Describing the Indescribable: Sigur Rós in Concert
Published May 15, 2006.
Last updated May 11, 2010.
In April of 2001 I attended the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, a few hours drive from where I was living in Los Angeles. Coachella is considered by some to be the greatest indie-rock festival in the country, and for me it was like a religious journey across the desert to see some of my favorite artists gathered to play on one grassy lawn, artists like Janes Addiction, Weezer, Paul Oakenfold, Fatboy Slim, and Iggy Pop. That year, however, the most amazing part of the festival didn’t happen on one of the big stages but instead inside a small side tent when a sickly-looking white boy raised a violin bow over his head and then dragged it across the strings of his guitar.
He was the lead singer of a band called Sigur Rós, an Icelandic group that often uses stringed instruments and sometimes glasses half-full of water to make atmospheric rock that sounds as if it’s being hummed by a chorus of Martians. They had taken their tiny stage just as the sun was setting, and the wind kicking through the desert was whipping the tent like a discarded wad of newspaper. The wailing storm of noise was deafening and what I imagined the belly of the Earth would sound like if it was moaning in pain.
I had never before nor have I since seen a more incredible live show. Hundreds of people huddled in complete silence underneath the flapping roof of the tent, and hundreds more spilled out the sides. We rewarded each song with roaring applause, but once the next number began everyone shushed each other as if we were sitting in church and owed it to God to be reverent. Normally I would have laughed because there is nothing in life so sacred that you should reduce yourself to shushing a stranger. But I stood there and willingly shushed, enthusiastically shushed. I was as shushy as an 80-year-old virgin who won’t subscribe to cable because she might be confronted with a stray nipple.
I have often recounted that experience to my husband, Jon, who until last week had never had the chance to see what I was talking about. It was the best show I’ve ever seen, I’d tell him, a moment in my life I will think about when I’m confronted with the possibility of death and need an immediate bullet point outline of what made this mortal body worth the pain. So when we heard that they were touring, and that they were making a stop in our dusty corner of the world, we bought tickets immediately even though we had sworn off live shows two years ago when the agony of standing upright in a smoke-filled room for over three hours made the act of being a functioning parent the following morning virtually impossible.
In the weeks leading up to the concert I had a hard time explaining Sigur Rós to friends because they don’t fit into any neat genre; they aren’t traditional rock or pop or even remotely human. They also sing in a language that is a combination of Icelandic and one they have entirely made up. “You’ve paid money to listen to someone sing pretend words?” someone asked me. My answer was that I wouldn’t be able to tell the made-up words from the Icelandic ones, so I was just going to pretend it was all German. If you squint it all sounds like Heidi Klum anyway.
On the afternoon of the concert my husband and I watched the Kentucky Derby, and I ended up drinking enough Mint Juleps to kill the winning horse. By the time we were supposed to head off to the venue all I wanted to do was wedge myself between the cushions on the couch and watch one of four episodes of “Law and Order” we had stored on the TiVo. Or maybe a Discovery Channel show where a body is cut open to reveal a tumor the size of a Volkswagen. It’s not that I wasn’t excited about the opportunity to see the band live again, it’s just that as I have gotten older I have developed an involuntary resistance toward any activity that requires I brush my hair or wear a bra, any activity that occurs on the other side of my front door.
I found it in my heart, though, to drag my body out for the evening on the off chance that my husband would have a transcendental, life-changing experience, even though now as parents we have those every day when our child takes a nap. Jon was worried that Sigur Rós would have a hard time living up to the standard of their performance at Coachella, and to make it even more unlikely we happened to push ourselves to that one spot in the crowd where every single person within a ten foot radius was gushing about how the last Sigur Rós show they’d seen had been the best live show of their lives. He couldn’t escape the hype.
Four hot, nerdy women dressed in tight fabric took took the stage as the opening act, and when Jon saw them pick up their instruments — a violin, a cello, a xylophone, and an autoharp — he leaned over and said, “If this is any indication of what’s to come, this may end up being the best night out of my life.” There was no magnificent wind blowing through the building like that night five years ago, but for Jon the opening act was every fantasy he had imagined as a fifteen-year-old boy in the high school marching band made into flesh. The only thing missing was a soundtrack by Journey and Cheryl Tiegs dressed up as a librarian.
That was only the beginning, however, because once Sigur Rós took the stage every syllable of hype he had endured exploded into a quantifiable truth. They played the entire first song behind a sheer white curtain, and the only shapes we could make out were their rhythmic silhouettes. No one in the entire building took a breath in fear that doing so might bring down the walls because the structure of the building couldn’t handle any more noise.
I had hoped that the lead singer would play his guitar with a violin bow at least once so that Jon could marvel at the sound, but what I didn’t know was that the lead singer doesn’t play his guitar any other way. Every song screamed and ached as the bow gripped the strings, and the sound electrified every square centimeter of skin on our bodies. When I listen to Sigur Rós at home it’s hard to imagine that they could recreate their sound live, but seeing them again reminded me that the sound they are able to coax out of instruments on stage is what they have a hard time reproducing in the studio. It felt like we were inside the music, like we had to concentrate on standing up because the sound was trying to knock us over.
Toward the end of the set my husband said that it was going to take him a while to process this experience; it was just too much to take in all at once. Rarely do we go out anymore when the movie or the meal is worth the money we’ve spent, especially when there are four whole seasons of “CSI” in syndication I haven’t ever seen, and all the liquor at our house is free. But this was one of those nights when the date lived up to the hype, lived up to what a night out is supposed to feel like, and I was a little embarrassed that even for a second I had doubted that it would be worth the effort of dressing in clean clothes.