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A Desolate Sound

by admin on November 22, 2012

“When you’ve travelled the world, you see more and more how much space we have,” says Jonsi of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.  They are a group known for the expression of space in their music through both unconventional recording techniques and unusual songwriting elements.  How has the landscape around them affected their music?  Iceland is a beautiful, serene country where the breathtaking views of the natural world in its purest form are readily available.  When one is constantly surrounded by this amazing landscape it is bound to affect the music in some way, but Jonsi says they don’t even travel to the countryside much: “It’s a subconscious thing, like with all Icelanders.  You come back here and everything is so small. Of course this has some effect on you.”

Echoes of the Icelandic landscape are heard in the natural rising and falling that occurs in both songs and albums by Sigur Ros.  This is achieved using loads of authentic tape delay, adventurous equalizing, and superior panning techniques.  Valtari, their latest album, has been described by the band as an “avalanche” in slow motion. Nature is clearly in the forefront of their minds.  Each song swells and falls back down again, all eventually ending in a rush of cold desolation.  If you close your eyes there’s a good chance your mind will travel to an imaginary landscape not too different from that of Iceland.  While the band says they don’t intentionally paint the landscapes around them in their songs, it’s hard to not think of it that way.  There is a suffocating spirit of desolation in each of their works, but somehow it becomes acceptable.  It’s almost as if each song is saying “don’t worry, this is how it’s supposed to be,” urging us to embrace a lack of human presence from a consoling comtemplative distance.

Another Icelandic artist who can’t help but be inspired by the natural world is Bjork.  On the album Biophelia she took a new approach to writing music and tried to find where music and nature meet.  According to Bjork, the most important part of nature in that album was “Arpeggios and lightnings, rhythm and DNA replication and so on,” leading her to a more technical approach than she is used to.  A handful of apps were programmed to mimic natural processes, such as a pendulum, and applied acoustic instruments.  This gave the project a mathematical, natural feel, without losing any potential musicality.  Born in Reykjavik, both a natural beauty and a capital city, Bjork says she doesn’t understand why people seem to think one must choose between natural and urban, or why nature feels so far away to some people.  “You city folks are the odd ones, not us,” she asserts.  “Nature hasn’t gone anywhere. It is all around us and we’re nothing in comparison.”  To Bjork, nature is an integral part of who we are and what we do; her work expresses this in patterns stemming directly from nature.

Bjork’s old band, The Sugarcubes, were heavily into nature before her solo career ever launched.  They often touted Iceland’s beautiful mountains as an influence, one you can hear in the towering pads and hefty percussion of their music.  It’s meant to make a statement, not just sit in the background.  The Sugarcubes wanted to be heard, much as mountains can be seen.  Punk music in the 80s came in two flavors: the classic harder, faster, louder variety and the kind that used new instruments for the genre.  Synths became a punk mainstay and The Sugarcubes were good at using them.  They used filters and oscillators to express the world they saw.  It gave them more flexibility, un-anchoring them from purely acoustic or amplified sounds and letting them show everyone the mountain they were.  In one interview Magga says “When we started we all loved Iceland because it was our home.  Now we all love it because it has done so much to turn us into the band we are today.”  Another band in debt to their home of Iceland.

When people grow up with certain surroundings, these influence how and what they learn, who they know, and where they end up. Certain places have major effects that never go away. Music from Iceland is marked by a monstrous, desolate quality.  The productions of Sigur Ros, Bjork, and the Sugarcubes—vast and immaculate in their statements of presence—have had profound effects on the international music scene; the three artists may play very different types of music, but the influence of their native country, Iceland, can be heard in the work of each one.

Works Consulted

Allie Jacobius November 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this article! After watching the Sigur Ros documentary, I have personally fallen in love with the band. All of your descriptions of the band, in my opinion are very accurate and demonstrate their point of view. I could visualize the ideas of their music making throughout your article. I felt that this article definitely pertained to our music and environment class. You incorporated ideas of place-making and eco-politics into your essay! Great job!

Zena Zangwill November 22, 2012 at 11:55 pm

I found this article to be quite enlightening, since I do believe it emphasizes the whole point of the Music and the Environment class. I strongly believe that people who live in open spaces really have to make the most of the environment in which they live, and use it to their full potential. It seems like people who live in Iceland can do this, as most of that country is an open space. I do distinctly remember watching one of Sigur Ros’s songs during class and finding it to be one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. I really think this article captured the purpose of the assignment, way to go!

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