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Behind the music.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Last weekend, Calvin hosted its biggest concert of the last 15 years. And that’s not just hyperbole. Between crews working around the clock (9am on Saturday to 5am on Sunday) to set up the Fine Arts Center and the opportunity to host this particular band at the height of its popularity, the Sigur Rós concert was historic in its technical scope and cultural significance.

If you were at either of the shows, you experienced this scope and significance firsthand. Now we want to fill in the gaps with some behind-the-scenes reflections. For instance, you might be interested to know that the front of house engineer noted afterwards that the 11pm show was the best of the Sigur Rós and Amina’s last 100 shows—thanks, in part, to the fact that the band had an opportunity to get to know some of its audience beforehand.

Long before a band ever sets foot on campus, Student Activities Director Ken Heffner petitions the manager for what we call “a conversation with the artist,” a chance for concert-goers to interact with the musicians about what they will be experiencing later that night. Sometimes artists will turn us down (Patty Griffin, for instance, is not fond of public speaking), but usually they agree, coming into the conversation both confused and intrigued by something that is neither a press conference nor a meet and greet.

Sigur Rós’s visit to Calvin marked the first time they had ever had a formal dialogue with “lay people” who were more interested in their art than their celebrity. Although they were a bit uneasy and evasive at first, the four band members warmed up to the dialogue and answered the group’s questions with both thoughtfulness and humor. (You can hear an mp3 of the conversation in its entirety at our website.)

As much as these discussions are an opportunity for the audience to learn from the artists, the converse is true as well: they also help the musicians get their bearings. After the show, lead singer Jonsi said that the afternoon talk gave him a sense of place, a better understanding of where he was when performing that night. We’re realizing now that the conversations play a role other than just informing the audience—they help inform the artist, too, contributing to a stronger performance as a result.

This sense of reciprocity between the artist and audience was a recurring theme as we reflected on the weekend. During the conversation, one question in particular illuminated this relationship. A student asked the band what they made of critics who called their music “angelic” or “heavenly,” adjectives consistently used to describe the transcendent qualities of Sigur Rós’s musicianship and live concert experiences (as in this excellent review by Andy Whitman).

As one might expect, the band members distanced themselves from this sort of language. Lead singer Jonsi and keyboardist Kjartan said that their intention is not to evoke religious imagery, and bass player Georg joked that he had read one critic who called their music “God’s golden teardrops from heaven”—clearly an absurd and quasi-poetic overstatement.

Yet many people experience Sigur Rós’s music as transcendent—so what do we make of this? Obviously an artist’s vision and intention is an important contribution to any conversation about that art. And in this context, it makes sense that a musician would back away from charges that they are providing the soundtrack to heaven; to embrace that lofty intention would be the height of hubris.

But what about the audience’s experience? Judging from students’ reactions to the concerts last Saturday, transcendence was par for the course. Our office assistant Katelyn Beaty, for instance,