When you mention Icelandic music, most people’s associations don’t venture much beyond Björk. But in contrast to “Selma’s” dead-goose-draped, blip-bloop-ka-ting-ka-tang, “everything is music” kookiness, there’s another band in the land of endless night/day (depending on the season) every bit as innovative and quirky as the ice princess, but who prefers raw feedback to slick synths and linear mini-symphonies to catchy pop nuggets.
The band formed in 1994 on the birthday of singer Jón þor Birgisson’s (henceforth “Jonsi”) sister; she was given the name Sigurrós (“victory rose”), and in her honor the band was named. Sigur Rós’s first album, Von (“hope” – 1997), is a difficult listen, even for a fan, fractured and halting, representative of a band trying to find “that sound” and a singer in search of a voice. That album’s worldwide release didn’t come until after the relative success of Ágætis Byrjun (something like “an alright start” – 1999), and after receiving the accolades of 3/5 of Radiohead in a 2000 SPIN magazine cover story, and after the lead-off track (well, technically track 2) featured in Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe’s 2001 “spot-the-pop-culture-reference” remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s already freaked-out Abre Los Ojos, this masterpiece was pretty much the world’s introduction to Sigur Rós.
Some melodies, even upon first listen, possess the uncanny ability to sound—to feel—familiar, and yet still manage to enthrall. There is no scientific formula to explain this. However, my own experience is that Sigur Rós have, at least more than most bands, figured this out. Their sweeping anthems hearken back to a time when musical compositions were not limited by radio-imposed three-and-a-half-minute maximums, while also looking hopefully ahead to a time when music unhindered by pithy lyrics, sing-song-y melodies or artist image but instead evoking spiritual passion and emotion might re-enter popular consciousness. Their grand yet gorgeously simple songs for the most part eschew verse-chorus-bridge-chorus patterns, opting instead for less limited and limiting, more expansive compositions.
Jonsi often sings in a language that he and the band have dubbed “Hopelandic,” which draws on phonemes and phrases from their native Icelandic, yet is devoid of any grammatical coherence. According to their website, Hopelandic is “a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument. Jonsi likens it with what singers sometimes do when they’ve decided on the melody but haven’t written the lyrics yet.” Rather than settle on particular lyrics which might convey a particular message or narrative, the songs are left open-ended, suspended just shy of completion. Sigur Rós are content to exist in this enigmatic space. Reminiscent of both religious tongue-speaking and jazz vocal scatting, Jonsi’s glossolalia befits the spiritual quality of their music.
At first glance, the quartet looks no different than any other guitar-keyboard-bass-drums modern rock band. However, assumptions fade when Jonsi begins to coax waves of breathtaking ambience from his electric guitar using a violin bow, and then vanish altogether when his inhuman falsetto cries suggest a language more akin to angels than men and contribute to the spiritual resonance of their epic soundscapes. His voice is beautiful and yet disconcerting at times, suspended somewhere between generations and genders (Jonsi is gay, incidentally), often altered electronically, moving suddenly from whisper to wail. This otherworldliness of Jonsi’s angelic voice, sometimes childish, sometimes feminine, in its very dissonance with the outward appearance of this masculine, guitar-playing rock singer, points to something else, something beyond the singer himself. In their mysterious, glossolaliac language, which explicitly means nothing at all, in the longing evoked by the falsetto voice and in the expansiveness of their compositions, Sigur Rós touch on the mystery of communion, the meeting of the human and the Divine.
In listening to their records as much as in a live setting, a sort of sacred, participatory space of liturgical performance opens up wherein a community gathers to celebrate and grasp after something that cannot quite be put into words. Unlike most hymns of the church, which are composed to convey specifically prescribed doctrinal “truth,” Sigur Rós seek to connect with their audience on a more primal, organic level, allowing the spirit(ual) to emerge on its own terms, without manipulation, taking a more mystical, apophatic approach, attempting with sound to touch, however briefly, that which words fail to apprehend. The band took this ethos to almost absurd extremes on their 2002 album, enigmatically titled, or not-titled as the case may be, ( ) – yes, that’s just an open parenthesis and a closed parenthesis. The album’s eight songs, none of them titled, average 8-minutes in length. The liner notes were, well, empty – no photos, no words, no nothing except some strange, black-and-white earthy designs. It seems Sigur Rós decided that Keith Whitley and Alison Krauss were on to something – you do, in fact, say it best “when you say nothing at all.”
I attended my first Sigur Rós concert (I’ve now been to three) in Louisville, Kentucky on 26 March 2003 (and courtesy of my friend Timbre, a breathtaking singer/songwriter/harpist in her own right, I am lucky to have a recording of this particular show). About an hour into their magisterial set, the band played “Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása” (“good weather for airstrikes” – huh?) from Ágætis Byrjun, a song well-known to fans. Halfway through this 10-minute composition, the band came to the end of a phrase and, for want of a better term, paused – leaving their last note suspended, lingering, hanging in the room. This pause was both musical and physical: the band stood motionless, Jonsi’s eyes closed, his violin bow poised in mid-air. The audience was deathly silent, the likes of which I have never experienced in any setting before or since. While the drop of a pin might have been masked by the whirring white-noise of fan-cooled amplifiers and lighting mechanisms, chairs forewent their creaking, feet their shuffling, lungs their breathing. This pause, this suspension of the conversation, this aching sigh, lasted an amazing 50 seconds (believe me, I’ve clocked it). Eventually, as the band flawlessly resumed, the song’s remainder became the much-needed response to the wearisome sigh of the song’s first half.
In an essay entitled “Conversation and Communion,” Regina Schwartz, Professor of English at Northwestern University, writes these words:
“The rhythm of conversation is marked by silence. It is in this silence…that response is located. This silence is waiting…full of expectation of an answer. It is also the silence of attention, of hearing, that precedes and occasions a response. Sometimes it can be the briefest of silences, barely noticeable for the overlapping of voices; sometimes an agonizingly long, even interminable silence.”
Perhaps within this gathered community, diverse people of all religions and none interpreted this transcendent moment in diverse ways, according to varying criteria and experiences. In that moment, however – in that sacred space – we were all “people of faith,” believing, hoping, longing that the cry would be answered and the conversation would continue. We were transformed by a frail, silent prayer, one that began in cacophony and ended in ecstasy and between which we bore witness to the miracle of creation.