Without quiet, there could be no noise, and without noise, no music. A simple statement, sure, bordering on the "well, duh," but by playing those three elements off one another, Sigur Ros bring this truism to life. On the fourth track from the Icelandic quartet's latest album, ( ), guitar melodies expand and contract like the lungs of a deep sleeper. Keyboards play a funeral march fit for an Oompa Loompa. Drum brushes sweep out an abandoned church. And seemingly from somewhere four floors underground, an androgynous voice wails. But it isn't until nearly seven minutes into the song that the most important thing happens: the music stops.
Before the next track (and the second half of the album) begins, you're forced to sit through 35 seconds of silence. Only it's not absolute silence. Listen closely and you'll hear an almost imperceptible hiss, the song's death rattle. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper--with a whisper.
Of course, not everyone who's plopped into this sonic wasteland turns to T.S. Eliot for comparisons. After hearing Sigur Ros perform over half a minute of silence at a recent concert, the Boston Herald's Brett Milano confessed, "I can't recall a time when I've ever been more tempted to yell 'Free Bird!' or 'Rock and roll!'" Does stillness bother us so much that we have to fill it with our own voices? Ask John Cage, who spent a lifetime insisting that true silence doesn't exist--and did his best to keep it nonexistent by interminably yammering about his theories on the college lecture circuit.
Despite our resistance, silence is necessary for our well-being, though an explanation as to why that is is, appropriately, hard to put into words. Fortunately art offers an explanation when language stumbles, illustrating how the absence of silence can rob the most moving sounds of their emotional impact. Without silence, there'd be no noiseless gap after the first four notes in Beethoven's Fifth, and the melodic run-on would make the piece sound as bland as Philip Glass on autopilot. The nihilist end of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, which fades gradually into a few minutes of total silence, wouldn't have the power to make audiences shift uncomfortably. And you could never again put a seashell up to your ear and hear Cage's "4'33" played back to you.
Like the frame around a painting, or the curtain after a play, Sigur Ros's silent postscript marks where the artwork ends and the real world begins, and it provides a way out of the extreme fantasy their music creates. This is, after all, a band whose lead singer, Jonsi Birgisson, a half-blind gay man who murmurs epic prose in an invented tongue, could be the hero of a fairy tale (or at least a Tori Amos song). His lyrics are dream babble as spoken through a snorkel mask--every time you hear them they sound different. "He sighs alone"? "You swallow"? "Lou Barlow"? He could be eulogizing unicorns, or outlining Bjork's mom's reasons for going on hunger strike.
But if Birgisson's words are awash in a sea of indistinct connotations, the music follows a clear pattern. Each song is like a capsule of mortality: it begins delicate and small, grows bolder, breaks down in the middle, shrinks, and ends. But the patterns allow for innumerable intricacies, and because Sigur Ros's music clashes so definitively with its silence, you begin to hear things within it that you wouldn't normally.
Of course, at a certain point the mind screams uncle. Or at least mine did. At a recent Sigur Ros show, I almost had a panic attack. Sitting in the middle of hundreds of fans, I finally understood the band's album title: I felt trapped in the middle of a giant set of parentheses. A bow was threaded over guitar strings, a keyboard's chords melted into single notes, a tiny crackle escaped through Birgisson's microphone--everything seemed to happen at once. The string section swelled and the more mundane melodies plodded--yet, loud or soft, neither took precedence over the other. There was no dominant melody, and my ears refused to create a hierarchy of sound. I felt claustrophobic.
And again, bookish sort that I am, a literary analogue came to mind, this time Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. At a single moment in that novel an insect weaves its web in a sunny room, weeds tap at a windowpane, a ray of light from a nearby lighthouse traces its pattern across the carpet, and a young man dies in World War I. The soldier's death is the only one of these events enclosed in parentheses like a conversational aside, suggesting that human life and death are no more important than the finest details of existence. As Woolf puts it, "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."
A pretty fair description of Sigur Ros's music that night, which engulfed the audience in a wash of bright white noise. But to be confronted with so many details at once is overwhelming. Just when I was starting to worry that I'd blurt something Tourettic ("Godspeed, feedback emperors!") to calm my nerves, the band stopped playing for nearly a minute. It was like a deep breath, a vacuum that sucked in the last note I heard and swished it around in my head. And as it resonated, I was reminded of the time an electronic musician friend of mine played inverse sound waves for me, and I watched as his speakers shook in silence. The band's pause was like that moment: the music had turned itself inside out into a void.
"Nothing was simply one thing," observes James Ramsey, another of Woolf's characters, musing on the nature of experience. To which I'll add, not even silence. As Cage discovered when he entered a sound-deprivation chamber in 1951 and heard his own heartbeat, even apparent silence is pregnant with sound. Listening to the nothings between Sigur Ros's songs, you can hear every little element--the hum of electricity through the stereo, or the breath of the person sitting next to you in the auditorium--that fills that silence. When the music returns, you're almost unbearably attuned to the nuances of sound.
And that embrace of nothingness makes ( ) the perfect punctuation for Sigur Ros. Parentheses, after all, capture details that happen in the background or fade out of focus. It's an artist's job to gather those bits together and put them under a microscope, to rein in shards of tossed-off information. We live in a world where you can't buy a pair of jeans or pass a car on the highway without being bombarded by the house mix for a Eurotrash dance club. But sometimes, you enter an office building after midnight, or remain in an empty concert hall after the audience has gone home, or walk down the street after an ice storm, and you can almost hear the racket extinguished, like the hiss of a wet tongue against a candlewick.