There is an archway in Oxford – a replica of the Bridge of Sighs – and it stands, for no particular reason, at the head of Queen’s Lane. The only prison it joins is a library, and, yet, its decontextualized nature allows it to become part of the essential semiotics of Oxford. It is fitting, then, that I should pass beneath it as the first humming sounds of Sigur RÃ³s’ #1 came through on a foggy, October evening. The experience of listening to this song, and the untitled album from which it comes, did much to realign my perception of what was possible, and, indeed, what was in my life.
I had come to Oxford in October of 2002 on a study-abroad trip through Arcadia University. It was strange for me to be leaving my home, and setting out into the unknown world. I had traveled, sure, but the idea of living abroad struck me with a mixture of dread and anticipation. This was perhaps accelerated by the fact that the sum total of my worldly possessions were packed away before I left, and my house sold. I arrived in England homeless, and with no idea of what would remain when I returned. It was an altogether disconcerting feeling. Intensifying this discomfort, somewhat, was the fact that I had no friends in England, and that the University intimidated me to no end. My first round of meetings with tutors were exercises in humility, as I realized just how far I had to go to catch up with everyone.
I was determined, however, and in-between trips to Blackwell’s and the library, I set about reading. While I would eventually meet many of the people who were to become close friends, I found that I had little time for serious socializing. One of the few things I allowed myself by way of indulgence were trips to the local record shops on release days. By the end of my first month, I was determined to be more social, and fell back on something that had seen me through in my former life – theatre. I had a part in my friend Cristina’s self-written play for Cuppers, and was encouraged to find something else to do. It was with this in mind that I set out for the auditions for “As You Like It.”
The auditions were in the evening, in a part of Oxford that I had yet to visit. I knew that I would have time to visit HMV beforehand, and so I went to get my first copy of ( ) – the untitled Sigur RÃ³s album. I knew the band from a late-night show on HBO which used to feature obscure acts from around the world. I remember sitting on my couch in my old basement room at two in the morning and thinking that the sound was the most amazing thing in the world. It’s impossible to describe, really, and I guess you’ll have to settle for the clips at the end of this entry. But I remember thinking that I had never seen such an innovative band in my life. Of course, I understand that people had used bowed guitars and e-bows before. (I mean, hey, I was an R.E.M. nut, as well as the best-friend of the “Adore” album, if nothing else…) But the combination of the unorthodox instrumentation and the otherworldly vocals made for something I hadn’t imagined. And, what’s more, it was all being done without pretense. These guys were simply rotating instruments and performing to each other. One of the greatest moments, I think, was the interview that followed the performance. When asked why they didn’t perform in English or Icelandic (which they sometimes do), the band said that they had wanted to play covers and write lyrics but lacked the skill.
(Is genius always so unaware of itself?)
On the best of days, with respect to the tourists (the true measure of good and evil in Oxbridge), Queen’s Lane is desolate – accompanied by stories of ghostly marches, and a torch of the city’s ancient past, the lane’s high walls wend their way from the Bod to Teddy Hall. And so it was that, alone, I made my way through the lane en route to my first theatrical audition in Oxford. Shortly after departing, however, the reason for coming became lost to memory. There’s something in the ambient noise of track #1 that excites the mind, expanding the periphery, while also planting a stillness within. It was this stillness that drew me to the first archway I passed. There, lost in fog while the rain fell through the chilly air, I gave over the self I carried, and lost myself in sound.
When I think about that ambient noise, I am reminded of recent studies in the phenomenon of hauntings. It has been suggested that infrasounds (sounds too low to hear, but still perceivable) are what excite the sensation of ghostly activity. And it may be something similar that forces my world to slow down whenever this album begins, but I’d hate to suggest that that’s all that happens. JÃ³nsi’s voice is pleading and inspiring in its repetitive march of hopelandic. The entire album is a study in treatments of these same lyrics – like other great modern artists, revisitation is simply a chance to see from a new angle…not for kitsch, but for the chance to challenge our perceptions and tease our expectations. There, in that archway, I listened to the first track over and over – each time finding nuances in the layers that I wouldn’t have dreamt of finding on any other record. This has ever been my experience with Sigur RÃ³s. I have done little else but gape in wonder as they assailed my ears with e-bows, singing saws, and vocals of heavenly origin.
Tolstoy wrote: “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” and I’d certainly have to agree. There are some albums that so embody a feeling, atmosphere, or time/place that you’re completely unable to disassociate them from those things. ( ) is an album that remains forever linked with that sense of standing in the rain, watching the drops fall past the spires, and realizing that nothing could ever stand in my way but me. It’s rare that an album actually makes me stop everything and take notice, but I’m always the better for it when it does happen. Stunned while listening, lost in feeling, I am sure that some part of me went off in that Oxfordian fog – only to return reborn. When I finally arrived at my audition, the epiphany I’d had served me well – I went forward, unafraid, and won a role in the play (Corin).
One final note: As I’ve written elsewhere, this band has a truly unique effect on audiences. I went to see them with Lucy in London, and the first thing that comes to mind is the trance-like nature of the audience. I remember crying a little at how beautiful the sound was, and being transfixed as, like everyone else, I watched in stunned silence. I have written elsewhere in these pages about the moment the door hinge creaked, and I’ll let that stand on its own. Suffice it to say, it was so affirming to realize that I hadn’t been alone in my strange world under the archway. That trip down Queen’s Lane was truly the first step into a new world. Much like the moment I heard “Mayonaise” for the first time, everything had changed for the better.
And now it’s your turn. The first clip is that very same HBO performance from ages ago (the program was “reverb”), and the second is the video for #1. Enjoy.