how minimal arrangements can create an incredible tense environment. However, I don’t think I can quite listen to this track without thinking of the incredible climax of the film. Let’s just say: room filling with petroleum jelly, flensing knives, Björk, Matthew Barney and Shinto garb. In any case, the vocals by Shiro Nomura is really something special and the accompanying chanting and percussion by Shonosuke Okura perfectly compliment Nomura’s fascinating vocals. Though Nomura sings in Japanese, the translation is provided and the lyrics further probe into Barney’s interest in the vessel as the host and the role of the guest. “Vessel, host, occidental guests,/ Figure and field, both, carrier, carried.”
For those who have yet to see Drawing Restraint 9 or the exhibit, I can imagine how perplexing this album may be. Even for those who have viewed the film, it is an incredibly complex piece with so many stories and references coming together. As a standalone album, I’m afraid that Drawing Restraint 9 falls short from Björk’s best work because it is so closely tied with the film’s images. I can hardly imagine what someone who hasn’t seen the film would be picturing. However, as a soundtrack, I can’t imagine any other score for this film. Björk and Matthew Barney seem to be kindred spirits; two artists that are unafraid to explore their artistic vision no matter how divisive they may be.
Bjork – Medulla
Bjork – Vespertine
Stereolab – Music for the Amorphous Body Center