Jónsi & Alex, Riceboy Sleeps

Jul 21 2009 Published by under Literature, Music

Photo of Riceboy Sleeps

I’ve always enjoyed carrying a book around with me everywhere I go.  It’s something I picked up when I was younger, after reading Zorba the Greek and watching the movie of the same name.  Both have a main character who is an intellectual.  The intellectual carries a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy with him everywhere he goes.  Zorba, the anti-intellectual, mocks the intellectual for carrying the book, declaring that not everything can be learned from books (or something like that–it’s been ages since I read the novel, so the details are sketchy).  And while I’m sure Zorba had a point, I was more interested in the idea of a man carrying a copy of Dante with him everywhere he went.  That was cool.

I’ve always considered books to be magical objects.  They invent new worlds, and they change our current world.  Growing up, books (along with albums and, later, CDs) captivated me like nothing else could (until the Internet came around).  It’s no wonder I became an English major, huh?  Besides, the United States is filled with Zorbas who look down on reading and thinking as though they were diseases from another planet (but minus the celebration of life that makes Zorba such a compelling character).  If nothing else, I wanted my life to embody a rejection of the anti-intellectualism that I see on an everyday basis in my country.  Carrying a book around with me was a silent embodiment of that rejection.

I understand this now, as a 40 year old, but at first, when I was 18 and reading Zorba, I just thought that carrying a book around was cool.  I even found a nice, old copy of Dante in a rare books store and started carrying it around too, though I eventually gave up on it when I realized (after actually reading the book) that the translation I had purchased was pretty dreadful.  I moved on to Maupassant, then to Flaubert, Kafka, Joyce, Deleuze and Guattari, Fredrich Kittler, Philip K. Dick, and so on.  I’ve had a lot of books in my hands and in my backpacks, to be sure.  But while the books have changed, the initial inspiration, the initial impetus for putting a book in my bag when I go out, has not.  I want to be cool, and I want to set myself apart from those around me.

So what’s the latest book in my bag?  Well, there are three, actually.  One is a notebook with ideas for a story I’m writing (though the notebook itself is pretty awesome because my wife gave it to me and because the cover is from The Book of Kells).  Another is Haunted Weather, David Toop’s interesting account of experimental music from the past 25 years or so (which I purchased in Dublin because it wasn’t available at the time in the US).  And the third?  It’s the one you see at the beginning of this post: Jonsi & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps.

Jónsi Birgisson & Alex Sommers are partners and collaborators.  Both in groups of their own (Jonsi in Sigur Ros, of course, and Alex in Parachutes, an interesting band whose music sounds an awful lot like Sigur Ros), they have been collaborating on a few artistic projects over the last few years.  Their first release was a tiny book of abstract drawings called Riceboy Sleeps.  I picked one up last year at the Sigur Ros show in San Diego.  It’s beautiful but a bit hard to figure out, like all good art.  There are no words, just pictures and drawings that have aged and withered through the decades.  Sepia tones wash through it all, and there’s a hint of Xerox residue there as well.  It’s a document of decay and memory, if it’s anything at all.  One picture is of a little girl walking through a grassy field, but the photo is dim from age and there are scribbles and thumbprints on the corners.  Another shows a drawing of a bird with another drawing of a girl inside the bird.  A third shows a decaying wall with some indecipherable text and a drawing of a boy. It is, in short, the illustrative book equivalent of Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children or William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.  It’s like a journal by some unknown artist that has been locked away in a closet for 100 years only to be rescued out of obscurity by Jonsi and Alex.  Or something like that.

I enjoy this book.  It has a magic to it that I have a very difficult time putting into words.  It’s not making any sort of statement, and it doesn’t even really evoke any specific image or impression about the past or about memory.  But it is engaging, enveloping me as I turn from page to page, picking apart each photo or drawing or random scribble.  I have no idea what the work is trying to express, but I get it all the same.

And that takes me to  Jonsi & Alex’s new album, Riceboy Sleeps.  The deluxe edition of this album (which I did buy–I’m such a Sigur Ros whore) contains extra music, a coloring book, crayons, and the Riceboy Sleeps book.  So, obviously, there’s meant to be a connection between the book and the music, apart from the title.  And, to be sure, the music itself is, like the book, hard to figure out.  I have read some negative reviews of this album, and most say the same thing: it sounds like the boring parts of Sigur Ros.  So anyone hoping for big guitar sweeps and more Jonsi ethereal vocals will be disappointed by Riceboy Sleeps.  But complaining about what isn’t in a work of music is like complaining about the absence of sound in a silent film.  Forget about what isn’t there.  Focus on what IS there.

Musically, it is a lot like the “boring” parts of Sigur Ros, but since I’m someone who actually likes that side of the band, I see that as a strength and not a weakness.  The band is known for its big, swelling, orchestral pieces (like”Popplagið” and “Hoppípolla”).  But there’s a repetition of form evident in those works, as their songs often (too often, if you ask me) start off slow and build, over time, into a giant wall of big, beautiful noise that crashes over and around the listener.  It’s great; it’s epochal stuff.  But it’s a formula, and I sensed that on their last album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust part of that formula was growing rather stale (which is why so many people prefer songs like “Gobbledigook” over the big numbers like “Festival”).

But there’s always been another, quieter side to Sigur Ros, and that side is all about atmospherics, ambiance, and silence.  Listen to a typical Sigur Ros album (like Takk…) and the big, booming moments stand out.  But surrounding those big moments are tons of little moments, moments when the music ebbs and flows along in all sorts of interesting an inventive ways.  It’s that element of their music that traditional music critics dismiss as so much art school noodling–as if that’s a bad thing, as if atmospheric music that lives and breathes but doesn’t necessary result in an orgasmic release is pointless (as if art needs a point).   And while it’s true that atmospheric, abstract moments can be every bit as formulaic as anything else (hence, New Age), this side of Sigur Ros generally manages to avoid those cliches, in part because the members are incredibly good musicians able to create something interesting and unique out any instrument, both physical and computer-based.

Riceboy Sleeps, created by two very good musicians, exists in this “pointless” realm of musical experimentation.  There’s remarkably varied collection of sounds here, from traditional piano and strings to processed samples of who knows what to (yes) Jonsi’s voice (though as a floating, decaying sample buried in the mix, not standing in the forefront) to Chris Watson-like field recordings.  All of these blend together to create an odd, hazy tension between running and standing still.

Listening to a track like “Stokkseyri,” which begins with chittering string lines that seem to stretch on for ungodly lengths (longer than a string player can possibly play one note, at any rate), I feel this tension in my legs, and it reminds me of those moments late at night when I’m in bed and my body is telling me to sleep but my mind keeps thinking about what I need to do the next day.  At this moment, I feel stretched out.  My legs twitch and I can’t stay still.  It’s painful, in a way, and that pain continues until the body wins out and my mind shuts down.  The music here, a combination of very long (and often beautiful) notes coupled with random bits of noise and digital decay, completely overtake me when I listen.  I get sucked in because the music begins and then keeps beginning, stretching out and out with no end in sight–until, at last, there’s a quiet ebbing.  The music slows, and then it ends.  It’s a “formula” in the sense that each work here contains the same tension followed by more tension followed, eventually, by a half-hearted release.  Or, to put it another way, the music begins, it builds and grows, and then it dies or falls asleep (as in “Riceboy” sleeps).

A lot of music fans will hate this album.  That’s fine.  Musical taste is quite personal, and I’ve long ago given up trying to change people’s minds.  But I think they will hate this work because it doesn’t seem to have any direct referent, no focal point or conclusion that ties everything together.  However, I think it does have that referent.  It’s Riceboy Sleeps, the book.  Listen to this music while studying the decaying, dying objects found in the book.  Take “Daniell in the Sea.”  It contains an angelic choir (which is probably Jonsi and Alex themselves, though I could be wrong) humming nothing until they are overwhelmed by a wash of digital waves.  Then look at the sepia-toned, slowly dissolving photograph of the little girl in a field with big trees in the background, all fading away slowly and not so gracefully.  There’s a direct connection here: photographs and journals grow old and die just like sounds grow, build, and disappear.  It’s life, of course, but the two works seem to be fascinated by those last few moments of life, the final traces of memory as they float through a journal or bounce around in errant corners of a child’s mind.

This is definitely not Post Rock or whatever Sigur Ros’s music is called.  It’s far closer to the experimental work of someone like William Basinski or Jim Haynes (whose work Sever touches on similar decaying themes) or Peter Wright or The Caretaker or any one of a number of musicians experimenting with rendering into musical form the very real concepts of death and decay.  Riceboy Sleeps is prettier than those works, but it’s also not as complete a work of art as something as monumental as The Disintegration Loops.  Then again, Jonsi & Alex are rock musicians first, experimental artists second; by contrast, someone like The Caretaker has spent a decade imagining and perfecting his own world of memory and decay.  So perhaps it’s not the best work Jonsi has ever created (that would be ( )).  But it’s a great side-project, a great experiment into bringing an aesthetic idea to life both visually and sonically, and a great addition to any Sigur Ros fan’s catalog.

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