BJÖRK: THE MUSIC FROM DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 (2005)
1) Gratitude; 2) Pearl; 3) Ambergris March; 4) Bath; 5) Hunter Vessel; 6) Shimenawa; 7) Vessel Shimenawa; 8) Storm; 9) Holographic Entrypoint; 10) Cetacea; 11) Antarctic Return.
Although this project is quite commonly featured in Björk discographies, it should still probably count as more of a partnership-collaboration between Björk and her (unofficial) husband Matthew Barney; more than anything else, the failure of the project has probably more to do with Barney than with Björk, which is why it also makes sense to put this brief review in the footnotes section. It is indeed a soundtrack that Björk fashioned and adapted to Barney's experimental film of the same name — sub-indexed 9 because it was actually part of 16 art objects that included shorter videos, drawings, and sculptures, and were all called Drawing Restraint.
Since the film is on Youtube, I had the opportunity to skimp through some of it, and mostly it was what I expected — a surrealist-absurdist collage, loosely based around a story of whale hunting and pearl diving while heavily milking all sorts of Japanese imagery in the process; in other words, a rather typical «love-it-or-hate-it» product of the modern art era. Here, now, are a few select sonic pillars with which Björk thought it appropriate to prop up the visuals.
Number one: Björk's own singing voice, still quite fresh from the Medúlla experience and ready to contribute some more of the same discordant polyphony for anyone who asks. Best tasted on the tracks ʽBathʼ and ʽStormʼ, to a lesser extent on ʽCetaceaʼ; on the whole, though, much of the soundtrack is instrumental or features other people's voices, since obviously Björk did not want the movie to become exclusively associated with her own personality. If you loved Medúlla, you'll love these ones, too; personally, I find ʽBathʼ too ugly, but on ʽStormʼ I do admit that she gets to totally impersonate a mythological siren, so that you might find yourself plugging your ears with wax in no time (and not necessarily for the same reason that Ulysses' companions did).
Number two: lots and lots of shō playing, usually quite high-pitched, because the desired effect is not for your ears to droop and wither, but to bleed and explode. Relax — you're still better off than the hunted whales or the pearl divers. Best tasted on ʽPearlʼ (where you get a whole lot of excited sighs and whoopees, produced by supernatural little furry creatures, to go along), ʽShimenawaʼ and the closing ʽAntarctic Returnʼ. Not sure if these tracks have any value outside of the movie — not even sure if they have much value inside the movie. Then again, they are played by Mayumi Miyata, acknowledged as the world's greatest shō player and the one to successfully compose and perform contemporary classical music on it; I guess that should count as publicity. An acquired taste, nonetheless. A very stringent instrument. (The Chinese sheng, from which it is derived, actually has a slightly softer sound, but hey, we accept nothing but the extreme).
Number three: additional Japanese motives and wholesale Japanese music inclusions, best represented by ʽHolographic Entrypointʼ, which is basically just ten minutes of Japanese Noh singing as delivered by guest performer Shiro Nomura. Not sure again why you need to hear this — if you want Noh, go watch some real stuff, or, at least, train yourself to sonically difficult Japanese singing through samurai movies. I mean, Björk is a «weird» artist by Western measures, but there is nothing weird about Noh by Japanese measures, so this juxtaposition is just silly.
Other than that, Will Oldham (a.k.a. «Bonnie ʽPrinceʼ Billy») makes a guest appearance on ʽGratitudeʼ, singing in Beginner Level Björkese, and there is an interesting use of brass on several tracks (ʽHunter Vesselʼ) that recalls various similar experiments in modern and totally-modern classical music. These are just minor flourishes, though, whose main function is to raise the level of diversity on the album — after all, the movie is probably supposed to be about everything at the same time, so why should the soundtrack fall short of the visuals?
As you may have already guessed, the verdict is hardly likely to be anything other than a thumbs down. ʽBathʼ and ʽStormʼ could pass for acceptable Medúlla outtakes if you like Medúlla, but everything else feels either too un-Björkish or too toss-off-ish. If the point of the album was to raise awareness of the wonders of Japanese culture in among Björk's active fans («Björk endorses Noh!», «Björk says listening to solo shō music is good for your mind!»), then this is just a publicity stunt in the first place; if the point was something else, I am not sure why I should be forcing myself to see it, instead of spending time on something more valuable (like watching an old Mizoguchi movie, for instance). But then again, I am totally open to the idea that one listen to Drawing Restraint 9 — better still, one sitting through the movie — may be enough for a veteran whale hunter to swear off his murderous trade for ever. If sociological research confirms this, I am totally ready to change that rating: as a responsible citizen of the world, I love and respect whales, and believe that every whale killer should be forced to sit and listen to hours and hours of Noh singing until the very idea of killing a whale no longer rests in his purified mind.