For three-year-olds, repetition rules. Perhaps for my daughter Gigi it rules more intensely than for other children; I couldn’t say. But for the past three months, no one has been allowed to listen to anything but Sigur Ros in our car. One track at a time, endless repeat, until she’s ready to move on to the next one. Comply, or face an epic tantrum.
Gigi asks a lot of questions. About the band, the songs, the arrangements. She’s startlingly aware of minutiae where I at her age – or older – would have had only a rudimentary sense of tempo, melody, vocal quality. She notices bass lines, notices the different sounds produced when Jón Birgisson strums his guitar or bows it. We talk about what a synthesizer is. We have a repetitive, passionate argument about the vocals – Gigi still periodically insists that Jónsi is a woman. I’ve taught her the term “falsetto.” Showed her Iceland on a map. Played Youtube videos for her (See? He’s a boy!).
She wants to know, “What is he saying?” I tell her I don’t speak Icelandic. Then it comes up that many of Jónsi’s songs aren’t even in Icelandic, but in Vonlenska, a language the singer invented. I thought this would complicate the conversation but Ginger was far readier to believe in a made-up language than she was to accept that a man could sound like Jónsi does.
Back in the 80s I fell ass-over-teakettle for the delirious glossolalia vocals of the Cocteau Twins. Elisabeth Fraser’s vocals were so elastic and ecstatic, and I was sure, though I couldn’t have explained it, that part of that ethereal sound was tied to the liberation from language, that there was something about divorcing sound from meaning that helped one arrive at a purer and more complete meaning, something more intimate, more personal, and at the same time more universal, than words could provide even to one for whom words were meat and drink. In Sigur Ros I immediately sensed the same thing: there was something these guys were able to say because they were not saying anything.
Vonlenska, or “Hopelandic,” Birgisson’s faux-language, is (according to Wikipedia’s entry on the band) “a non-literal language, without fixed syntax, and differs from constructed languages that can be used for communication. It focuses entirely on the sounds of language; lacking grammar, meaning, and even distinct words. Instead, it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language. In this way, it is similar to the use of scat singing in vocal jazz.”
As a poet who happens to moonlight as a jazz singer, this fascinates me on multiple fronts. I love words. Collect them obsessively. Have no idea who I’d be without them. And while I very much dig the tradition of nonsense vocalizing in jazz – from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s mimicries of horn obbligati to Slim Gaillard’s Vout-a-roonie to the scale-hopping pyrotechnics of Sarah Vaughn or Aretha Franklin – it takes a massive effort for me, personally, to relinquish the security of words, whether on the stage or the page. Scat singing requires a real leap of faith, a willful unmooring from the inherent authority of words and meaning. Words signify things; that is their job. To signify without relying on them can be liberating – but also scary. How someone like Jónsi, or Gaillard, or Fraser, gives him or herself the authority to invent a personal lexicon is beyond me and probably always will be. I wouldn’t have the guts. But when it works – it’s kind of thrilling.
And yet, in our most intense moments -- do we not all abandon words? There is something inherently faulty, inherently inadequate, about words when it comes to expressing our deepest moments of joy, or grief, of shock, of anger. Words cannot do justice to our most passionate feelings. They fail us every time. Perhaps the willful abandon of words does get us closer, sometimes, to the essence of something.
Poetry, if it can be said to be any one thing, might justifiably be thought of as a thought, an idea, a feeling, captured meaningfully in a matrix of words. It seems inextricable from language, from words – though goodness knows many of us have tried to pry our art from the vicegrip of the language it is built from, whether in the playful manner of Lewis Carroll or the battering-ram style favored by some postmodernists. Maybe we occasionally succeed.
Where do meaning and non-meaning meet? Where is the written (spoken, sung) word a scalpel and where is it a sledgehammer? Do we get closer to truth and meaning and the loftiest heights of our art by increasingly precise and skillful disciplining of words or by finding a way to let go of them? Is the presumption of meaning or the presumption that we can free ourselves from meaning the greater artifice?
Ponder this while listening to Sigur Ros's “The Nothing Song.” And get back to me.