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Sigur Rós Week – Day 3: The Defamiliarizing Effects of Nonsense

To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethan Hayden’s 33 1/3 on Sigur Rós, we bring you the third installment of Sigur Rós week.

The first Sigur Rós song to be sung in the nonsensical “Hopelandic” language was the title track from the band’s 1997 debut album, Von.  If “Von” is marked by one quality in particular, it is a sense of distance.  The production coats the song in thick trails of reverb, making each element seem as if it is being heard from across some great divide.  The song’s pulse is driven by a fairly standard and unremarkable hand-drum pattern, but, when colored by the muffling reverb, this rhythm is defamiliarized, made to sound distant, like we aren’t hearing the drums directly, but are merely remembering them (across the “distance” of time, as it were).  The processed guitar tones which fade in and out throughout the song have a similar effect.  Sounding more like the echo of a guitar strummed elsewhere, in some remote space, the listener feels as if they are hearing only a distorted trace of the original sound.  The guitar is removed from its normal frame of reference, made to sound foreign.  The song’s nonsensical language only contributes to this atmosphere.  But the voice is not unclear in the same way a text in a language we don’t speak is unclear.  We cannot understand Jónsi’s lyrics, but the impression is that if we could only get closer, if we could be in the same space as the singer, perhaps then we could understand.  The nonsensical text removes the listener from the voice, defamiliarizing both the voice and the music.

The only band as well known as Sigur Rós for their use of nonsensical texts, as well as for their rhapsodic otherworldliness is Scotland’s Cocteau Twins.  While few would accuse the two bands of sharing a similar sound (though, listen to Von’s “Myrkur” and you may be surprised), both successfully use non-semantic texts and reverberant production to create musical spaces in which commonplace sounds are radically defamiliarized.  Like the faraway-sounding percussion that drives “Von” forward, most of the Cocteau’s songs are directed by simple drum-machine patterns which are so drenched in reverb that each hit seems to last for seconds.  Combine that with Robin Guthrie’s proto-shoegaze swirls of guitar ambience and one is confronted with a music that seems to take place in a cavernous ethereality that is wholly unearthly and yet still strangely familiar.

The central figures occupying this sonic atmosphere are Elizabeth Fraser’s strange, seemingly textless vocal gestures.  Much has been written about the fact that Fraser’s technically impressive, elegiac melodies are often deliberately indecipherable, consisting alternately of abstract poetry, melismatic vocalise, and, perhaps most intriguing, evocative portmanteaux.  While both Sigur Rós and the Cocteau Twins succeed in creating enigmatic aural landscapes through acts of defamiliarization of music and language, they do so via two radically differing strategies.

Fraser’s use of portmanteaux is mainly based in a phono-erotic organization of language into abstract sonic constructions—she is far more concerned with sculpting interesting progressions of vowels and consonants than she is with communicating meaning.  Her texts consist of words borrowed from languages that she herself found unfamiliar, as well as new words created by combining syllables from both English and non-English words.  The result is a language which seems decipherable, but isn’t, functioning as a foreign tongue while maintaining a kernel of the familiar.  A quick scan of the titles to various Cocteau songs reveals a litany of words which seem like they could very well be part of a recognizable lexicon, whose meanings the listener seems to be able to grasp at faintly (e.g., “Melonella,” “Athol-Brose,” “Sultitan Itan,” “Millimillenary,” “Watchlar”).  These words evoke a world of languages that are only just barely available to most listeners:  medical jargon, binomial nomenclature, rhyming slang, early English, foreign cognates.  Each of these a language—like the text of “Von”—that we could easily understand if we could only get closer, more familiar with them.  Fraser’s texts are almost decipherable, based in a defamiliarization of English, abstractly evoking a new world of concepts in the same way Lewis Carroll does in “Jabberwocky” (“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe”).  It also brings to mind Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor (1931), in which simple plays on words subordinate meaning in the service of musico-textual portmanteaux:

But the sky prefers the nighdongale
Its favorite son the nighrengale
Its flower of joy the nighmingale
Its skin of tears the nighfangale
Its nocturnal throat the nighsongale
The nighlangale
The nightingale

or later passages, in which the entire texture devolves into Fraser-esque textual birdsong.

Ahee aheeah aheeah
eeah eeah eeah aheeah oohee
Tralalee
Lalee lala
Ahruahru
Cuckooinary
Laleela
Echocokoo coo ecku

(trans. Eliot Weinberger)

Sigur Rós, on the other hand, rely less on a defamiliarization of language as much as a defamiliarization of voice.  Rather than fabricating new words which are reminiscent of familiar linguistic constructions, Sigur Rós abandons even the illusion of semantic meaning.  The sung texts on ( ) consist merely of a handful of syllables (“yu,” “sy,” “no,” etc.), far too simplistic to be part of some elaborate, fully-functioning language that is unavailable to us.  Instead, the voice is flattened, hollowed out.  If the Cocteau Twins’ music takes us back to a distant world, to a time before English became English, Sigur Rós’s music takes us back to a time before language became language, to a time when, in the words of Rousseau “Poetry and music [were…] nothing but language itself.” – Ethan Hayden

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