The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Ethan Hayden

Photo by Megan Mette

Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next Up: Ethan Hayden. A composer and performer, Ethan is a PhD candidate in music at the University at Buffalo, studying with Cort Lippe. Recent works reflect an ongoing interest in language, phonetics and poetry, as well as large scale explorations of timbre, resonance and sonic spectra. His music has been performed at festivals across North America.

As an experimental vocalist, Ethan regularly performs with Babel Vocal Ensemble and with Wooden Cities, a Buffalo-based new music/improvisation ensemble. Recent performances have included works by Georges Aperghis, John Cage, John Zorn and Will Redman.

His forthcoming treatment of Sigur Rós’ ( ) won’t try to fill in the gaps between the album’s parentheses, but instead aims to explore the ways in which listeners might attempt to do so. Examining the communicative powers of nonsensical language, Ethan will ask whether music can bring sense to nonsense.

What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Ethan Hayden: I fell in love with the record when it first came out. I was in high school at the time, and like many things one attaches oneself to in adolescence, I developed this very personal connection to the album, which I suppose I’ve maintained ever since. But my personal attachment to the record is merely a happy coincidence. What drew me to writing about ( ) was its inherent paradoxes and its alignment with a lot of issues that I often find myself thinking about: language, nonsense, meaning, voice and how all these issues manifest themselves in musical contexts. The album is sung in an imaginary language which lacks any semantic meaning and is therefore “open to interpretation,” and that brings up all sorts of intriguing questions: How can a language have no meaning? What, if anything, does such a language communicate? What happens to the voice when you strip it of semantics? Can musical context give sense to nonsense? If the album has no conceptual content, why do people (like myself) find it so moving? The opportunity to try and tackle some of these questions is what attracted me to this project.

Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33⅓. Did anything surprise you?
EH: It was a pretty crazy experience. A friend told me about the call literally a week before the proposals were due, so I went from complete unawareness to a few days of intensely focused thinking and puzzling over what a book on ( ) would look like. I suppose what surprised me was how quickly everything seemed to fall into place. The album seems to present the listener with all the aforementioned questions, so the process of writing the proposal was simply one of meeting ( ) where it is and saying, “That’s an interesting conundrum, I’m glad you brought that up.”

What do you want to explore about this band that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
EH: There are a lot of things about Sigur Rós that can simply seem like novelty at first glance and are often written about as such. Many times, when you read something about the band, you’ll find the author superficially dropping in little factoids–the band is from Iceland, they sing songs in a nonsensical language, etc.–painting the band as some sort of exotic oddity. But it usually stops there, which can make the whole thing just seem really gimmicky. Its to the point where even the band writes off the nonsense aspect as “mostly a media thing.”

What I hope to do with this book is to dive more deeply into the topics of language and voice in music, and give these issues the attention and thought they merit. Singing, speaking or writing in nonsense, rather than simply being a cute schtick, is actually an intensely provocative act which many artists throughout history have employed to a wide variety of ends: Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse, early modernists like Marinetti and Schwitters, later sound poets like Henri Chopin and the Four Horsemen, or bands as varied as Magma and the Cocteau Twins. So when Sigur Rós releases an album of songs sung in meaningless phonemes and abstract vocalizations, they don’t do so in a vacuum, but are part of an artistic tradition. I hope to locate the album in that tradition, and show where its aesthetics converge and, perhaps more interestingly, diverge from those of its predecessors.

Singing, speaking or writing in nonsense, rather than simply being a cute schtick, is actually an intensely provocative act which many artists throughout history have employed to a wide variety of ends. The rejection of common language is an inescapably disruptive act.

The rejection of common language is an inescapably disruptive act, even if, as in Sigur Rós’ case, it’s not presented as such. This seems to me to be very much related to the non-confrontational confrontation inherent in the aesthetics of most “post-rock” bands: using rock music’s tools to subvert rock music, without making that subversion the focal point of the art (as it was, for instance, in No Wave). The majority of post-rock bands abandon the voice–or at least the sung voice and/or the person of the singer–in favor of completely instrumental works. ( ) is unique among post-rock albums in that it maintains the sung voice, but strips it of its communicative capabilities, thereby opening up this intermediate gap between voice and instrument. Exploring this slippery limbo between voice and instrument/human and inhuman is another aim of the book.

Finally, I hope to address the more abstract ideas of optimism and hope in Sigur Rós’ music. The band named their imaginary language “Hopelandic” and present the album as an invitation for listeners to freely interpret their work, which I think demonstrates a certain level confidence and trust in one’s audience. This hopefulness is reflected in much of the band’s music, with its major key harmonies, angelic melodies, long crescendi and explosive climaxes. Sigur Rós may be a post-rock band, but, unlike many of their contemporaries, they are not quite post-apocalyptic: they lack the sort of “after the war” aesthetic common to many other groups (e.g., Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, et al.). The whole idea of the creation of a new language, musical or otherwise, seems to be one looking forward with optimism, as opposed to one of deconstructing the past or rearranging the pieces that the past has left behind. And yet, there is still a deep tension there, which is manifested on ( ) in the album’s division into two parts, the lighter side and the melancholic side. There’s a contradiction in that the one Sigur Rós album that endeavors to create this new linguistic space is perhaps their darkest record musically, not to mention the fact that the one video the band made for the album is literally of a post-apocalyptic wasteland (conflictingly presented against a song from the album’s lighter side). So digging deep into this tension, this gap, between despair and optimism, is the final goal of the book.

What 33⅓s have you read? Which are your favorites? Why?
I just finished Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. I was particularly taken with how he approaches the very broad issues of taste and the myriad ways people relate to pop music, but manages to do so through the uniquely specific prism of this one Celine Dion album. Plus, any book that successfully incorporates the ideas of Kant, Hume and Vegas drag queens is a winner if you ask me. I also recently got my hands on Scott Tennent’s Spiderland. Since I’ll be writing about a post-rock band, and also post-rock aesthetics, I’m looking forward to learning more about the genre’s Louisville origins, so I can’t wait until I have a chance to sit down with that one.

Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates the album itself.
EH: Perhaps, paradoxically, the song whose lyrics best encapsulate ( ) is “Samskeyti,” the record’s instrumental track. Seven of the album’s eight songs feature nonsensical vocalizations, and then there is this one song in the middle without any vocal presence whatsoever. Lyrically and vocally, it creates a gap on the album, which is what the record itself essentially is in its entirety: a big gap that the band invites listeners to fill in, an empty space between two parentheses.
Next up: Phillip Crandall on Andrew WK’s I Get Wet. Stay Tuned.

0 thoughts on “The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Ethan Hayden”

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  2. I recently started reading Hayden’s analysis of Sigur Ros’ ( ) and am impressed. However, although I applaud his referencing Magam and Cocteau Twins, I wonder why he doesn’t reference Dead Can Dance, whose Lisa Gerrard uses idioglossia in her lyrics.

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