To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethan Hayden’s 33 1/3 on Sigur Rós, we bring you the first installment of Sigur Rós week.
The core concept of ( ) is the presentation of the album as an unfinished artwork. Sigur Rós has provided the music, but they invite the listener to complete the album by providing its meaning. The music is sung in a nonsensical, non-linguistic voice, and it is up to the audience to furnish this voice’s message.
( ) thus relies on a displacement between form and content. The band has provided a form (the album and its music), but have stopped short of providing it with any content. In this way, the album becomes translucent—having no content itself, it is just a form, an empty outline which needs to be filled in by the listener. Sigur Rós have displaced the content—whatever content there is exists not in the music itself, but somewhere else. We therefore find ourselves with a transparent music, one that we have to look (or, rather, listen) through, to find its meaning.
( )‘s abstract artwork, then, seems strikingly appropriate. The CD version of the album is packaged in a vinyl slipcase, the front of which has two parentheses cut out of it. These parentheses act as windows: we see through them to the artwork beneath, just as we listen through the album’s music to the content which is situated beyond. These cut-out parentheses reinforce the idea of the album as a gap—a void which needs to be filled. The CD’s booklet consists simply of transparent images printed on a kind of tracing paper. Indeed, nothing about the album can be seen directly, everything we look at (the slipcase, the booklet, the music itself) we cannot see without being forced to see through.
This displacement of content is not something exclusive to Sigur Rós, but while much modernist art tries to unify form and content, this deliberate displacement of the two is more rare. It can, however, be found in certain works of concrete and visual poetry. An early, and particularly pertinent example would be Christian Morgenstern’s “Fisches Nachtgesang” (“Night Song of the Fish”) from his 1905 collection, Galgenlieder. In this piece, an arrangement of two characters (a hyphen and a sideways parenthesis) is placed on the page with no explanation or translation. Suspended in negative space like a Calder mobile, the pattern seems to be defined more by the space around it than by its content, and we seem to look through it as much as we look at it. It is marked by an absence, an unavailability of meaning. While we could come up with an infinite number of ways to read its binary alphabet, something always seems to be withheld. We cannot understand the song of the fish anymore than we can understand the songs on ( ).
A perhaps more evocative, but troubling example can be found in Álvaro de Campos’ 1964 visual poem, “olho por olho” (“eye for an eye”). Here, the poet has stacked a set of isolated images of eyes and lips into a pyramid. I am reminded of this poem not just because both eyes and lips have a shape reminiscent of two parentheses, but because of this idea of withholding content. Faces are among the most communicative aspects of the human body, we can gain a wealth of information from a person just by reading their face. But in de Campos’ poem, we see eyes and lips removed from the context of their faces, and which are therefore prevented from fully communicating. A single eye cannot convey nearly as much when cut off from its face, its meaning becomes ambiguous, withheld. This fetishistic focusing on just one or two aspects of the body creates a situation in which something that could very clearly communicate is presented in an incomplete form; and while it is still startlingly evocative, it is essentially non-communicative. Is this not precisely what we find in ( )? An isolated voice, cut off from its linguistic context, which still feels very meaningful, but whose meaning is unavailable. The white space in de Campos’ poem functions exactly like ( )‘s CD slipcase: a screen we can look through, but which allows us only to see a portion of what lies beneath.
Perhaps the most widely recognized aspect of ( )‘s artwork is the sleepwalker stencil found on the back of the slipcase. That image was taken from the photographer John Yang’s haunting image Blindman’s Bluff (1960). The John Yang Archive has recently made digital pigment prints of the image available from their website.
Many of John Yang’s photographs, Blindman’s Bluff included, share this aspect of an affecting translucence. Perhaps the best example can be found in his series of “sepulchral portraits” from Mount Zion cemetery. These images, taken of miniature portraits placed among the cemetery’s headstones, which have deteriorated over time and exposure to the elements, turn this transparency on its head. While in de Campos’ poem we saw eyes removed from the context of their faces, in many of the Mount Zion photographs, we see faces without eyes and mouths. While de Campos and Morgenstern gave us content removed from its context, Yang gives us a context (a sepulchral portrait) in which the content has been removed, slowly erased over time. As a result, there is a poignancy and affectation in Yang’s photos that were absent in the visual poems. In those poems, we saw something, but did not know what to feel; in Yang’s photos, we mourn someone even though we cannot see them.
Again, there is a clear correlation to Sigur Rós’s album. ( ) lacks a linguistic context, but it does provide a musical context. The music thus acts as a frame, it gives a power and pathos to the voice which we cannot understand. The music thus functions as Yang’s sepulcher: it frames the empty space, providing the emotional response to the thing that we cannot see, to the thing that we are forced to see through. Both Sigur Rós and John Yang give us empty frames, like a pair of parentheses surrounding a gap. – Ethan Hayden
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