catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 5 :: 2006.03.10 — 2006.03.24


Speaking in tongues

A few weeks ago, Calvin College hosted its biggest concert of the last 15 years. And that’s not just hyperbole. Between crews working around the clock (9:00 a.m. on Saturday to 5:00 a.m. on Sunday) to set up the Fine Arts Center and the opportunity to host this particular band for two back-to-back shows at the height of its popularity, the Sigur Rós concert was historic in its technical scope and cultural significance.

If you were at either concert, you experienced this scope and significance firsthand. Now I want to fill in the gaps with some behind-the-scenes reflections.

Long before a band ever sets foot on campus, Student Activities Director Ken Heffner petitions the manager for what we call “a conversation with the artist,” a chance for concert-goers to interact with the musicians about what they will be experiencing later that night. Sometimes artists turn us down (Patty Griffin, for instance, is not fond of speaking in front of groups), but usually they agree, coming into the conversation both confused and intrigued by something that is neither a press conference nor a meet and greet.

Sigur Rós’s visit to Calvin marked the first time they had ever had a formal dialogue with “lay people” who were more interested in their art than their celebrity. Although they were a bit uneasy and evasive at first, the four band members warmed up to the dialogue and answered the group’s questions with both thoughtfulness and humor. (You can hear an mp3 of the conversation in its entirety at our website.)

As much as these conversations are an opportunity for the audience to learn from the artists, the converse is true as well: they also help the musicians get their bearings. After the show, lead singer Jonsi said that the afternoon discussion gave him a sense of place, a better understanding of where he was when performing that night. We’re realizing now that the conversations play a role other than just informing the audience — they help inform the artist, too, contributing to a stronger performance as a result.

This sense of reciprocity between the artist and audience was a recurring theme as we reflected on the weekend. During the conversation, one question in particular illuminated this relationship. A student asked the band what they made of critics who called their music “angelic” or “heavenly,” adjectives consistently used to describe the transcendent qualities of Sigur Rós’s musicianship and live concert experiences (as in this excellent review by Andy Whitman).

As one might expect, the band members distanced themselves from this sort of language. Lead singer Jonsi and keyboardist Kjartan said that their intention is not to evoke religious imagery, and bass player Georg joked that he had read one critic who called their music “God’s golden teardrops from heaven” — clearly an absurd and quasi-poetic overstatement.

Yet many people experience Sigur Rós’s music as transcendent — so what do we make of this? Obviously an artist’s vision and intention is an important contribution to any conversation about that art. And in this context, it makes sense that a musician would back away from charges that they are providing the soundtrack to heaven; to embrace that lofty intention would be the height of hubris.

But what about the audience’s experience? Judging from students’ reactions to the concerts, transcendence was par for the course. Our office assistant Katelyn Beaty, for instance, wrote in Calvin’s Chimes newspaper of a friend who had “visions throughout the show of people walking toward a holy city, singing with the angels their Hopelandic praises.”  Evidently, the artist’s intentions can only take the audience so far; we all bring to music (especially live music) our own worldviews, intentions, and backgrounds. In some ways, this concert was as much a dialogue between artist and audience as the actual conversation that preceded it.

Although we need to respect musicians by taking into account their intent, we also need to recognize that art can be saying something that the artist did not intend, for better or worse. In this case, Sigur Rós is communicating something more than they know with their music — and that’s a good thing. As Heffner put it, “We are all puny people, so if art can only be as big as the artist, our art would be puny.”

In this sense, we need to recognize that the net effect of art is often more expansive than the artist knows. The members of Sigur Rós may balk at a review like Whitman’s, which is completely within their rights as the creators of their own art. But like many of us in the audience, Whitman brought to the show a worldview that allows not just for beauty and art, but for the idea that those things point beyond themselves to another reality. That reality may not be soaked in treacle-y teardrops from heaven, thank God, but it may reflect Whitman’s link between the now and the not yet: “There is some good here on earth, common grace abounds, and there’s no sense in the wholesale banishment of the familiar from the afterlife,” he writes. “The music will be new, but it will retain echoes of what was good and glorious on this earth. And if I’m right, then I suspect I got a preview of the heavenly host last night.”

I’m not sure the members of Sigur Rós would answer that prospect with an “amen” — but I myself can do no other.

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