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.

Highlights of John Cage and Morton Feldman – Exquisite Examples of Dynamic Range

This weekend’s research proved to be incredibly valuable, resulting in two wonderful musical discoveries.  And it began with The S.E.M. Ensemble.

From semensemble.org:

The S.E.M. Ensemble was founded in 1970 when Petr Kotik organized a group of musicians of the fellows at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, SUNY/Buffalo. The first S.E.M. Ensemble concert was presented in Buffalo at the Domus Theater and included works by Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, Petr Kotik and Rudolf Komorous.

In 1992, the SEM chamber ensemble was expanded into The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble with a debut concert at Carnegie Hall, presenting the first complete performance of Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage (all 86 instruments).  The concert was an internationally celebrated event, lauded by audiences and critics from across the United States, Europe and Japan.

S.E.M. Ensemble

But another property unique to this performance makes it a must-own for all lovers of exceptional music.

For the last several years, DR-loudness-war.info has been crowd-sourcing a massive database mapping the dynamic range, (that is, the range from the quietest to the loudest sounds occurring in piece of music) for over 77,000 albums.  This database was created as a reaction to the Loudness War – the trend of record labels cutting off all the “highs” and “lows” of an album so that the entire album can be as loud as possible.

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Skrillex’s “Kyoto” – This is what the loudness war looks like.

It is this very recording – the S.E.M. Ensemble’s Concert for Piano & Orchestra, which tops the chart for dynamic range. In fact, the album holds both the #1 and #2 positions among all 77,522 recordings presently cataloged – one for the original CD release and the other for the subsequent digital download.

The recording is unlike any other musical experience I’ve had with my listening equipment.  The sound stage is open and well-defined and really gives the listener the feeling of a live modern classical performance.  My setup has a very neutral or transparent delivery which is well-suited to the more “academic” recordings I enjoy such as Berlin School electronic, drone and ambient musics.  I can say with certainty that this recording is a brilliant match for my setup and makes for a thrilling experience, both for its critical acoustic properties as well as for the cerebral pleasures it arouses in the listener.

While reviewing the Dynamic Range Database’s other highest-ranked recordings, I took note of Morton Feldman’s Late Piano Works Vol.3 performed by Steffen Schleiermacher.  AllMusic contributor, Blair Sanderson called the album “sublime”, speaking of the spaciousness and quietude of Feldman’s composition and of the incredible sensitivity and control with which Schleiermacher presents the featured selections.

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Feldman’s later piano works make for excellent study music, or simply a soundtrack for an evening of quiet reflection.  The Database is certainly correct – this is a wonderfully pensive and subtle recording which is sadly (and quite literally) drowned out by more modern victims of the Loudness War.  Put this on, turn down the lights, and awaken your senses to the subtle nuances of audiophilic delight.

The Best Concert of 2015

Tonight I was privileged enough to be in attendance at a small but incredibly exciting musical event in Buffalo, NY.

At 7pm my beloved musical cohort and I braved the maddened event parking at the local university, and worked our way past the velvet ropes and bustling crowds who apparently were awaiting a performance by The Decemberists. We continued down a nondescript narrow corridor to an intimate black box theater – the locale for the REAL excitement of the evening.

Black Box 2015 was presented by The Lejaren Hiller Computer Music Studios at The University at Buffalo. The annual multi-channel electroacoustic event was hosted by the Studio’s director, Professor Lippe. Lippe’s compositions have received numerous international prizes, and he studied under composers including Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis – some of the most prominent figures of 20th century electronic sound.

Below is a brief summary of the featured works of the evening.

Lippe’s Ivocean (1978) was created using early analog synthesizers (Moog IIIP, Buchla, et al.), using these instruments to craft new timbres which still sound exciting and undated nearly 40 years after their recording.

Maggie Payne’s Crystal (1982) consists of muti-tracked shimmering tones which slowly washed over and around the theater much in the same way that light plays upon a crystalline prism.

Gayle Young’s Avalon Shorelines (2015) is a multi-channel soundscape which uses recordings of the titular waterfront toward the construction of an elaborate and multi-dimensional sonic landscape. Field recordings of crashing waves were accompanied by her performance on an Amaranth – an instrument of her invention played with two bows and reminiscent of a Japanese koto. The instrument produced a range of sounds all of which conjured images of a steel ship groaning and rollocking against the waves of an angry sea.

Brett Masteller’s electro-acoustic work, Trio of Duets was a modern drone piece built from instrumental sound samples, enveloping the theater in an impenetrable fog somewhere between high-volume broadcast static and moving through a gale in slow motion.

John Chowning’s Phoné (1981) was an exciting experience. Chowning is best-known for having discovered the FM synthesis algorithm in 1967, which allowed for the synthesis of simple but rich sounding timbres. The sounds experienced in Phoné calls to memory many of the pivotal recordings of electronic sound. There are skittering, playful melodic fragments, sudden bursts of white noise, and microtonal runs much like those employed by Stockhausen, Subotnick, Louis and Bebe Barron, Perrey & Kingsley, and Beaver & Krause during the 1960s and 70s. There is even a delightful and mischievous touch of Raymond Scott a la his adverts for the Bendix Corporation.

But the crowd-favorite of the evening was the Ethan Hayden’s “…ce dangereux supplément…” (2015), 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.

I spoke briefly with each of the performers about their work and was excited to learn that much of the professors’ sound catalogs are available to the public at the University library. I’m planning the first of many visits this summer for further research.

My readers should also take note that Hayden published a book on Sigur Rós’s ( ) for the famous +33⅓ series in August of 2014. I’ll certainly be securing a copy for my library.


Gayle Young’s Amaranth

New Year’s Concert – Music of Terry Riley

Ladies and gentlemen – it has been an outstanding start to the new year.

I received an invitation this morning from the Music Director of the UB Symphony Orchestra to attend a local musical Happening.

Daniel Bassin conceived and organized the event which took place this afternoon, January 1st at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.

The Happening united a number of musicians, some natives of the city and others from around the country.  Together they performed Terry Riley’s iconic piece, “In C” in this, the 50th year since its composition.

The first recording of “In C” was produced with Riley and The Center of Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY-Buffalo in 1968 so it was a fitting selection to kick off the local Happenings series.

From Mr. Bassin’s event summary:

Part composition, part improvisation, never the same twice, and beautiful to experience in person in a fine acoustic like our church’s sanctuary, this piece was composed in 1964 and first recorded by the composer alongside Buffalo’s Creative Associates in 1968.

“In C” consists of 53 composed musical melodies and gestures which players are to perform sequentially with one another, but each individual only moves on from melody to melody on their own, thus creating musical textures which are alternatingly delicate and dense, lush and hypnotic.

In the spirit of the original Happenings of the 1960s, audience participation was encouraged, and several children in attendance enthusiastically manned tambourines and standing drums adding a free and youthful energy to the performance.

Terry Riley In C Daniel Bassin Buffalo NY

Children were happy to lend a hand!

The UUCB was a fantastic acoustic space for the event, and Bassin encouraged listeners to roam freely about the church to experience the various changes in sound perspectives.  One guest was delighted to discover an inviting bass-pocket sensation by hanging her head between the church’s pews.

Overall the Happening was a great success.  We joined the performers for lunch following the event and discussed Bassin’s plans for future Happenings, one of which will feature the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am honored to have been a part of the first of what I’m sure will be many successful performances.  Mr. Bassin is providing a valuable contribution to the local music scene and I can’t wait to see what else 2015 will bring.

Happy new year everyone!