I Cannot Pronounce Your Name

all photos courtesy of the author

24 July 2006

“Small, over-tired children demand to be taken home by their mums once the full-on racket of Glosoli starts to shake the rafters, maybe to return nightmarishly in their troubled sleep later on. Some little girls aged maybe seven or eight ponder why the funny man is screaming some bullshit they don’t understand.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

It is a Saturday afternoon in January. I have invited a few friends over to watch Sigur Ros’s 2007 tour film Heima. I am the only one who has seen it before. Different parts of my life are represented in the room: Chris, my partner; Adam, a fellow writer from class; Michael, a coworker from the office.

Chris has tried to listen to Sigur Ros a few times but has never felt connected to their style of music. Always a good sport, he’s going to give Heima a chance with an open mind. He has a football game queued up on his laptop to keep an eye on while we watch the film.

Adam asks us what our levels of interest are in Sigur Ros, on a scale of one to ten. With the exception of Chris, all of us have been tens at some point in the past decade and have now settled into a still-interested-but-not-devoted rating of six. When I’d mentioned that I wanted to re-watch the film (it feels right to watch it in the gray of winter), they were both eager to join, having intended to watch it for a long time.

Adam first experienced Sigur Ros’ music when he was studying abroad in Barcelona. His eyes are bright as he tells us the story. He’d been watching a vibrant sunset when a friend came over, fitted headphones to his ears, and played the ( ) album in its entirety for him.

Michael discovered the band through their earlier, rowdy postrock music. They were a perfect transition for him—out of metal and into expansive, ambient sounds.

I first heard Sigur Ros on a two-disk mix CD my brother made me for my seventeenth birthday. Appropriately titled Expansion Kit, the mix was a new world of music for me. Like many people who have older siblings, I benefitted from my brother’s cultural influence. He paved the way to adulthood, to coolness, and I followed him through the Britpop bands he loved in the 90s and early 2000s. Then, Expansion Kit brought me into the new decade.

The mix included two songs from Sigur Ros’s debut album Von. Along with the mix CD, he also played a late-night talk show performance of “Njosnovalin” (“the nothing song”) for me. I was fascinated by the way the lead singer used a cello bow on the strings of his electric guitar.

The song was from their ( ) album, which I bought right away. Titled only by a pair of parentheses, the album is composed of eight lyric-less tracks with vocals sung in a beautiful made-up language. It came with a blank booklet, inviting the listener to fill the pages with his or her own interpretations of the sung sounds. The native language seemed unpronounceable to me, so I appreciated the space in those blank pages.

Every time I listened to ( ), I felt as if I had stepped on a plane and been carried somewhere else.

all photos courtesy of the author

1 August 2006

“[They] play through the three songs from their rare, tour-only Rimur EP. Not having heard these songs for a bunch of years, I am struck by just how powerful and moving they are and also how reminiscent of the time in which they were written and recorded. The Rimur EP was made alongside the ( ) album and its doomy wintery soundscapes definitely recall [it] in mood and texture, as well as providing a real tangible link between Sigur Ros and the Icelandic tradition into which they knowingly, and unknowingly, tap.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

As the ( ) album became more widely recognized, Sigur Ros earned critical acclaim and popularity. They embarked on a world tour in support of their fourth album Takk. They came through Portland twice and I went to both shows with my brother. It is hard to describe what a Sigur Ros show is like because it is such a special experience. Their music is spacious and evocative of _________. Of everything.

In autumn 2007, I was working at Borders Books in downtown Portland. I purchased Heimaon its release day and happily carried it home. I popped the disc into my laptop and began watching. I had been looking forward to this moment for months.

When the film ended ninety minutes later, I immediately hit play and watched it a second time.

Heima is unlike any other music documentary I’ve seen. It is an art film, a woven portrait of the relationship between land and music.

Upon their return home from a global tour, Sigur Ros decided to host a series of free shows across Iceland for their own countrymen with their companion band Amina, a four-piece string group. Heima, which means “at home,” follows the band’s journey through their homeland. They perform for huge crowds in Reykjavik, for families on picnics, for locals packed into an abandoned fish factory. As we listen, the camera wanders. We’re led through waterfalls and up volcanic mountain ranges, across great flowing bodies of water, and down green textured hillsides. We admire close-up shots of craggy rocks and pale grass blown by the breeze, glaciers shuddering into the sea, red kites catching wind. Quiet shots of the all-ages concertgoers: a portrait of a country cast on faces and soil.

The Icelandic Board of Tourism could not have made a better advertisement for their country.

all photos courtesy of the author

25 July 2006

“We strike land at some wee harbour at the bottom of this sticky out bit of Iceland and immediately set off through some of the most amazing landscape many of us have ever seen (including the Icelanders) on our way to Selárdalur, remotely sited in the very west of the west fjords.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

Four years later, I travelled to Iceland. I was on my way to visit friends in Britain and took advantage of a stopover in Reykjavik with Icelandair. I had to see the landscape for myself.

When I fly into or out of Portland, I always choose a window seat so I can see everything I love from a different view. From the sky, I pick out my landmarks. I know the bend of the Willamette River and the names of the twelve bridges that cross it and the lush dormant-volcano park near my neighborhood. I know the thrill of flying over the very top of Mt. Hood as it watches over our valley and the crosshatch of waterfalls that rush down its sides. It is my home.

The view from the plane as it circled over Keflavik before landing revealed a place that I’d never seen before, but felt an affinity for right away. A bright, cold sunrise was stark over volcanic plains. I changed into warmer clothing and boarded a shuttle for the city. For the ride, I put on headphones and, with my eyes glued to the window, began listening to the music from Heima that I know so well.

Some friends of mine who’d recently passed through Reykjavik told me I had to stay at KEX and they were right. It was the perfect home base for my wanderings, complete with a generous Scandinavian breakfast and cloud-like duvets for sleeping off the jetlag (the ninety dollar ones I never buy for myself). The dining room looked out over the bay and the far-off mountain range across the water. I loved sitting alone with a whiskey and reading by those windows, watching the daylight melt into the water and the peaks.

I spent most of my time in Reykjavik, wandering the city, but also took a daytrip to the countryside. I brought my mother’s 1970s-era Nikkormat film camera and captured images of volcanic hillsides and bright windy skies. Everything I had seen in Heima and heard on all of those albums was here before my eyes. All of it—the waterfalls, the geysers, and the mountains—was breathtakingly real. I was far away from home and very happy.

I made friends with a few women in my hostel dorm, two young Americans and a Finnish teenager who was hitchhiking around Iceland. We were all travelling alone and easily became companions for a night out. We’d all heard of the rúntur, a notorious pub-crawl in the city center, that takes place every Friday night, we wanted to experience it for ourselves. Every bar was open and overflowing with music. I’ve never seen so many people pack a town in the middle of the night.

A local woman walking beside us asked if we knew where we were headed. We said we had no plans, that we were just headed to a bar. She quickly herded us to what she described as a “law bar,” waved us in past the bouncers and disappeared into the crowd. It was exclusively for students of the local law school and, baffled by our luck, we happily paid for the cheapest beers we’d found in Reykjavik all night long.

Icelandic students came up to us throughout the evening, first speaking in their native language, then impressed that there were Americans smuggled into their midst. We made friends with two men on the dance floor who introduced themselves as Þórður or Thordur, who went by “Tóti,” and Bjarki. I asked Bjarki for help pronouncing his name, my every attempt at rolling my Rs unsuccessful.

“Is there another name that you go by?” I asked.

“No, that’s just my name,” he replied.

“Oh. Okay.”

We shrugged and smiled at each other over our beers. We started talking about Sigur Ros instead, swapping concert stories. He had attended one of the small village shows on the Heima tour.

We moved on through the night from bar to bar. The Northern lights came out and we chased them through the streets. It was all real.

all photos courtesy of the author

“It’s way too early to tell, but I truly get the sense we’ve got something special here; a proper old fashioned rock film, pretentious and over-weening, unconventional and ambitious, beautiful and, hopefully, unique.”

—John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager, Heima tour diary

§

It is a Saturday afternoon in January. When we finish our shared viewing of Heima, we are all smiling, happy to have our ears buzzing.

Chris has been pulled in. It didn’t take long before the film had his full attention and he really started enjoying it. He later tells me that it’s sparked his interest in travelling to Iceland. We’re planning a trip there together later this year.

I think back to the people I’ve shared this music with. At one Sigur Ros performance I attended, a rain shower fell across the front of the stage, creating a mist that drifted out over the audience. With some of my closest friends at my side, I felt the rain on my face and was fully at home.

The band has also invited listeners to participate in performance art. In advance of the release of their album Valtari, they hosted a “global listening party,” during which the album streamed in advance at 7pm local time in every time zone in the world. I remember listening to it for the first time, facing east as the sunset filled my evening room. Some good friends of mine two time zones before me also listened and we were connected by that roaming hour.

And how can we help but be swept up in it? Sigur Ros’s music transports us, and Heima beautifully shepherds us along and places us in Iceland, if only for ninety minutes. It lets the landscape and the wordless music speak volumes.

“This is what the mist of an ancient waterfall feels like on your upturned face,” it says.

“Here is the wind and your imagination and the lightning.”

“Here is our home.”


Anna Sjogren lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She writes for the Portafilterland coffee profile project and is publishing a memoir this Spring through the Independent Publishing Resource Center’s Writing Certificate program. She gets out of town as often as possible, via film, novel, or airplane.