Emery Coxe Comp Lit 60, S09 Professor Kopper April 18, 2009 Meaning and Globalization in Post-rock: The

Curious Case of “Hopelandic” As music has evolved and expanded across the centuries, transforming its styles and sounds to conform to contemporary norms with regard to the art form, so too has the nomenclature of musical genres broadened and diversified, especially in postmodern society. Particularly, the advent of the Internet – which has exploded in popularity over the past twenty years – accelerated this proliferation of genres by tearing down the barriers of communication that in the past had hindered artists from spreading their artwork. Its openness allowed musicians – distinguished, emerging, unknown – to disseminate their work quickly and, oftentimes, freely, and moreover, it provided a forum in which people could discuss these same artists. One topic of discussion was certainly musical genre: people categorized the style of musicians or bands – that is to say, they assigned genre to the music – and in order to describe the subtle nuances between emerging, extant, and inactive artists, particularly those whose music exhibited experimentation that broke away from conventional musical genres, niche genres were created to capture these fringes. Within this framework of experimentation and genre decentralization, the Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Rós has struck an interesting and exciting chord, with musical implications that transcend their band, their genre, and perhaps even Western culture. Their album ( ), released in 2002, featured vocals sung exclusively in an artificial language created by the group’s singer, Jón Birgisson, dubbed “Hopelandic”; the explicit purpose of this was, according to the album’s press release, to invite the listener to find “their own meaning” within Birgisson’s vocals. While the use of this singing style certainly opens new artistic doors for the band’s vocalist, the most intriguing aspect of the album is truly the “Hopelandic” lyrics, for inherent in its construction lies the foundation of a discourse that challenges the limits of modern music

Coxe, 2 theory. By employing an artificial language in place of conventional lyrics, Sigur Rós succeeds in creating a globally understandable music that transcends, in part, the gap between cultures, even if they do not achieve an autonomous music – that is, music in which the artist’s intended meaning and the universally understood meaning converge. To better understand how “Hopelandic” functions within the album ( ), it is incumbent to first contextualize the band Sigur Rós in terms of their genre – post-rock – and their own particular style. Post-rock is an experimental form of rock music that encompasses and fuses many sub-genres of rock to describe a body of music that is “hypnotic, droning…cool and cerebral – overall, the antithesis of rock’s visceral power” (Allmusic). Concerned with “pure sound and texture” rather than the structure and simplicity of mainstream rock, post-rock utilizes rock instruments to create a harmonies, melodies, timbre, and rhythms not found in traditional rock (Allmusic). And unlike mainstream rock, post-rock is generally instrumental (though Sigur Rós is a glaring exception) and when vocals are employed, “they [are] often incidental to the overall effect” of the music (Allmusic). Within this genre, Sigur Rós has firmly entrenched its own categorical niche: they create ambient soundscapes that embody classical, minimalist, and melodic elements (Wikipedia). In addition to the standard instruments found in rock and roll music – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards – Sigur Rós employ a bowed guitar (with pedals to layer the sound and add texture), wood and brass instruments, glockenspiels, singer Jón Birgisson’s falsetto, and assorted other instruments in a variety of their songs (Eighteen Seconds). This wide array of instruments, the long length of their songs, and the variable language of Birgisson’s lyrics – Icelandic, Hopelandic, or English – all combine to achievea sound often described as ethereal and glacial, “a sonic transmutation of the sublimely melancholic Icelandic landscape” (Marzorati).

Coxe, 3 Characteristic of Sigur Rós’s tendency to create music that transports listeners to distant landscapes, ( ) begins with a delicate click, marking a clear distinction between reality and the album’s contents, and perhaps signifying the start of an unknown journey through foreign terrain. The listener is then strung through the first half of the work on the gossamer threads of Birgisson’s bowed guitar and ethereal voice. After a 36 seconds of silence, which emphasize the stark contrast between the previous and subsequent halves, the listener returns once more to the similar soundscape inherent in the first half of the album, but several minutes in, he notices that the lightness and optimism of the first half is gone, replaced by a bleaker, more melancholy mood that descends into darkness and despair at times as the second half winds on. Then, a click, and silence once more. Perhaps the clicks represent the parentheses in the title, and the space between is a world comprising the textured soundscape of Sigur Rós music; or perhaps it is something else. As the band has stated, that task – discerning the meaning of the album – is left to the listener. Yet, when searching for that esoteric nugget of truth in ( ), one cannot help but reach several curious questions presented by “Hopelandic”, the language Birgisson elected to sing throughout the album. The first of these, obviously – what is “Hopelandic”? According to the album’s press release, “Hopelandic” is a form of gibberish that allows Birgisson to use his voice as another instrument, and the listeners are invited to interpret the songs themselves. Furthermore, “Hopelandic” lacks syntax, grammar, word meaning, and even distinct words, instead utilizing emotive syllables and phonemes to maintain the rhythmic and melodic elements of singing without the significance immanent in language; thus, it has been likened to the use of scat singing in jazz (Wikipedia). And on a final note to describe this artificial language, “Hopelandic” is, according to the band in their interview with NPR, complete nonsense (the direct words of Birgisson, while quite telling, are too choice to include here). Now, since the band

Coxe, 4 itself has described “Hopelandic” as merely another facet of their instrumentation, it is not a stretch to consider their music “absolute” in that it is purely instrumental. Indeed, according to Nietzsche, “the listener confronts [the music] as absolute” (115). Similarly, according to Schopenhauer, the music of Sigur Rós is absolute if it is not “an imitation produced with the conscious intention by means of conceptions,” or in common terms, if the singer does not consciously craft his lyrics (185). The words of the band members themselves evidence that Sigur Rós indeed fulfills these requirements: “When we make music there is nothing behind it, there is no concept at all” (Kjartan, Discography). Kjartan furthers this, saying, “we never think about what we're doing when we make music and we never analyze or discuss our music among us” (Discography). These quotes, coupled with the self-designated description of “Hopelandic” – gibberish vocals that are express Birgisson’s emotions, fit the melody, and have no real significance – provide ample evidence that Sigur Rós does not force a conception upon their music, and thus, it can be considered absolute. While a knowledge of the details of “Hopelandic” is certainly useful, still more questions remain unanswered. Namely, because the listeners are directed to seek their own meaning from “Hopelandic”,can “Hopelandic” have a universal meaning – that is, a meaning understood by any person of any culture, creed, race, or age? An immediate reaction to this would be a resounding “No!” For really, when asking if “Hopelandic” has universal meaning, one is also asking “Is ( ) by Sigur Rós autonomous?” And while the scope of this paper is much too small to entail an argument against autonomous music, the following examples should suffice to support the claim that the music of Sigur Rós is not autonomous (bear in mind that it has never been proven that music is indeed autonomous). We begin with a nonwestern corollary: “by reason of the inexhaustible richness and depth of Persian music…only the qualified can appreciate it” (Nasr, 79). In essence, Nasr asserts – and rightly so – that the Persian music has a spiritual meaning that

Coxe, 5 only enlightened Muslims can find; thus, by definition this form of music is not autonomous. This has implications on any lyrical music, for according to Nasr, one must not only understand the language but also any underlying significance – in this case, spiritual – to grasp the true meaning of the music. We can extend this example to the case of “Hopelandic” by noting that because the language is individual to the self, then it has infinite meanings, for surely people from differing cultures will arrive at different conclusions with respect to the meaning of “Hopelandic”, just as Muslims of differing spiritual fervor experience Persian music in distinct ways. Thus, because inherent in “Hopelandic” is the possibility of infinite significance, it cannot converge to one singular universal significance. In the same vein, Rose Subotnik, in a study of autonomy in music since the Enlightenment published in 1978, declared that “Western music has never seemed less likely to convey generally accessible knowledge without some dependence on natural language” (764-5). Essentially, Subotnik rejected the notion of autonomous absolute music; thus, according to her line of reasoning, ( ) by Sigur Rós certainly is not autonomous. Even if the previous two examples are false, we need only to examine the discontinuity of the singer to prove that “Hopelandic” has no universal significance. To begin, recall that, according to Birgisson, “Hopelandic” is meaningless. Now, although Birgisson and the band claim that their music has no concept, there nevertheless exists some esoteric meaning within those intriguing brackets that comprise ( ). According to Birgisson: Music flows so naturally for us, and when you come to write lyrics you have to put yourself in a different space. We usually start by singing some nonsense over the songs, then I listen to that, and usually, within that gobbledigook, there is often some spark of meaning – so you take out one

Coxe, 6 word and start from there, and find out what the song should be about (Gill). So, evidently, Sigur Rós indeed discerns meaning from its work, and moreover, in the case of ( ), where all of the songs are sung in so called “gobbledigook”, the meaning must be abstract: “Hopelandic” is an emotive language whose syllables lack denotative meaning, and thus Birgisson can only extract pure, ineffable, emotive meaning. Now, as Schopenhauer stated, “music…[is] the copy of an original which can never itself be directly presented as idea” (176); essentially, this indicates a belief that music is a copy of the human will, which is only expressed unconsciously, and thus a musician can never grasp the absolute essence of his work. Because the meaning of ( ) by necessity must be abstract and ineffable for Birgisson, then it can be said that he too does not comprehend entirely the tenor of his craft. This contradicts Edward Cone’s assertion that the singer is the conscious composer of his music and words. However, in the same essay, Cone contends that the musical performers must “project the required sense of identity – which…informs the interpretation of the entire song” (183). But, if this is true, then what is to be said of the entire album ( )? Because the singer’s tongue is entirely artificial and is open to the interpretation of the listener, there can be no singular sense of identity to inform the meaning of the work. Rather, the listener must immerse himself in the music to discover a personal meaning. Therefore, because the music of ( ) by Sigur Rós is a copy of the band’s will, rather than a conscious construction, it follows that “Hopelandic” necessarily cannot be universal; the words, which are denotatively meaningless to the singer, have an indefinable meaning to him, and thus, even if Subotnik’s assertion that autonomous music cannot exist without the assistance of natural language is false, and even if the individual meaning for every person in the world converged to one singular concept – a patent absurdity – the language still would not be universal because for Birgisson the significance is incommunicable.

Coxe, 7 Though “Hopelandic” is not universal, one question still remains unanswered: is “Hopelandic” global – that is, can ( ) be understood and enjoyed by all people, despite its lack of autonomy? Think for a minute about the role of language in modern music: “language…[is] a tool by which localization is overcoded with global cultural expectations” (Romanow). Thus, the refusal to assign meaning by means of a known language “displaces the signifiers of the cultural code”, and thus resists both local and global linguistics (Romanow). Additionally, because “Hopelandic” is incommensurable and bound by no culture, “[it] offers a mode of transgressing the ‘narratives of identification’ and ‘cultural translation’” immanent in all music of a given culture’s language (Romanow). Clearly, by following Romanow’s line of argument, it is easy to see that she is convinced “Hopelandic” achieves a music that is global in its ability to transcend cultural barriers and present the same appreciable soundscape to listeners anywhere in the world. Yet, let us look at “Hopelandic” through a different lens: that of Roland Barthes. Barthes defined the “grain of the voice” to be “the encounter between a language and a voice” that carries meaning between the signifier and the signified (181). However, in the case of “Hopelandic”, the voice by definition is purely grain – that is, the voice is sheer emotion and carries the entire meaning of the words. Furthermore, according to Edward Miller, “Sigur Rós is doubly posed to create and convey sentiment because the singer uses falsetto…and sings glossolalia” (PMO). This assertion is based on his previous contention that singing in falsetto is expressive and steeped in sentiment. In the same manner, Miller maintains that “glossolalia reveals the tension between voice and signification, and exposes the communicativeness of sound itself” (PMO). Bearing the aforementioned evidence in mind, it is incontrovertible that because the voice of Birgisson is pure emotion, which transcends cultural gaps, and because “Hopelandic” escapes the pitfalls of local and global linguistics, and because the lyrics of “Hopelandic”

Coxe, 8 are explicitly left to the interpretation of the listener, “Hopelandic”, and consequently ( ) by Sigur Rós, is globally understandable. As a note of conclusion, Theodore Adorno, in his Philosophy of New Music, denounced “closed artwork” because it “renounced thinking” (96); instead, Adorno championed the new music, devoid of artist-defined meaning so that its true significance was open for interpretation and accessible to all. With this in mind, it begs the question: how much does the music of ( ) by Sigur Rós resemble the “New Music” of which Adorno was an ardent advocate?

Coxe, 9 Works Cited Adorno, Theodore W. Philosophy Of New Music. New York: Univ Of Minnesota P, 2006. "Bryant Park Project." Interview with Bryant Park. NPR. 10 Oct. 2007. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.npr.org/blogs/bryantpark/2007/10/when_good_interviews_go_bad.ht ml>. Cone, Edward T. "Poet's Love or Composer's Love?" Music and text: Critical Inquiries. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Eighteen seconds before sunrise - official sigur rós website. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/>. Fatcat Records. "Sigur rós ( )." Press release. Eighteen Seconds Before Sunrise. 28 Oct. 2002. 18 Apr. 2009 <http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/media/press/28oct02.php>. Gill, Andy. "Sigur Rós: Why we're mesmerised by the hypnotic Icelandic band." The Independent 30 Jan. 2009. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.independent.co.uk/artsentertainment/music/features/sigur-r243s-why-were-mesmerised-by-the-hypnoticicelandic-band-1519898.html>. Marzorati, Gerald. "Popstars on Ice." Eighteen Seconds Before Sunrise. New York Times. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/media/articles/newyork0.php>. Miller, Edward D. "The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice: Listening to Sigur Rós." Popular Musicology Online 2003. Chair, Department of Media Culture, The College of Staten Island/City University of New York. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.popular-musicology-online.com/issues/02/miller.html>. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic art and spirituality. Albany: State University of New York P, 1987. Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Music and Words." Ed. Carl Dahlhaus. Between romanticism and modernism four studies in the music of the later nineteenth century. Berkeley:

University of California P, 1980.

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"Post-Rock/Experimental." Allmusic. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=77:2682>. Romanow, Rebecca. "The Erasure of Language in the Globalization of Rock Music: Sigur Rosand the Politics of Hopelandic.” Politics and Culture (2003). Vol. 3 <http://aspen.conncoll.edu/politicsandculture/page.cfm?key=251>. Roland., Barthes,. Grain of the Voice. New York: Hill & Wang, 1986. Schopenhauer, Arthur. "The World as Will and Idea." Ed. DeWitt H. Parker. Schopenhauer: Selections. Charles Scribbner's Sons, 1956. "Sigur rós - discography ( )." Eighteen seconds before sunrise - official sigur rós website. 21 Apr. 2009 <http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/band/disco/parenth.php>. "Sigur Rós." Sigur Rós - Wikipedia. Wikipedia. 19 Apr. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigur_Rós>. Subotnik, Rose. "The Cultural Message of Musical Semiology: Some Thoughts on Music, Language, and Criticism since the Enlightenment." Critical Inquiry 4 (1978): 741-68.

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