A Look at Ethan Hayden’s 33 ⅓ Book on Sigur Ros’ ( )

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Ethan Hayden is a linguistics expert, composer and performer who received his Ph.D. in music at the University at Buffalo, US. I had the pleasure of attending one of his performances of his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” in April of 2015. The work is a set of phonetic studies for voice, video, and electronics in which Hayden makes a wide range of vocal sounds, none of which are coherent expressions of any known language. After the event I blogged most enthusiastically:

“…ce dangereux supplément…” is a dynamic and engaging piece for live and recorded voices. Hayden stepped up to a podium with several sheets of what appeared to be a random spilling of pronunciation symbols and odd scribblings. They were, in fact, intricate experimental notation in the classic form of musique concrete. For the next eight minutes, he stood, wearing a headset microphone, and produced a captivating performance of furious jabberwock-speech, tongue clicks, grunts and pops. Both his energy and skill were truly mesmerizing, and for nearly ten minutes he made an incredible amount of noise without once venturing near what anyone could call a coherent sound. His performance ended with thunderous applause – surely one to be remembered.

Hayden is a fitting author to tackle Sigur Ros’ ( ) album for an edition of the popular 33 1/3 book series. The parenthetical album is sung entirely in the nonsense Hopelandic language created by the members of Sigur Ros.

So what does one write about an album with no discernible theme or statement? And how would one begin to describe the nonsense sounds of the Hopelandic language? Over the course of 150 pages, Hayden expertly addresses these questions and presents both a critical analysis of Hopelandic and a philosophical perspective on the recording itself. The book adds a fascinating critical dimension to the album and aims to help listeners approach the recording with a greater sense of understanding.

At the outset of the book, Hayden endeavors to outline the fundamental principles of language and nonsense.

From 1: Nonsense: Language and Meaning (pp13-16)

It would seem, at first, that the very idea of a nonsensical language is inherently paradoxical. One of language’s defining features is its ability to communicate meaning, to transmit specific concepts from the mind of one person to the mind of another. Since language is the medium through which meaning is communicated, surely one could not take meaning from a language and still call it language any more than one could drain the ocean of water and still call it an ocean.

But to equate language with meaning is short-sighted and problematic. Language consists of several distinct elements, which are entwined with each other to create an intricate and multifaceted structure: semantics (meaning), syntax (grammar), lexicon (words), phonetics (sounds), prosody (phrasing), and pragmatics (context). In our everyday language, the language you and I are communicating right now, these elements are interwoven and work together in an amazingly complex manner to communicate a wide variety of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (To revise the ocean metaphor: an ocean is more than just water, it has salt, currents, tides, and a vast ecosystem full of various life-forms; an ocean made of just water wouldn’t be an ocean at all, just an oversized puddle.) But it is indeed quite possible for these elements to exist in isolation from one another, or in incomplete combinations.

Since semantics is concerned with meaning, any combination of these elements that omits or obscures semantics, can be referred to as “nonsense,” and it turns out that Hopelandic is just one of many possible varieties of such nonsensical combinations. In fact, as we will see, Hopelandic contains all of the aforementioned elements, with the singular exception of meaning. Therefore, it is only one step away from being a fully functioning and understandable language, and is still fundamentally linguistic.

And Hayden never shies from the metaphors inherent to the album.

From 1: Nonsense: Vaka

…This Melody, which is repeated several times at different pitch levels, is in fact a palindrome. The first part of the line, “yu sy no lo,” is heard and then immediately played backwards, reflecting back onto itself. Thus, it is perhaps better to transcribe the syllables as “yu sy no longer – ol on ys uy.” The first half of the phrase is a mirror image of the second half, the two together mirroring the relationship between two opposing parentheses; and thus the Melody could be seen as an introduction to ( )‘s own bilateral symmetry, acting as both a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the album’s bipartite structure.

The rest of the chapter delves deeper into the nuances of language and communication, and the rich contextual history of nonsense. Hayden touches upon onomatopoeia, Aristophanes’ satirical parody of Socratic philosophy, the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s subversion of language and semantics with his asyntactic and echolalic parole in libertà, and Fortunato Depero’s “onomalingua.” He also visits Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation,” Scheerbart’s 1914 work, Glasarchitektur, Hugo Ball and the Dada poets’ mystically incantatory lautgedichte, and Schwitters’ reading of Ursonate (later sampled by Brian Eno for the 1977 track, “Kurt’s Rejoinder.”) Hayden briefly examines Tolkien’s “glossopoeia” language-creation and other science fiction constructs like Dothraki, Na’vi, and Klingon.

Later segments of the chapter explore the musical xenoglossia, echolalic phonosymbolism, and phono-erotic lyrics of the French progressive rock band, Magma, Burroughs’ critique of language through glossolalia, and how Hopelandic contrasts to each of these. In closing the chapter, Hayden describes Hopelandic as, either “a quasi-echolalic xenogloss with phono-erotic tendencies or a glossolalic vocalise producing nonsense from the innermost roots of language,” and calls it “welcoming, even celebratory.” “In the end, all that we are left with is the excess of non-semanticity, the concrete material of Hopelandic itself: voice and melody.”

2: Voice outlines the critical significance of voice over other sounds of the natural world.

In the words of the Slovene psychoanalytic theorist Mladen Dolar, “What singles out the voice against the vast ocean of sounds and noises […] is its inner relationship with meaning. The voice is something which raises the expectation of meaning, the voice is an opening toward meaning.”

Another psychoanalyst – Julia Kristeva is introduced, noting the dialectical tension between voice and meaning and the opposing elements of the symbolic and the semiotic. “Nonsense,” he explains, “aims toward purely semiotic expression.” Hayden offers Carroll’s classic Jabberwocky as outlining the contours of meaning – a semantic silhouette.

After addressing the question of whether or not music can bring sense to nonsense, Hayden returns to the album and examines “Samskeyti” – the record’s one voiceless song. He describes the Sonic texture and progression as a cyclical, circular logic and how it evokes a sense of stasis: “beautiful, elegant, and ultimately uneventful.” And when visiting “Njósnavélin,” Hayden quotes Simon Reynolds’ commentary on the modus operandi of post-rock:

.“With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to melt into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the song and the voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller and the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom, or site of social resonance. […] A band’s journey through rock to post-rock usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music.”

Though Hayden notes that, instead of dispensing with voice, Sigur Ros “magnifies it, exploding out the residue until it becomes the essential substance of the music. The Hopelandic voice is not a mere texture; it is not simply a dash of color tinting the ambience. Instead, it is the embodiment of ( )‘s music, its very corporeality.”

3: Space opens with a quote from Pauline Oliveros who said, “Any space is as much a part of the instrument as the instrument itself.” Hayden notes that Sigur Ros initially intended for the album to be recorded in a decommissioned NATO tracking base on a mountain in Iceland, but that they found it too ice-ravaged to be usable. Instead, they opted to record at a space in the town of Mosfellsbær containing an emptied swimming pool. He explains, “The pool’s high ceilings allow for a very resonant space” contributing to the expansive sound of the record. Hayden points out that the musical properties of each song enhance this effect, such as the bowing of Jónsi’s guitar, the music’s slow tempos, and the long durations of each piece.

4: Hope

The final chapter frames the hopefulness of ( ). Hayden presents the failures, caveats and imperfections of the world’s languages, their inconsistencies, sources of miscommunication, and the quest of man to reclaim our original (or to construct a new and more perfect) language. He notes that Sigur Ros lacks the apocalyptic sensibility of their post-rock contemporaries and instead “lean more on the jubilant, celebratory, and the inspiring” and that while ( ) may be the darkest of Sigur Ros’ output, that the music remains fundamentally hopeful. Hayden takes great care not to over-interpret (and thus compromise) this work. “Perhaps the best approach,” he suggests, “is not to interpret it at all. To do so tries to bring the album into the very real it resists as a work of art; to do so would be to force it to name the Name. Perhaps gaps are most useful to us when they are empty, as there is so little in the world that is empty.”

Hayden closes with a brief but poetic and philosophical afterward, titled, “).” He highlights the importance of emptiness, and of play for play’s sake. His final words are the most potent of the entire text:

For this reason, perhaps it is better to leave gaps unfulfilled, to leave spaces uninhabited, to let the parenthetical surround an empty void. Instead of staring into a mirror and meeting the gaze of my own boring reflection, I would rather stare into the abyss, and have it stare back into me. Such would be far more terrifying and beautiful and fun. I would rather let nothingness be nothingness, let nonsense be nonsense, and let gaps be gaps.

Befittingly, just like Sigur Ros’ album, Hayden’s text serves as an important reminder in this postmodern world to stop and just enjoy the beauty of art, and of life, itself.

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