Monday, July 23, 2012

Sigur Ros' "Valtari" and the Counterculture of Hope

It often seems that the need to halt the conspiratorial and destructive spiral of contemporary greed and ambition is more pronounced than ever, but the struggle to just to make ends meet from one day to the next often takes precedence. For me, this dissonance between action and inaction generates a troubling undercurrent of frustration, shame, and helplessness. I feel even more disturbed when I, an unapologetic music consumer, consider the role that mediated music plays in this system. On the one hand, it has the potential to provide meaning (and perhaps a sinister distraction) in a culture of isolation. On the other, it is also driven by its status as a disposable commodity. This duality is not new, and there never seems to be a lack of countercultural music to represent the anger and rage it creates. There is far less music, however, that genuinely speaks for hope.

The nearly orchestral approach of Sigur Ros hardly gives the impression of countercultural defiance, but clearly, their distinctive mix of Icelandic and non-literal lyrics is a testament to their interest in musical expression over broad visibility. The band's previous album, Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust, was as close to commercial as they have ever released. In comparison, their recent release Valtari prominently features Sigur Ros’ atmospheric and ambient side. Initially, it seems a bit unfocused and meandering, but it is a work of beauty that rewards the patient listener.

Sigur Ros has traditionally mined the narrative capacity of their music by pairing striking images with sweeping soundscapes in their film projects. For Valtari, the band sponsored twelve directors with a uniform budget and gave them the artistic latitude to render their mind’s eye, free of input from the band. The results from several of these projects have been released, and I found Varuo to be particularly moving. Like the album in general, it rewards the patient viewer with a subtle message of isolation, communication, connection, harmony, and transcendence.

Sigur Ros doesn’t explicitly proselytize for hope, but their music carries weight precisely because of its subtlety. From a pessimistic point of view, the majestic beauty of Valtari could be seen as a sedative for the hyperactive; a commodity intended to colorize a grayed-out existence. Conversely, it also leaves little room for doubt that there are human hands and minds at work to represent the poignant beauty of the human condition. This latter perspective is, in my opinion, defiantly hopeful in the face of disillusion, and provides the emotional space for me to be moved by the sight of my daughter sleeping peacefully in the back seat of my car as I struggle through traffic.

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