Chaology: A Post-Airwaves Lesson From the Reykjavik Art Museum

The northern lights failed to create the proper cinematic effect after Sigur Rós’ concert, but the morning-after rain was a perfect visual for the movie version. I tried to write, but it was useless. The juxtapositioning of such a wide variety of music in such a short time had sparked more new ideas than I could process. My cup had run over so forcefully it toppled off the table and landed upside down on the floor. I had finally achieved the martial artist’s “empty cup,” the beginner’s mind.

Plus, everything sounded like Sigur Rós to me. That black metal band? Atmospheric like Sigur Rós. That folk singer? Ethereal and crystalline like Sigur Rós.

Which meant I had nothing to say. On that morning, I couldn’t imagine ever having anything intelligent to say about music. Or anything. Ever again. The images in my head were channelized rivers, stripped screws, blown transformers. Icelandic black sand deserts.

When they started taking the Airwaves curtains down from the KEX library windows, I abandoned my couch and wandered in the rain. I ended up at another of the Reykjavík Art Museum locations. Upstairs was an exhibit called “The Power of Passage,” in which the artists abandoned control in the creation of their work, allowing the passage of time to alter the outcome.

There were photographs taken in complete darkness – long exposures that revealed the bits of light that couldn’t be blocked out.

Glass bowls and plates revealed intricate abstract patterns left behind when a salt solution evaporated. Three-dimensional paintings resulted from the months-long drying process of homemade chemical solutions. Jóhann Eyfells’ “Cloth Collapsion” was created by submerging a huge folded cloth in water with metal.

Eventually, parts of the cloth were stained by rust, creating a pattern that the artist couldn’t control or predict. A video installation by Þór Elís Pálsson used Eyfells’ images and words to visually recreate his philosophy. The message I needed to take home was embodied in Eyfell’s word “Chaology,” helpfully mounted on the wall. Chaology: The study and appreciation of chaos.

These were all beautiful and engaging works of art that could only have been created when the artist relinquished control and was patient enough to wait and see what would come of their efforts.

In the aftermath of Airwaves, writing about music seemed as impossible as dancing about architecture. But then again, Airwaves did feature a performance of Valgeir Sigurðsson’s ballet score, Architecture of Loss.

Dan Perjovschi’s indoor graffiti exhibit also contained useful wisdom.

Stay Young. Don’t Run. Stay and face the world as it is.

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We Got a Family Here

Pollyblog: 1. When you don’t want to say too much, but 140 characters just won’t cover it. 2. Good ideas that haven’t got their legs yet.

 

Because our family is partly built through adoption, we spend a little more time defining what ‘family’ means.

mentioned that I returned from Iceland Airwaves to a lice breakout at my daughter’s school. Ever since, I have spent up to two hours each night checking every head in the house for recurrences. Like the monsters in horror movies, every time I think it’s over, they rise from the dead to attack again.

This has resulted in some very cranky exchanges, as my daughters begin to take every tugged tangle personally, and I fight the urge to scream in frustration. Tonight the girls’ dad tried to break the negativity by letting each girl pick the music we listened to while they got their heads checked.

My oldest immediately shouted, “Lady Gaga!” A second later, she said, “No, wait. Journey, because that’s less annoying for mommy.”

The result; me and my daughter belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” as I searched her head for lice.

And I thought of  the words of H.I. McDunna, “What! We got a family here!”

 

If Sigur Ros is Post-Rock, What is Post-Sigur Ros?

When the Sigur Rós show ended, I drifted like a dust mote, following the crowd of thousands walking back to the 101. Outside, everyone stopped to stare at the sky. The Northern lights danced as a meteor shower sent dozens of shining white falling stars through the green waves.

No. That didn’t really happen. But it should have. It would have been more fitting and less incongruent than the stream of pedestrians flowing down Laugavegur, chatting inanely. Walking alone with a mind like a blown transformer, I picked up bits of conversations that clusters of people dropped as they passed by me.

“Excuse me, are you from Iceland? What did he say that one time when he talked?”

“Oh, he said, ‘This is a new song. So don’t be surprised if we fuck it up.”

“Do you think we should stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, what time would we need to catch a shuttle? Do you think the hotel can arrange it for us?”

“Yeah, but we’ll probably have to go ahead. The rest of the guys don’t seem to be willing to get up early for anything.”

“Did you hear that one time when his voice went up really high, and then it changed and almost disappeared and went even higher? Was that on purpose?”

“Oh look, Chinese food. Do you want to stop? I’m starving.”

“No, let’s hold out for hot dogs. There’s got to be a stand somewhere on the way back. I want one more Icelandic hot dog before I go home.”

“Yeah, I heard them mess up that one time. But I don’t care, man. It’s fucking Sigur Rós. They’re still awesome.”

Although Sigur Rós were the festival headliners, there were still more shows on the schedule, and two of them were bands I really liked: Skálmöld and Momentum. Before the concert, I couldn’t decide if I would go to the post-Sigur Rós shows. Sigur Rós was the kind show that you want to end on, and I had already seen both bands. But they were both so good, and who knew when I’d get another chance. I never really made the decision; I just kept walking past the hostel.

With my blistered feet and aggravated ankle, it took me almost an hour to walk from the stadium to the bar where Skálmöld were playing, and when I got there they were already on stage. This little pub show was quite a contrast from the big stage show at Harpa, but if anything, Skálmöld seemed to be even more at home here. Their show at Harpa could have roused the Viking hordes to battle, but tonight it was drinking beer among brothers along the benches in the great hall, and it was perfect for evaporating the lonesome feeling.

I got right up front because I could, took a few photos, and lost my lens cap. Pretty soon my feet gave out, and with a slight sense of shame, I took a seat at a table in the back, and put my swollen foot up on another chair. The off-venue set was shorter than the one at Harpa, and I had missed the beginning, so it ended all too soon.

I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, who, it turned out, had bailed on the Sigur Rós concert at 8:00. I found myself walking a fine line as I tried to express sympathy for her view that bands shouldn’t leave fans waiting an hour after showtime without so much as a roadie saying, “Sorry folks, we’re a bit delayed,” (an opinion I do share) while still impressing upon her the magnitude of her mistake in giving up on one of the best shows I’d ever seen.

While the guys from Skálmöld hung out in the crowd, another band took the stage. I recognized the bass player from Agent Fresco on keys. They were nothing like Momentum, and not much like Agent Fresco, but they were as fun as Skálmöld, in an indie, punk kind of way. They would have made a great double bill with Reykjavík!. It was a bummer to have to sit through a show that really demanded jumping around, but I enjoyed being able to see above the roiling crowd. When they finished, I looked them up while waiting for Momentum. The band was Ultra Mega Technobandið Stefán, and they were the last show on the schedule. Staff began cleaning up the bar just as I saw on the schedule that Momentum had just finished their show across the street at Amsterdam. I reminded myself of my promise not to regret missing a show when the one I did see was good. Tired, sore and From Finner happy, I hobbled down the stairs to the street.

Airwaves 12 was over. Without even realizing it, I had watched the last show of the festival, accidentally missing a band that I loved, but discovering another cool one in the process. Somehow, that seemed fitting.

Post-script

Standing by myself on a freezing street corner in downtown Reykjavík at 1 o’clock on a Monday morning felt pretty lonely. And I felt something else I hadn’t really felt in a while – hungry. For most of the trip, I’d loaded up on skyr for breakfast and, between excitement and busy schedule, usually forgotten to eat the rest of the day. But now I was starving and remembered that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast Sunday except a piece of apple cake at the coffee shop at the Ylja show twelve hours earlier.

I looked up. Across the street, a hot dog stand was bustling. Tired, hungry, and slightly nihilistic, I thought, “What the fuck,” and joined the queue.

The actual hot dog stand where I fell off the wagon.*

“One with everything, please.”

As the man behind the window spread mayonnaise, mustard, and crispy onion bits on my dog, I asked, “So what kind of animal is an Icelandic hot dog?”

“Beef, lamb, and pork.”

“Oh. Well, I guess if you’re going to break 20 years as a vegetarian, you might as well eat all the animals.”

A chorus of approval from the line behind me assured me the Icelandic hot dog was the meat to fall off the wagon for.

Eating as I walked, I tried to figure out what the big deal was. It tasted just like the Oscar Mayer hot dogs I remembered from childhood. Feeling a little queasy, I crawled into my bunk at the hostel and dreamed of shooting stars.

*Note: I found this photo of the actual hot dog stand where I fell off the wagon here, where I also discovered that the hot dog I ate was a meal called brinner.

Sigur Rós at Airwaves

My English friend and I arrived at the stadium about fifteen minutes before the doors were scheduled to open. The line ran the length of the building, and soon wrapped around out of site. Even so, someone pulled into an empty parking spot right in front of us. Thousands of people were going to this show, but most of them were walking.

Waiting for Sigur Ros

Doors opened on time and we crowded into the lobby, only to discover that the inner doors were still closed. After half an hour, those doors opened and everyone pushed inside. Bright lights in the ceiling shone in our eyes but the hall still seemed dark. You couldn’t see where you were going, but everyone broke into a run, trying to get to the front. As we all ran blindly, I was reminded of the scene in Eli Weisel’s Night at the end of the war when the Nazis chased the prisoners through the forest with the Allies on their heels. Suddenly everyone veered to the right, and I lost sight of my English friend. I never saw her again.

The stage was actually to the side of the entrance, instead of the end of the building we had been running towards. Although I had been close to the front of the throng coming in the doors, I was close to the middle sideways. I ended up a good 40 to 50 people back from the stage.

At 7:00 the room began to buzz with excitement, and people started jostling to get closer to the stage. I ended up surrounded by a group of teenagers. Each of them was at least six feet tall. They were all fit and attractive and young enough to think that not being those things was silly. As the minutes stretched out, they entertained themselves by making fun of the people around them, pointing and giggling like Chip and Dale the cartoon chipmunks.

By 7:45 my ankle was killing me and a thumb-sized blister on my other foot had popped. The chipmunks were laughing at the size of the butts of the people standing around them. People were starting to mutter about bands that didn’t respect their audience. I began to worry that this was going to be a Guns N Roses ca. 1990 situation, and decided I would only hold out until 8:15.

The view that made me cry

At 8:10 sharp the lights went down and the crowd pressed in even closer. All I could see was shoulder blades. If I craned my head, I could see a light, and the top of a thin curtain that rose to the ceiling. I was so disappointed – I had come so far, and waited so long, and my feet hurt, and I couldn’t even see the stage. I admit it. I cried. The chipmunks noticed and pointed and giggled.

But the thing is, it was Sigur Rós. That incredible crystalline sound that is so delicate on the recording was viscous and palpable live. The air was thick and heavy with it. Even if you couldn’t see the stage, you could taste the music.

And then a miracle happened. The veil dropped from the ceiling and the chipmunks, those indolent, lazy, disrespectful creatures, lied down. They stretched their giant frames out on the floor with their heads on their backpacks and cleared the space in front of me. A tiny little space opened up between two silhouetted heads that perfectly framed Jónsi’s face. And I had that tiny perfect view for the rest of the concert.

Photo taken on tiptoe with arms fully extended

I was so grateful for those obnoxious teenagers who gave me a glimpse of the stage! I suddenly remembered the scene in Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” when the fleas in the concentration camp turned out to be a blessing.

Why all the Holocaust imagery? I have no idea. I don’t think of Sigur Rós in a dark way at all. Knowing nothing about the lyrics, I go by their sound, which I find transcendent and uplifting. Maybe live it was just so disarming that all kinds of things work their way free.

I mentioned before about those moments in your life when everything changes; when you’re hit by a car or a concert and everything is different afterwards because you are different. Everyone expects that from a Sigur Rós concert – at least a lot of the people I talked to at Airwaves did. But of course, you never have those experiences when you’re expecting them. Expectation sort of precludes the possibility. The evening certainly started out like the huge letdown you would expect from too high expectations. So when the experience turned out to be all that was expected, when it’s a second mind-altering, soul-shifting show in less than a week… well, words fail me.

This is your brain on Sigur Ros

It’s not easy to find good words to talk about the work that music does on a person’s insides. But lots of people are talking about the new song that Sigur Rós debuted at that show. There’s a pretty good video of it here:


As you can see, it’s pretty different from any of their other stuff, which gives people even more to talk about. You can also see that they did a little laser thing. When the lasers started, the chipmunk kids all jumped up and turned in circles, pointing to the ceiling and back of the room in surprise. These small town chipmunks had never seen a laser show! Because I’m a grown up, I didn’t say anything. But on the inside, I pointed and giggled.

Sunday Airwaves Sunday

I was the first one up in my dorm room at KEX on Sunday morning, which means I was the only one to (barely) make it downstairs before they quit serving breakfast at 10:30. It was already hard to find a seat for KEX’s first show of the day, Ásgeir Trausti. I hung out after breakfast and tried to write. I hadn’t really written anything since Thursday morning, and some things were already blurry (I had completely forgotten the wedding celebration at the Of Monsters and Men show until I read it somewhere else).

I managed to grab a seat on the floor in front to watch my fourth Ásgeir Trausti set of the festival (not a stalker, really!) which was a full band version without the bells and whistles of last night’s Harpa show. I was struck, not for the first time, by how important Julius is to the sound; his voice is a little more solid than Ásgeir’s, and he’s no slouch on the guitar either. By now I’d seen them play enough to be familiar with little tics of their performance, and it was fun to notice little changes – like the ghost of a smile that passed over Ásgeir Trausti’s usually expressionless face in response to extra-long applause.

When a folk band comes recommended by both 1860 and Angist, you make a point to check them out. So immediately after Ásgeir Trausti’s set, I headed to the bookstore to see Ylja. Unfortunately, when I got there, it was too packed to get in. The previous band was still playing, so I joined the throng pushing up the stairs. But when the band finished playing, no one left, so I was stuck with the mezzanine coffee shop between me and the top floor stage. Someone next to me who was actually trying to buy a book asked the girl in front of me who was playing upstairs. “Ásgeir Trausti,” she said.

So I couldn’t get in to see Ylja because the crowd waiting for Ásgeir Trausti to play after them was too big. Earlier in the festival, I might have tried harder to reach the top of the stairs, but the best I could do on Sunday was order a coffee and hope to hear something over the clatter of coffee cups. I couldn’t, so I finished my coffee and left.

On the way back to KEX, I heard electronic beats coming out of the Heart Garden skate park.

An aside: as skate parks go, this one is not amazing; no bowls, only minipipes. But there is a lot of small stuff for skaters to play on, and as a community space it is one of the coolest spots in 101. I always tried to walk through it if it was on my way. I don’t think I’ve seen a nicer pocket of open space in an urban area. It’s also a real community space in the sense that regular folks fixed it up. It’s not even a real city park, so it is endangered (page 8) by hotel development. It just kills me that the need to house tourists like me is destroying one of the things I like best about Reykjavík.

I don’t know how local government works in Reykjavík, or if anyone is even considering it, but this seems to me like one of those defining moments when the character of a city can either be consciously chosen by municipal intervention, or forever altered by letting the real estate market do its thing. The Pike Place Market comes to mind.

I stopped to listen to the music while a few kids messed around on skateboards. There wasn’t really an audience, and I don’t know if the performance was even for Airwaves. Maybe it was a normal Sunday thing for half a dozen people and a dog to set up in the Heart Garden and play angular electronic music. It was really good. I even thought it might be Ghostigital at first, but then it went in a different direction. I never found out who it was, and maybe it’s better that way.

Back at KEX, a show was in progress, and I didn’t know who they were, either. It was another really good band, of the type that seems to dominate the Reykjavík indie-pop scene; tight, angular pop music with unusual instrumentation, including horns, and catchy sing-along choruses. Really, local band standards are incredibly high in Reykjavík. I think they don’t even have sloppy bands here. I found out after the fact that the band was Benni Hemm Hemm.

Back in my room, I met a British girl. “Are you just arriving today?” I asked. “No, I’ve been here for the whole festival.” We chatted a bit and then, uncertain what the line would be like for Sigur Rós, which was GA seating, decided to head out together. It was a good half hour walk to the stadium venue, and as we walked, we met other groups headed there too. When we arrived….well, Sigur Rós probably deserve their own post.

A Self-Serving Announcement

Far more interesting than the self-centered tales of Airwaves entertainment that I post here on this blog are the conversations that I had with some of Reykjavík’s local artists. I only asked for interviews with people whose music I already loved. It was just a pleasant surprise to discover that these musicians are also among the most intelligent, interesting, and entertaining people that I have ever met. I have left every interview with a better understanding of the music that I love and a clearer picture of a remarkable music scene that has been hidden in the frozen north until recently.

They are a pretty diverse lot, and I hope that you find some new music that you will love as much as I do in this list of the ones that have run so far. Stay tuned for more in the next couple weeks.

Ásgeir Trausti

An overnight sensation in Iceland, Ásgeir Trausti’s debut album merges classical guitar-based Bon Iver-style folk songs with electronic keys in a smooth blend that’s both folky and romantic. After we agreed to an interview, Ásgeir Trausti was booked to play KEXP’s Reykjavík Calling show here in Seattle. We met the morning of his performance at Neumo’s, and the interview ran here.

Valgeir Sigurðsson

Valgeir Sigurðsson is a multi-instrumentalist trained in classical guitar, sound engineering, and production. He is also the founder of the Bedroom Community label. As a producer, he works with big names in indie music like Björk, Bonny “Prince” Billy, and Sam Amidon. As a composer, he writes intelligent, experimental electronic music that often serves as the score for films and ballet. Valgeir graciously invited me to visit Greenhouse Studios where he records. That interview ran here.

Angist

Angist produce some of the most brutal death metal in Iceland. Their unrelenting debut EP, Circle of Suffering, only hints at the good things ahead as Angist have continued to develop their sound since its release. Fans are salivating in anticipation of their first full length in 2013 – but that could just be brain damage from their live performance. Members of Angist met me at an Irish pub in Reykjavík, and the interview ran here.

Beneath

Comprised of a mix of some of Iceland’s most renowned death metal originals and its hottest new talent, Beneath released their debut full length this summer. The winners of Iceland’s first Wacken Metal Battle, they play a fast and brutal death metal without ignoring structure and texture. I met singer Gísli and drummer Ragnar at a Reykjavík whiskey bar, and the resulting interview can be found here.

1860

Folks in the States haven’t heard of 1860 yet, but they will, and in Iceland, their debut album has already made them a household name. Their particular brand of folk-pop features mandolin and a hint of old-timey feeling that makes their intricate, richly layered songs feel simple and accessible. In person at the KEX Hostel, members of 1860 were like their songs – complex yet open, and a joy to listen to. That conversation is written up here.

Saturday Rolled Into Sunday

Him again?

As Saturday rolled into Sunday, I was upstairs at Harpa for my third Ásgeir Trausti set. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I think I need a separate post to explain why I’m not an Ásgeir Trausti stalker. But this was, I think, his biggest show of Airwaves, where the folky songs held up to the full Peter Gabriel treatment. It was also the set where I made my peace with “Leyndarmál.” I never thought the song fit well on the album, and was surprised when I got to Iceland and found out it was the big single. But at the Harpa show, where the electro part of Ásgeir Trausti’s electro-folk was emphasized, it made a lot more sense.

Julius

Next up, Valdimar at Iðno. Valdimar was one of the first Icelandic pop bands I discovered. I stumbled on their gogoyoko page in March and was so excited I wrote a post about them for Three Imaginary Girls. But my enthusiasm stores were getting low by 1 am on Airwaves Sunday, and a pair of frost giants were dancing right in front of me so that I spent half the show worried about getting squashed. Eventually I moved to the back for my own safety, just in time to not be able to see the band play their big single. It still sounded great though, and I think Valdimar did an Icelandic version of “Lady in Red” which was pretty cool. But in the end, I think I like his side-project Eldar better. Eldar’s stripped-down country style showcases Valdimar’s angelic voice in a way that really appeals to me.

Valdimar

Didn’t I see you in Tilbury?

Like a weary soldier, I marched to Gamli Gaukurinn to check out Momentum. I really just wanted to go to bed, but too many people had told me not to miss this band. Dutifully, I headed upstairs where the set had already started, and what do you know? Surprising new music can give you a second wind at 2 am on a Sunday morning!

Momentum – like an earthquake

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe Momentum for a couple weeks now, and I still don’t have good words for it. It sounds like metal – at least the music uses metal sounds – but it doesn’t go where you expect. And I’m not just talking about the structures, even the riffs are unsettling. Listening to Momentum was a little bit like trying to walk in an earthquake. The ground just doesn’t stay put. And it was so much fun! Even though the small bar wasn’t full, they had the most enthusiastic metal audience I had seen all week. Members of Sólstafir and Kontinuum were in the crowd. The set list seemed to be subject to negotiation, and at one point members of the audience (including one from the band Plastic Gods) commandeered the mic to sing along.

Post-metal Singalong

Afterwards, everyone stuck around and the atmosphere shifted from show to party. I met a woman from Finland who was traveling alone to watch metal bands at an indie festival and stressing about finding souvenirs for her two kids. As the bar closed, the party moved to Reykjavík’s famous Bar 11.

Relevant in Reykjavik

Inside, Bar 11 was packed tighter than any of the shows I’d been to. The personal space that Icelanders usually protect so carefully was completely gone and it was hard to move through the packed crowd. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was blasting on the speakers, and people were actually singing along. For about three minutes, I thought it was 1992. I remembered that Ásgeir Trausti was such a Nirvana fan he spent his first day in Seattle on a pilgrimage to Cobain’s house, and Beneath’s Ragnar told me grunge was the reason he started playing drums. Seattle and Reykjavík may be the only two places where people still remember that musical moment. Apparently grunge thrives in dark, wet places.

By the time I got back to the hostel and climbed into my bunk, the last one of six, it was after 4 o’clock. So there was something else that hadn’t happened since 1992.