From Iceland — Deafening Silence

Deafening Silence

Published July 15, 2008

Deafening Silence
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Sigur Rós, despite their success, is a band that is still on it’s way out of Iceland. In a way, they are still local. It wasn’t so long ago that they were a small-time Reykjavík band, and you can still spot them walking down Laugavegur every once in a while. Björk, meanwhile, is a performer that Icelanders have somewhat begun to resent because of her success. She is like the daughter that grew up, moved out of the house and doesn’t call us anymore. While the free concert in the name of Náttúra was undoubtedly feeding into a certain marketable image beneficial to all parties involved, it was done in the name of an idea that, in its purest and most uncomplicated form, every Icelander could stand behind.

It was only almost 17:00, but the event had received enough local and international hype to warrant the expectation of a sizable audience right from the concert’s offset. In an unfittingly dramatic beginning, my comrades and I climbed a 2-meter long wrought-iron fence in an effort to reach Þvottabrekka and avoiding the congestion of crowds flooding Grasagarðurinn’s main entrance.
    Upon arrival, the crowd of early birds turned out to be much more moderately sized than I had expected; fringed by rustling trees and enormous hanging speakers, about a hundred people sat camped on blankets and chairs in front of the empty stage. Images of natural treasures in danger of ruination for the sake of heavy industry flashed across a screen to our left, along with photographs sprawled with the words “already destroyed.” Politicians smiled triumphantly on the screen as we luxuriously spread a blanket on the grass about 20 meters from the stage.

At around 17:30, concertgoers started streaming into the park en masse. There was nothing to do but wait and watch, while Finnbogi Pétursson and Curver’s soft ambience, which I mistook at first for an extended sound-check, ushered in the unrelenting swarm of concertgoers. The sun shone, everyone ate Stjörnumix, and I could see almost no one who had yet started drinking.
“I’m going to say this in English for the English-speaking audience” Ólöf Arnalds declared to a big cheer when she had taken the stage in a black, sparkly marching band-esque jacket. “I’ve never done a concert standing up in my life, but tonight I’m standing and I’m also standing in these big shoes because I’m standing up for nature!”
The crowd around me, despite being comparatively close to the stage, was watching the live footage on the screen rather than the stage itself. Ólöf was cheerful and talkative, despite a generally timid response from the audience, and a pair of Americans sitting in front of us turned around to ask bemusedly who she was. Delivering a short set of mostly new material with her usual earnestness, Ólöf affirmed her deft ability to write simple songs that are sweet without being corny.

As soon as she had left the stage, the crowd, finished with their lazing and their snack foods, stood up in anxious anticipation of the co-headliners, Sigur Rós. After a short wait the band walked on stage and began playing without a word to the audience. A few songs in I began to wonder if they were going to address the crowd at all, if not the issue at hand, when Jónsi finally spoke: “So, is everyone in a good gear?” Then, conclusively, “We’re going to play a song off our new record.” As the opening notes rang out, a group of pre-teens started to scream and jump up and down with joy. “It’s a little bit cold,” Jónsi interjected before the next song, “there’s no sun on the stage.”

The on-stage action during Sigur Rós’s gig played out like some perfectly adorable fairy-tale. The band beat drum sticks and bows to shreds on their instruments and romped on wooden flutes to raw and animalistic climaxes. Giant white balloon-like lanterns on stage lit up in various arrangements and white smoke drifted from somewhere back on the stage, while Amiina puttered about like brightly dressed decoration, adorned with flower-like hair ornaments. The wind was blowing eagerly and tugged playfully at the band, moving the glistening plastic draping the stage into a symphony of movement while the audience, bathed in harsh sunlight and swaying along with the wind, looked on as though in a trance.
The highlight of Sigur Rós’s set, and arguably of the whole concert, came when Björk and Ólöf Arnalds joined on stage during Goobledigook in jumping up and down and cathartically beating drums. Despite whatever reservations you may have about Sigur Rós’s music or about the merit of the concert as a whole, the song was undeniably captivating to watch simply because of the clear and organic thrill of the performers on stage. It was possibly the most fun I have ever had watching musicians perform, ever.

Towards the end of Sigur Rós’s set I was hoisted up to see that the garden was filled to its brim with tiny little heads, (later estimated to be around 30,000 concertgoers,) peaking for the night’s final set.
Björk took the animal metaphor to a new level, dressed in a spotted rainbow-coloured headdress that made her resemble some glamorous human koala bear. Prancing around the stage barefoot, licking her lips before unleashing her lyrics, she looked like a spectacular animal of her own creation, dancing about and whipping her arms with seeming instinctual flair.

On the big screen Björk was magnified both in size and audience, broadcast to a global audience of 2.6 million (according to the U.N.) via National Geographic’s World Music Website. Although the crowd was riled up and thrilled and Björk’s set superbly professional, it all must have looked much more purposeful via satellite than it did from 10 meters from the stage.

 Even from way up close the message was hazy. Despite the informatory slideshow, the hook that would have made the concert as momentous and as noble as it purported itself to be, the accessible message, was missing. The voice of the artists, the connection of their music to the message and the message to the audience was not vocalized by either of the headlining acts.
After Björk’s grand encore where she commanded her army of brass with throws of her hands, chanting “Náttúra! Náttúra!” the crowd dispersed to reveal a blanket of trash. As I survey the scene a woman looks at me and says indignantly, “What is it that we’re supposed to be fighting for?” before leaning over to collect the half-full bottles of Icelandic Spring Water into a plastic Bónus bag.

  • WHERE Grasagarðurinn, Laugardalur
  • WHEN Saturday, June 28
  • WHO Ghostigital, Ólöf Arnalds, Sigur Rós, Björk
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