The Aussie who scored a spot on Björk’s Utopia
Björk’s latest album Utopia is a collaboration between the Icelandic artist and Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi, also known as Arca. All of the 14 album tracks are credited solely to Björk and Ghersi, with one exception: the track ‘Features Creatures’ has a writing credit for Australian artist Sarah Hopkins.
Hopkins is a Queensland-based composer-performer, most well known for her work Past Life Melodies. It holds the honour of being the most performed Australian choral work in the world, and uses vocal techniques not traditionally found in Western choral music, such as harmonic overtones, Indigenous chants and throat singing.
Given Björk’s back catalogue, this reads like an inspired artistic match, but it is an entirely different component of Hopkins’ work that can be found on Utopia – a unique and bizarre instrument called the harmonic whirly.
Made from corrugated plastic tubing of various lengths, the harmonic whirly produces a series of celestial harmonic tones when spun above the head at different speeds. Created by Sarah in 1981, they are designed as instruments of “sonic play” rather than technical precision.
“Part of my passion for creating the harmonic whirlies was to make instruments that absolutely anyone could play," Sarah says. “You don’t need any musical experience, and you can immediately create beautiful melodies. You can’t play out of tune, you can’t make a mistake – it’s very liberating.”
A work recorded by Sarah for harmonic whirly, titled ‘Kindred Spirits’, made it onto a compilation album titled Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones, a collection of music made by unusual instruments. It featured artists such as Hans Reichel, who designed small polished wooden sculptures that he played with a violin bow; Wendy Mae Chambers, who performed 'New York New York' using car horns; and Michel Moglia, whose giant steel organ was played by billowing fire.
In 1996, a copy of the album made its way into the hands of Björk, and she’s been playing it ever since. “It was my favourite album,“ Björk says. “I used to listen to it all of the time.”
“I have billions on songs on various playlists,” she notes, “and as the years pass by, I get bored of some songs, and they fall out of my playlist. ‘Kindred Spirits’ is one song that, 20 years later, is still in my playlist and I just do not get bored of it. Every time I play it to friends, their hairs stand up and they look at me and they say ‘what is this?’”
Many more people around the world may well now have the same experience, as Björk has included signature components of ‘Kindred Spirits’ within ‘Features Creatures’ on Utopia.
As an artist whose work is profoundly connected with nature, Björk has described her previous work, Vulnicura (documenting the end of her marriage to artist Matthew Barney) as being a heavy element, “like rocks”. For Utopia, she wanted to take the opposite approach.
“I was a year and half into the album,” she explains. “I was thinking ‘OK, this is an air album’. I made a playlist for myself and Alejandro, featuring all the things ‘airy’ in my music library and of course Sarah Hopkins was in that. It just seemed very natural to include her and I’m very thrilled that she was up for it.”
There may be live harmonic whirlies with her on stage. We will see.Sarah Hopkins
Sarah describes the collaboration as “a fantastic gift from the gods and a beautiful collaboration”.
“The opening, with the haunting melody of the harmonic whirly, resonates on a deep, soul level and energetically calls one in to hear more,” she says. ”You then have Björk’s lyric, sharing that primal, often unconscious, truth about the human process of searching for love. It’s an interesting juxtaposition musically, and Björk’s’ lyrics and melody stay with you in a very hypnotic way.”
It is undoubtedly a unique and successful collaboration, but it is not the first time that Björk had been in touch with Sarah.
“A few years ago, someone from Björk’s production team contacted me," Sarah says. "Björk had an idea of entering her live show on a bicycle, with a couple of harmonic whirlies strapped to her, to produce sounds as she rode onto the stage.”
It’s a startling image and one that may well still see the light of day.
“I believe that she’s wanting to do a world tour,” says Sarah, “so who knows? There may be live harmonic whirlies with her on stage. We will see.”