Berklee Today


We Go To the Hidden Place

vespertine 1. of, relating to, or occurring in the evening or shadows. 2. active, flowing, or flourishing in the evening.
- Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary

  Steve Wilkes '80 is an associate professor in Berklee's Percussion Department and recently completed his first marathon.

Bjork's Vespertine is arguably one of the most important pop albums of the last decade. With the musical evolution and broad stylistic palette demonstrated on her first three solo albums (Debut, Post, and Homogenic), Bjork carved out a unique space for herself in pop music. Occupying rarefied territory inhabited by only a handful of other artists (Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, David Sylvian, and Radiohead come to mind), Bjork has solidified her place as a pop musician's musician. She doesn't just write good songs and sing them well, she breaks new artistic ground with every release, often collaborating with musicians who work outside of the mainstream of pop music.

Released in late August 2001, Vespertine brought together many of the artist's unique sensibilities in one album. Experimental electronic music (with help from Matmos), lush string orchestrations by Vince Mendoza, intriguing lyrics, soulful vocals, and cutting edge production all found a home on Vespertine. For me, the release of Vespertine was a long-awaited event. So, like many a fan, I was in line at Newbury Comics on the day of Vespertine's release and began acquainting myself with its many pleasures as soon as I got the disc home. The album however, took on a surprisingly different and special meaning in the wake of September 11, 2001.

In the week following the events of 9-11, I took solace in my routines. One was listening to music each evening. Vespertine was at the top of the play list. The wisdom behind the lyrics of a song such as "It's Not Up to You" was a comfort.

I wake up, and the day feels broken. I tilt my head, I'm trying to get an angle. The evening I've always longed for, It could still happen. If you leave it alone it might just happen. Anyway, it's not up to you. Well it never really was.
Bjork, "It's Not Up to You," Vespertine, (New York: Electra, © 2001).

For many, the week of September 11, 2001, was a study in understanding that which we could and could not control.

In the many weeks, months, and events since 9-11, the album has taken on an even deeper meaning for me. Just prior to the album's release, Bjork did many press interviews to promote Vespertine. She talked about the beauty of cocooning: the artistic process of going inward to find the inspiration and nourishment to bring forth new work, new beauty. In an interview published by in August, 2001, she said, "This album is partly about creating a cocoon, almost like a paradise that you can escape to. It's down to earth. It's dealing with the porridge and cup of tea." The result is, interestingly, both a product and a celebration of this process. I've often wondered what Bjork thinks of this process in the wake of September 11.

On Vespertine, Bjork has songs titled "Cocoon" and "Hidden Place." Cocooning or going to the hidden place is what a lot of musicians do. We value the time spent alone, solo hours practicing, writing, thinking, and listening. It brings forth the fruits of our talent. Alas, perhaps many of us musicians are introverts in the Jungian sense: we go inward for our energy. Often it improves our skills and capabilities as musicians. The results can be sublime works of beauty. Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Miles Davis's In a Silent Way, Bjork's Vespertine, and (place your choice here) are examples of remarkable musical works that seem to have emerged from this cocoon. But, what of cocooning in the age of terror?

While we cocoon, there is starvation, disease, desperation, and extremism, not only in far-off countries around the world but also in those countries that members of the Berklee community call home. I think we were always aware of this, but September 11 drove the point home. I could not help but consider the irony. After 9-11, I was nourished each night by an album that celebrated shutting out the world and going within. All the while, however, the world outside was demanding my attention more than it had at any other time in my life. I wondered whether cocooning is the modern equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Have all our musical pursuits been nothing but self indulgence and blissful ignorance while the rest of the world grew so hungry, desperate, and angry that we could not help but finally pay attention? The recent war in Iraq has made me ponder these questions yet again.

The answers to some of these questions came to me on an evening in October of 2001, a month after the attacks. My wife and I went to New York for a weekend. The purpose of our visit was to see Bjork in concert at Radio City Music Hall. The city was muted. We had never seen New York so inward, so cocooned. It seemed as though the city was licking its wounds. The city that never sleeps had become the hidden place. It was a place in desperate need of healing. For the packed house at the show, Bjork's music provided that healing during her remarkable concert. Bjork said little that night other than polite and gracious thank-yous after songs. The music from Vespertine simply soared and at the same time bandaged the wounds and holes so many of us were feeling. Why? Perhaps it's because art works on a more fundamental level than politics. David Sylvian, a pop music peer of Bjork, told Wire magazine, "The power of music runs so much deeper [than politics]; and in that sense, it's a far greater political tool because it has the potential to change fundamentally the mind or the heart of the individual."

By the time Bjork reached "Army of Me," a song from earlier in her career about standing and facing the music, so to speak, I felt that I was experiencing one of my life's great, cathartic rock-and-roll moments. It seemed as though all the concert goers were so glad to be alive and would wake to greet another day. Later, as the crowd exited onto Sixth Avenue, a young man walking in front of my wife and me pulled out his cell phone and called a friend. He exclaimed, "Man, it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" We couldn't have agreed more.

We musicians must continue to go to the hidden place. Selfish as it may seem, I feel this strongly. The downside is that we can no longer believe that our cocoon is the whole world or, worse, that we are always safe within it. We also may not be able to spin our cocoon and turn our backs on the participation that current world events demand. But go to the cocoon we must, because from the hidden place comes the power to heal, the power to change hearts, the power to affect lives. That's what I learned at Radio City Music Hall on an evening in October 2001, and I'm pretty sure that Bjork would feel the same way.