Sigur Rós. Ellie Caulkins. 09.27.16
We were in an Uber on our way back from the Ellie Caulkins Opera House when our driver asked if we’d had a good night. My 14-year-old daughter, who was up way past her usual bedtime on a school night, was lost in the glow of her phone, so it was on me to respond. “Yeah,” I replied, to which he inevitably asked, “who did you see?” Having lost track of how many times that question has been asked by Uber drivers over the past few years, I was surprised when I found myself at a loss for words. How does one explain Sigur Rós to the uninitiated? An antisocial voice inside my head convinced me to give him the vanilla definition and leave it at that. “An Icelandic post-rock group.” I knew that was no answer at all though. It wasn’t fair to James. He seemed like a nice man, and I was trusting him to get us home safely, so the least I could do was try to explain the spectacle we had just witnessed.
The show had literally ended minutes earlier and the spectrum of sound and color was still alive inside my mind, but every word I used to translate the experience into language failed miserably; like trying to draw a sunset with nothing more than a ballpoint pen. My tongue felt foreign inside my mouth, as the right words refused to string themselves together into anything except inadequate gray descriptors that lacked any real depth. My vocabulary proving insufficient, I took out my phone when we came to the first red light. “Wow!” It was now James’ face who was lost in the glow as he scrolled through a few shots from the show. “Yeah,” I replied. We didn’t speak again until I thanked him for dropping us off at our house.
Some friends of mine were lucky enough to witness Sigur Rós perform in Iceland a couple years ago and I’ve been meaning to ask them if the locals were singing along. Granted, some of the lyrics are sung in Jónsi’s own, made-up language, but the majority of sounds escaping his mouth are truly Icelandic. I have always wondered if the words could stand up under the weight of such emotion; under the pure power of a Sigur Rós performance. Afraid of what would be lost in translation, I’ve never even bothered to research what ‘Sigur Rós’ means. So I have to wonder if the locals in Iceland hear what I hear when they listen to albums such as Ágætis byrjun and Takk…. Do they sing along at the shows? Are they able to escape into their own bodies, using the epic music as a portal to something dreams are made of, or are they grounded by the literal meaning of each track?
Those thoughts occupy my mind every time I see Sigur Rós. But as soon as the lights go down and the shadows begin to occupy the stage, all real-world questions are left unanswered as I’m carried away to a place where words are nothing more than tonal characters in a place where sound reigns supreme. Meaning is not only open to interpretation when Jónsi serenades a crowd with indecipherable sounds, it is also free to be completely ignored. Understanding is not a prerequisite for pleasure when it comes to Sigur Rós. Ignorance truly is bliss.
The current tour was advertised as “An Evening with Sigur Rós”. Performing as a trio, without the usual string and orchestra sections, the expectation was a stripped-down, intimate set. So when the venue change from Paramount Theatre to Ellie Caulkins was credited to production issues, curiosity got the best of me. I’ve seen some pretty elaborate stage shows at the Paramount (King Diamond built a multi-level house of horror in there a couple years ago), so what exactly did the Icelandic group have in store? As it turned out, the trio brought a stadium-sized light show with them. Without exaggeration, it might have been the best visual display I had ever witnessed; literally on par with anything I’ve seen at Pink Floyd concerts.
A lot of artists augment live performances with various visual elements, but the Sigur Rós show at Ellie Caulkins was the first time I’ve ever seen a band upstaged by their own production. Don’t get me wrong, the music was incredible. Two completely varied sets, consisting of almost two hours of music culled from across their entire discography, would have been worth the price of admission alone, even if they performed it under the bright white of a single spotlight. But when the soundtrack is emanating from a constantly morphing, multi-dimensional space that extends the back of the stage into an infinite abyss, it becomes an experience more than a concert.
Like musicians moonlighting as magicians, Sigur Rós (and their incredible production crew) were able create a layer of illusions with no explanation. Curtains consisting of LED beadlets separated the stage into sections. Rising and falling as needed to suit the scene of each selection, those curtains could solidify into solid, blinding colors one minute, only to settle into moving images the next. Messing with transparency was another little game they liked to play, but never all at once. As one curtain would disappear, others would come to life, thus creating a seemingly endless display extending well past the physical boundaries of the building.
The edges of outer space; ghosts of children like faded photographs; neon beings coming to life and growing to monstrous heights; virtual rooms in which the band could find shelter during the beginning of the second set. The technology that went into this living trompe l’oeil was extensive, yet the word technology never occurred to me while I was in the moment. The music flowing through the vision made everything feel organic. And although I don’t know why the Paramount Theatre couldn’t have hosted the show, I’m glad it was moved to Ellie Caulkins. As if alive, the illuminations danced upon the walls of the opera house while reflecting off the fog that was slowly creeping into the orchestra. Like the music itself, it was not confined to the stage in which it was made.
There is a part of me that still yearns for the time when Sigur Rós was an enigma. Back before they went on hiatus and Jónsi made a name for himself with his solo album and movie soundtracks. Back before Kjarri Sveinsson split from the band. Back when there were no faces or names associated with the music. If someone would have told me I’d be attending an ‘intimate’ Sigur Rós show, back when I first discovered (and had my mind blown) by Ágætis byrjun, I would have laughed. But Sigur Rós lost a little of its mystery long ago. The fact that real human beings are involved — human beings with creative differences and real ‘human being’ problems — took some of the magic out of the music. Instead of images of barren lands, and discovering whales humping during underwater explorations, I only pictured the faces of the men behind the sound. I expected Tuesday night’s show to reinforcement that humanity, but it did nothing of the sort. Sure, Jónsi and Goggi and Orri were standing right there, plain as day, but they seemed otherworldly; or at least from a future where advancements in the manipulation of light and sound had reached new levels.
Speaking of the sound, the first half was definitely the more ambient one. Each set opened with a new track, the first being “Á”. From there the show continued on with a good chunk of (); slowing building to the crescendo toward the end of “Dauðalagið”, but it wasn’t until the “Glósóli” climax when the trio proved they could reach the mountaintop without the help of additional musicians. As the sound filled the opera house to the ceiling, I couldn’t help but think they were hiding a symphony somewhere in the forest of lights swirling behind them.
The second set opened with “Óveður”, then went on to some of their more commercially successful tracks. “Starálfur” is still one of the most beautiful songs ever written, “Sæglópur” was as close as they got to true post-rock the entire night, and “Ný Batterí” found people closing their eyes just to take it all in without any potential distraction. Where the nuances in the first set were almost drown in imagery, the second set was much more varied, with a setlist guaranteed to keep the crowd engaged as it transitioned from the deep woods of “Vaka” to the wide open fields of “Festival” to the dark caverns of “Kveikur”. Jónsi would attack his guitar with that bow during one song, only to set it down so he could vocalize heartbreak in his signature falsetto; proving pain doesn’t need a translator. At one point he held a note for what seemed an eternity, letting it flow from a few feet behind the microphone, as if to protect us from its full force.
The night ended, as most Sigur Rós shows do, with “Popplagið”. And then we were set back down on Earth.
So there you have it, 1,500 words squandered in a futile attempt to describe something that cannot be described. The pictures don’t really do it justice either. If nothing else, this article will serve as a reminder to myself. Hopefully, from time to time, it will allow me to refresh the spectrum of sound and color that was so alive in my mind Tuesday night. I hope so, because it is already fading. Maybe it’s wrong of me to try to hold on to something meant to be impermanent, but that’s just what I do. Unlike the members of Sigur Rós, I am only human.