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Gee Pee Ess

from Monday, July14th of the year2008.

This morning, I turned on the GPS as I was coming down the five floors of parking garage and told it to please head towards the airport, to the rental lot (a pre-saved location in its little mind). As I drove in circles, the GPS was continuously recalculating its position based on where it thought I was: “Go straight to ninth street. Recalculating. Go straight to eighth street. Recalculating. Go straight to ninth street. Recalculating. Go straight to eighth street. Recalculating.” The rhythm of her voice combined with my dizziness was pretty spectacular, and I entered a sort of trance state where I was spinning in circles, and a computer was trying to orient my spinning on its own homewards itinerary. Isn’t this an inversion of what computers are meant to be? Capital-I: figure out the itinerary, the curves, the nuanced slug-shaped information flow, and the computers spin merrily in circles as I guide myself home?

All in all, L.A. has been really fun, actually. The Hollywood Bowl is my homegirl, and seeing Carmen last night was great. They had slightly shortened it, which I must say I didn’t even notice. Jessica Rivera, for whom I am writing a song cycle, sang Micaëla, which is normally a small role, but she OWNED it. We were sitting next to some really serious opera queens who were, like, screaming “git it!” and “brava/i/o/e” before the reverb had even faded. I fear an opera queen, I have to tell you, but I’m sort of excited to see what they will make of my efforts in the genre; they are the bread and butter of the audiences for opera, which I wish people would write more about in the press. Yes, it’s old white people, but it’s old, gay, intensely educated about opera white people. In New Music, you see, we have Crazy People who, like, pack a lunch to come to an evening concert and unwrap it loudly (an Icelandic friend of mine came with me to the Bang on a Can Marathon and quite correctly observed: “There are a lot of people with walking problems here!”) ““ New Music is sort of like the Bus Station of the classical music spectrum, for better and for worse. We are talking tuna fish sammich eaty high quality CD player talky khaki pant with relish stain weary crazy here. Opera Fans, on the other hand, are a whole other conversation. Check out the comments on some of these entries.

I have been listening to this one particular track from the new Sigur Rós album called Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur. It has one of my favorite tricks in the world which is two different rhyming schemes, in this case, weak rhymes across the lines, followed by tight, single line rhymes. Check out the lyrics for the first verse, and listen along:

Sigur Rós Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur from Með Suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust

Á silfur-á
Lýsir allan heiminn og augun blá
Skera stjörnuhiminn
Ég óska mér og loka nú augunum
Já, gerðu það, nú rætist það
Ó nei

Then, the chorus, which has the most delicious tight rhymes:

Minn besti vinur hverju sem dynur
Ég kyngi tári og anda hári
Illum látum, í faðmi grátum
Þegar að við hittumst
Þegar að við kyssumst
Varirnar brenndu, höldumst í hendur
Ég sé þig vakinn
Ég sé þig nakinn
Inní mér syngur vitleysingur
Alltaf þið vaða, við hlaupum hraðar
Allt verður smærra
Ég öskra hærra
Er er við aða, í burtu fara

Then, you get some of the same lines repeated, but this time on different cycles of the chord, so it’s slightly reorganized:

Minn besti vinur hverju sem dynur
Illum látum, í faðmi grátum
Ég kyngi tári og anda hári
Þegar að við hittumst
Þegar að við kyssumst
Varirnar brenndu, höldumst í hendur
Ég sé þig vakinn
Ég sé þig nakinn
Inní mér syngur vitleysingur

There are about sixteen million things that work really well about this. I am particularly excited about the grammatical implications: in Icelandic, grammatically similar parts rhyme well with each other, so, in the third line, “tears” and “hair” rhyme because in the first instance they are being swallowed (að kyngja) and in the second blown up on (að anda). When I was listening to them play it in New York last month, I was struck by something: it’s totally the Same Scheme as that “For the instruments are by their rhimes” section from Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb! Check it out. The text is from Christopher Smart’s poem of something like the same name, Jubilate Agno:

Benjamin Britten Rejoice in the Lamb (excerpt)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury
I think this is from my old Argo recording, has this been re-ish?

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

Britten’s is the emotional reverse of the Sigur Rós, where the hysteria comes before the gentler, doughy rhymes. The two examples here, though, have more in common: harmonically, both take advantage of a reverse pedal point, which is to say, keeping a note constant in the treble while the bass moves around. In both cases, the trebles (Jónsi) agitate the fifth scale degree of the chord. Check it out on “…for at that time malignity ceases” (my emphases) or on “minn besti vinur / hverjum sem dynur” (“my best friend / whatever comes to pass”). An aside: when I first started paying attention to stuff, I used to sit at the piano and play the chords on the line “and the devils themselves are at peace” over and over and over.

I have decided also that attempting translations of Icelandic is a good way to get better at it. Now that Sigur Rós are using 4-real bygg-gurl lyrics it’s gotten a lot easier, let me tell you. Like Steve Reich, whenever Ice people get really pumped about something, they go into primal scream makeup language time, like that moment in the Desert Music where Reich is like, “The mind is listening dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee,” which I think is the crotchety minimalist way of either listening to the Light Within or putting your fingers in your ears and singing the national anþemn. Beej does it too, in that song “Modern Things,” where she’s making total sense, talking about dinosaurs, and then all of a sudden she just sets it out when the beat comes in. Anyway, I am really into how audible the lyrics in the Sigur Rós song are, too. Check out a really quality rolled R on the word “smærra” (“smaller”), too. Ídiþ Píöfsdóttir.

So, in summary:

    LA is not that bad as long as you rent a car with GPS upp inn.
    The new Sigur Rós album is Good.
    Benjamin Britten is also Good.
    I fear an Opera Queen.
    If you’re going to roll an R, set it out for me.


  • For Nico Muhly writes the most interesting blogges and the like.

  • I was reading this and laughing and then I looked down and saw the relish stains on my khakis and started to cry.

  • Michaela don’t never get the credit….it’s always dem bitches Carmen, Frasquita bonnita chaquita.

    The thing about singing is that when truly transported, one winds up speaking in tongues. I always thought that’s how the cadenza came about. Of course there’s the little problem of losing the listener….

    Rhyme is so soothing, so trustworthy. Why do I feel duped? Perhaps it would help if I learned Icelandic.

  • Ah Nico, your blog, like your music, is fascinating; even though, like Helen DeWitt’s “The Last Samurai”, I don’t always understand it.

    The Hollywood Bowl – what a fantastic gem that place is. Last year I too fell in love with it, seeing Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland concert, as a full moon rose over the trees. Magical place. Once Gustavo Dudamel (another gem) gets there, I want to go back and get a $5 seat on the grass and hear the LA Symphony.

    Britten – might I put in a plug for a DVD I just watched, “Benjamin Britten: A Time It Was”, by Tony Palmer. Certainly not comprehensive, actually a very personal look at his life. Wonderful clips of Peter Pears talking and singing, and these dear old England aunts and friends chatting. Very moving, and somewhat sad.

  • It is totally fun to read along and try to understand the phonetics of northern languages and the like!

  • I too am enjoying the legibility of the new Sigur Rós lyrics. Don’t forget http://wiki.bennington.edu/wiki/Ágætis_Byrjun, and let me know if you make some of your own. Ég fer til Íslands á miðvikudegi næstum eksklameisjon pönt!

  • Love it – bought it at the same time as Mothertongue, actually. Icelandic sounds great – had a stab at Old Norse once but decided to stick with Irish in the end. Must try again. Must try harder. Meh.

  • Really enjoyed this posting. Enough to leave a comment, in fact. That track on the new Sigur Ros is fantastic, and Jónsi’s lyrics are indeed poetically wonderful on this record. Moreso than the previous, I think. Not speaking Icelandic myself part of the enjoyment of their music is appreciating the phonetics–it’s nice knowing I’m not the only one obsessed with the sounds.

    Too, their performance of this at MoMA was I think tighter than the previous night’s show, despite the acoustics in the room, you know, sucking.

    But they had Balzac on stage with them, so that was cool.

  • As usual, I learn so much from the things Nico notices and pays attention to, the way in which one thing leads to another to bring out hidden likenesses, the edgy joy (as well as the joyful edginess). But as an old, white, gay, reasonably intelligent opera lover, I am bothered by his throwaway lines.

  • I too am an old white gay reasonably intelligent opera lover, and I scare myself.

  • Something that fascinates me is how compound nouns are made in Icelandic, as the words often seem to be selected on account of their rhyming or alliterative qualities. For example, “lestrarhestur” (an avid reader) would literally translate as “a reading horse”. That horses don´t read seems less of a concern than the rhyme quality (lestur: reading / hestur: horse). Also, the word choice in “göngugarpur” (an energetic walker or hiker) has more to do with the alliteration of the two Gs than the necessity of using the rare “garpur” (hero, champion) to go with the form of “ganga” that makes up the first half.

    Also, you of course know where to find my favorite rolled R in the History of the World. Arvo Pärt, …which was the son of…: “which was the son of ERRRRRRRRR”, to be sung exactly thus.

  • I love your humor and happiness. Thanks for recommending Helen DeWitt.