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.

Philosophical Wax – Artistic Influence Comes Full-Circle

With the whole of my Saturday evening at my command I decided to delve deeper into the culture surrounding a yet-unread title on my bookshelf – The notorious Illuminatus! Trilogy.  Little did I know that the exploration would bring a number of my artistic and musical favorites full-circle in a sphere of related influence!

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Having read Malaclypse the Younger’s Principia Discordia, (a wonderful bit of counter-cultural madness), I already had a fundamental (mis)understanding of the lunacy that is Discordianism.  But in my readings, there were multiple references to its earlier incarnation – the social revolutionaries known as The Situationist International.

For those unfamiliar with the group, their philosophy is, for the most part, summarized thusly:

[Situationism] is derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism.  Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.

Essential to situationist theory was the concept of the spectacle, best-illustrated in Guy Debord’s 1967 book and found-footage film – each titled, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle).

The Spectacle is a criticism of advanced Capitalism, where real-life experiences are replaced with the commodified consumerist culture of living through one’s possessions.  The Situationists viewed this passive consumption as damaging to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.  Instead of living vicariously through one’s purchases and property, the Situationists sought to create situations – moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life.

The film, The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is available in its entirety, dubbed Fr subbed Eng here:

And only a few years later, the film Network (1976) would similarly address the societal dangers of mass media.

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This philosophy was clearly an influence on the hippie art scene of the 1960 with their staging of nearly-spontaneous Happenings.  I was honored to attend the first Happening of the season in Buffalo for an impromptu performance of Terry Riley’s In C with participation from children in the audience.

Tracking the influence back even further (and then again, to the present) I learned of the French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou known as Lettrisme (Lettrism) and his concept of Hypergraphics in 1954.

Here is an Orson Welles Interview featuring Isidore Isou and Lettrist poetry – rich with Dadaist influence.

In 1958, Columbia Records issued the very first recordings of Letterist poetry – Maurice Lemaître presente le lettrisme.

This poetry adds another level of historical context to the performance I attended by composer Ethan Hayden at the University at Buffalo this past January.  While there was likely a Situationist influence on his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” (2015) for solo voice (with optional electronics & video), Hayden’s piece is phonetically and linguistically more refined (though equally absurd!) both in its content and his delivery.  While I absolutely recognize the importance of Isidore Isou’s philosophy and his primitivist poems, Hayden has a far-greater command of language (or perhaps of nonsense?) and I look forward to his future performances.

And in 2007 to celebrate the life of Isou, The End of the Age of Divinity was published in his honor.  The book is available for free below.

http://antisystemic.org/SW/TheEndOfTheAgeOfDivinity-Enkutatach409.pdf

Once again coming full-circle to more recent artistic movements, Lettrism brought me to aforementioned Lettrist hypergraphical art, pictured below.

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While I am by no means a scholar of art history, the influence here is clear as day on the 1990s typographic art of David Carson (famed for his work in Raygun Magazine and for Nine Inch Nails) and on Karl Hyde and John Warwicker’s Tomato art collective, which created the deconstructivist typographical art for Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

The work of David Carson…

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and of Tomato…

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Art of this nature is rooted in the cut-up technique first employed by the Dadaists in the 1920 and again in the late 1950s and early 1960s by William S. Burroughs.  But it was the audio incarnation of cut-up that I first encountered in music culture, from the earliest (and quite literal) tape cut-ups of musique concrete, to the resurfacing of the method by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Eno, and others, to the explosion of sampledelica culture in 1980s and 90s hip-hop and turntablism.

And around the same time, the radical and subversive art of culture jamming was born.  The term, coined in 1984, refers to any form of guerilla communication, such as the vandalist works by The Billboard Liberation Front and the illegal-art sample-based music of Negativland.

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All of this brought me back, yet again full-circle to The KLF.  The documentary, On the Passage of a few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1956-1972 contains flashes of the phrase,

“The Time for Art is Over.”

This very notion was later reiterated by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF in the K Foundation’s cryptic adverts appearing in UK national newspapers in 1993.  The first ad proclaimed,

K_Foundation_-_Abandon_All_Art_Now_Print

The Situationist documentary is available on Youtube in 3 parts.

It is only now that I realize that John Higgs’ endlessly fascinating book, THE KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds directly referenced the Situationists, the Discordians, Alan Moore and “Ideaspace”, and Robert Anton Wilson – all of the key figures I am now exploring.

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Incredible discoveries are waiting to be made every day, and quiet Saturday evenings, like yesterday’s, are gleaming with potential for magic just like this. I’ve now a week ahead of me and a century of exciting new art to explore.