To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethan Hayden’s 33 1/3 on Sigur Rós, we bring you the second installment of Sigur Rós week.
There are many aspects that contribute to the sense of otherworldliness in Sigur Rós’s music: the instrumentation, effects, sense of space, nonsensical texts, etc. One of the most significant, however, is the plethora of voices which permeate the album. Sometimes these voices are clearly present, occupying the foreground of the music, acting as its focal point. Other times, these voices are hidden, camouflaged behind a film of reverberating guitars, peeking out from behind the shadows cast by dark organ chords or plodding bass lines. Either way, these voices contribute to the record’s atmosphere of distance and otherness. A human voice is one of the most easily identifiable sounds, one which can make a space seem safe, welcoming, and embodied. But ( )‘s voices often have an uncanny aspect to them. We recognize them as voices, but they are somehow estranged, made alien. The effect is a ghostly one, the musical space somehow marked by a phantasmic quality, an ambiguity between presence and absence.
Jónsi’s voice itself is unique enough to produce this effect, his falsetto so startlingly pure it seems only barely human. But the most uncanny voices are those that fill in the spaces around Jónsi’s lead melodies: the choir that opens “Fyrsta,” which seems somewhere between seraphic jubilance and pained moaning, or the stuttering high voice that sneaks in between “Njósnavelin”‘s phrases. These voices—which start out, of course, as recordings of Jónsi’s voice—are time-stretched, pitch-shifted, reversed, and otherwise made to sound like they couldn’t possibly have come from a human body, but instead connote the sound of some kind of spectral sprite. Many of these sounds are based on a magnification of the voice: taking a single instant of vocal sound and exploding it out into something much larger, either through time-stretching or repetition. The voices that populate the musical landscape thus become landscapes themselves.
My favorite example is not actually on ( ) itself, but is from a B-side to the “Vaka” single. “Smáskífa” (“Single”) features an extended section in which a single vocal fragment is reversed, pitch-shifted, and looped, creating the contradictory presentation of a voice we know to be human, but which we cannot experience as such. NOTE: The section described begins around 4:20
Sigur Rós are not the first group of musicians to defamiliarize the voice in this way, to use electronic manipulation to make alien a sound with which we are so well-acquainted. One need look no further than the “vocal science” of 2-step and UK Garage, the disembodied vocal samples in dub reggae, or the tape experiments of the Beatles and the Beach Boys to find similar examples. But I think it is much rarer to find in those cases a similar effect of turning the voice into an expansive vista, of focusing so intently onto a single aspect of the voice that it becomes a world unto itself. For this, one needs to look to the experiments of mid-century sound poets and avant garde composers.
As a poet, Henri Chopin bypassed every remnant of conventional language, turning his focus instead to the “micro-particles” of the human voice itself. Active throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Chopin based his work on a close inspection of the aural character of the human body, and his audiopoems consisted of the full gamut of human vocality, from gutteral barking to choking, smacking, and clicking sounds, from aggressive screams to the most subtle breathing noises. Relying heavily on electronics, Chopin would record himself performing, and then manipulate the audio through delay effects, feedback, and by speeding up and slowing down the tape. For one piece, Chopin even swallowed a small contact microphone and recorded the sounds of his stomach. These recordings would then be brought back into live performance, creating a dense, multi-layered collage of human and machine, an ambiguous state in which it is unclear where one body ends and the other begins. While lacking the serenity of much of Sigur Rós’s music, Chopin’s audiopoems are similar in that they take individual vocal samples, manipulate them until they are barely recognizable, and craft elaborate sonic panoramas from them.
Perhaps an example more aurally related to Sigur Rós’s can be found in the Italian composer Luciano Berio’s electronic piece, Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958). As the title implies, the piece consists of manipulated recordings of excerpts of James Joyce’s Ulysses, read by the composer’s wife, singer Cathy Berberian. Berio chops up the text, and re-organizes it according to the resonance, color, and timbre of the vocal sounds. The piece opens with a collage of hissing sibilant sounds, which coalesce and crescendo, eventually blossoming (appropriately) into an articulation of the word “blooming.” Berio’s piece is more than a terrain of voices, it is a terrain that explores itself, the music moving and developing over time, acting as a topographical survey of Joyce’s text.
On ( ) we can find the direct descendants of these techniques, only Sigur Rós rarely let the vocal landscape be the object of focus, but instead take up residence in the landscape themselves, populating it with sparse percussion, richly vibrant guitar chords, and elegiac sung melodies. We thus have multiple landscapes occupying the same musical expanse, like planes intersecting in a geometric field.
The vocal plane that intersected “Smáskífa,” that fragment which was magnified and repeated, was used again years later in “Ekki múkk”. Here the voice was returned to its original pitch and direction, not sounding abnormal at all, but acting as the primary melody line. But this familiar vocal plane is itself intersected by a myriad of other voices: ethereal choirs and high-pitched flutters which, like the individual flames in fire, disappear as quickly as they appear.
The title of “Ekki múkk” supposedly translates to “Not a sound.” This is fitting, perhaps, not in the sense of referring to silence, but in the literal sense of something not being a sound. These voices are practically not sounds any longer. They are manipulated beyond the point of being mere sounds. They are signifiers of presence, an uncanny, ghostly presence that is simultaneously an absence—the presence of something not really there. Very often, they are so soft we aren’t sure whether we’ve heard them or not. They are “not a sound,” they are more delicate, more spectral, more panoramic. They are landscapes.
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