Long haul flights are tedious and economy seating far from comfortable, though the Emirates cabin crew are excellent and work hard to provide service with a smile. The tedium is such that I invariably find the need to scroll through the many entertainment channels that are a great relief from the tedium that exists between the period when cabin crew demonstrate the safety procedures on the plane, and serve us with excessively packaged meals. Despite, or maybe because of the many hundreds of films on offer I still have difficulties making an informed choice. But on the recent Dubai to Birmingham leg of the journey home from Bangalore I struck lucky.
When Björk met Attenborough struck me as a most unlikely title. I was immediately intrigued to know how and why Channel 4 television had brought together the Icelandic singer and songwriter Björk Guðmundsdóttir, generally regarded as an inventive and somewhat avant garde, or possibly even eccentric musician, with Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, author and broadcaster, oft referred to as a national treasure (very British expression this) and pillar of the establishment. Indian readers may well be as familiar with his brother Sir Richard Attenborough, director of the blockbusting film Gandhi as with the younger David. I couldn’t resist and had to watch; a very good decision as it turned out.
Early in the programme, Björk explains to Attenborough how as a child on her long walks to and from school in Iceland she would pass the time by singing. She also revealed how much the natural beauty of Iceland influenced her love of music and the ways in which she now interprets sound. Björk’s intellect shines throughout the programme and the affection that she and Attenborough clearly share for each other provides the viewer with a comfortable feeling that there is tremendous respect across generations.
Much of this documentary was filmed at the magnificent natural history museum in London, a building and collection of artefacts well known to Attenborough and which Björk describes as “epic.” During the course of their conversation it soon emerges that each of the leading characters in this film have an immense respect for the work of the other. More revealing is the fact that Attenborough is clearly well versed in Björk’s music and has considered the significant vocal range and tone of her voice, whilst the musician is more than able to hold her own in a discussion of the natural world. I suspect that this is a side of both their characters than many, including myself, had never previously considered. Particularly memorable is their discussion of the formation of crystals and the mathematical patterns that these involve which can be closely related to the development of music.
The documentary is built around Björk’s exploration of the natural world to provide the inspiration for an innovative piece of music that she has titled “Biophilia”. This involves the use of newly invented instruments and the production of tones that closely mimic those of the sounds with which both Björk and Attenborough have become familiar through their exploration of nature. In the eventual production of the music Attenborough, in a voice that has become so recognisable to viewers of his many wildlife documentaries, is to be a narrator who will bring together the various pieces of music created by Björk and her collaborating musicians.
Why am I writing about this documentary on what is ostensibly a blog focused upon education? Well, a number of points during the dialogue between Björk and David Attenborough struck me as particularly interesting. When describing the music at one point Attenborough states that “with Biophilia comes a restless curiosity”. Here he is referring to the investigative nature of the music but he could equally be describing his own drive for understanding and that which has characterised the experimentation of Björk. At another point he suggests that “for music to be rewarding it does require thought; it does require work” but indicates quite clearly that for him the efforts are worthwhile, rewarding and educative.
Before watching this documentary I would have imagined that the worlds of Attenborough and Björk were poles apart , but what struck me when watching this programme was the great regard that they clearly had for each other and for their learning. I suppose for many teachers the learning most associated with David Attenborough would be described as formal and establishment, whereas Björk may have been seen as having departed from the traditional pathways into a more experimental mode. But their respect for each other seemed to me to give a most positive and reassuring message. Each recognised the authority of the other in respect of their obvious areas of expertise, but neither assumed superiority for their own learning. Furthermore the film depicts the importance of recognising that learning takes many forms and that we may come to understanding in very individualistic ways. This is something that as teachers we would do well to remember. What was on offer in this film was the bringing together of two different cultures, approaches to learning and education but in a manner where both presenters were prepared to share an experience and learn together.
At a time when many of our politicians and policy makers are attempting to define education in narrow terms and are creating systems that value conformity to a shallow interpretation of what is to be valued in learning, encounters such as this between two intelligent and open minded individuals has much to teach us. Attempts to impose restrictive teaching approaches based upon an outdated interpretation of pedagogy will not serve all learners well. The bringing together of contrasting ideas and cultural understanding is more likely to enable us to find common ground than to divide us. This will only happen if we enter into such dialogue with respect and a willingness to learn from those whose experiences are greatly different from our own.
For many years to come generations will admire the natural history films of David Attenborough. They will also marvel at the inventiveness of the music of Bjork. For now I am happy to have learned a little from both of them.
The link at the top of this page (IN BLUE TYPE) will take you to a performance of Mutual Core by Björk in which she attempts to relate the effect of the movement of tectonic plates through music. As Attenborough says, for real appreciation this challenging approach to music requires thought, but I hope like me you enjoy the experience.