Sigur Ros 'Heima' / Forum II / 29 Oct 2007

"Filmed and recorded entirely on location in Iceland"

This epigraph, which is actually Heima's postscript, really says it all. The film performs Sigur Rós relationship to their homeland, as they in turn perform to, within and for their environment.


Before we saw the film tonight, and thus before I go on to discuss it, Sigur Rós gave us a short acoustic set. They played three songs, with only piano, acoustic guitar and bass, and drums. Such a set was obviously disarmingly stripped down for Sigur Rós, whose majesty is normally glanced under mountains of electric effects of terrifying and awe-some heaviness. Yet even through such unplugged 'quietness' were Sigur Rós able to effect an aching beauty through their masterful knowledge of musical texture. Nevertheless, such a performance was indeed a strange set up for the film, which itself would largely choose to follow the band's recorded works' incessant privileging of moving, baroque aesthetics.

Yet in many ways this short performance was in tune with many other dimensions to the band that would so easily seem to slot into more traditional, linear notions of creativity; they seem to let their art do the talking - evident not only in their crafting of 'Hopelandic' (a made-up language used by singer Jón Þór Birgisson on many of their songs) but also their trademark curtness when it comes to answering questions displayed tonight at the anti-climactically underwhelming Q&A session following the film. Sigur Rós seem at all times to say 'let the art speak for itself' in very linear forms of representation. But as tonight's three-pronged performance assemblage (set, film, Q&A) would prove, no matter how it might seem, Sigur Rós constitute a truly limitless, interlinked, radical practice that escapes definition even within itself - demonstrated most fruitfully between the contradictions that would show up between what I am about to go on to describe in the film, and the performance and Q&A bookending it. 'Reading between the lines' for these paradoxes should be easy enough, and now back to the film.


Heima translates to 'at home'. This amazingly pretty film plays out, works through and presents, a band's relationship with home - the narrative surfaces, as it were, how Sigur Rós' music is conceived and how it comes to take place. Because cultural production is entirely mappable - but that isn't to say that it's also reflective (or that culture=nature). Because no matter how much critics (me included) might employ an arsenal of environmental, scenic metaphors to describe this band's music - glacial, otherworldly, icey, etc. - Heima demonstrates emphatically that the relationship between a band's music and their environment (metonyms of culture and nature) is never settled, and never simply a matter of mirroring or reflection. All throughout the film, for instance, never is there anything like an easy correspondence between sound (music) and film image (which by extension we could say is the landscape) - they are always intermezzo, in between - fuzzy and proliferate - like the reverse footage of waterfalls and mist, or the interspersions of the audience arriving and then applauding (which we see but don't 'hear') periodically through the 'proper' footage of the band performing the penultimate song Popplagið. Indeed, as the film tracks the journey of Sigur Rós through continually more breathtaking and beautiful landscapes and different performance venues, it actually shows how their performance narrative collapses the distinction between nature and culture. Their relationship is so complex, intertwined, at times disjunctive and contradictory, at others more mimetic, that any clear cut between the two is simply impossible and furthermore, unwanted.

Such is most explicit when the band visit a man who finds different fallen slate rocks that vary in tone to make 'geological marimbas', which the band then proceed to play inside a cave. Although this is the clearest instance, continually does the film refuse to separate out (and thus propose a simplistic mirror or equally simplistic ignorance) music making and locale. Throughout, Sigur Rós literally embed their performances of songs within certain places - inside old fishing factories, at the site of a flooded dam and various other landscapes, churches, and so on. And as the film progresses, we see that they not only perform for their landscape, but that they indeed enact it.

Such obviously ties to the obvious purpose of the performances (a series of free, unannounced concerts throughout Iceland in 2006) as about 'giving back' to the people and the land that they create from, in many ways quite literally - the concerts are free and open; one of the members of Amiina (Sigur Rós' backing string quartet) mentions how the local press described this as a noble undertaking, one that instilled a sense of inclusiveness and national pride, even. Furthermore, the performance at the site of the flooded dam, Snæfellsskála, politicises itself through form - the band choose not to use a generator because that would be complicit in many ways with the same aluminum companies responsible for flooding Snæfellsskála, who want to use the location to extract power. As such, this song is performed entirely acoustically, and captured on only camera microphone. Here we can hear and even see the sound of the environment as it plays Sigur Rós and as they play it - the grainy quality of the sound through wind - this is a distinct moment in the film as it shuns the almost hyperreal aesthetics of many other perfectly captured and post-mixed performances, Heima thereby instituting and demanding a politics of sound in difference to itself. That is not to say that the other moments of 'hyperclarity' (if anything Heima is an argument for digital film) of vision and sound are insignificant, in fact it is probably these moments that intimate the profundity of the film and this band. Like the moments when the excess of sound from a performance shown ruptures not only the devices used to record it but those that present it to us, thereby spilling over outside of the text, shaking the stage of the forum - shaking our very bodies.

To the point: this film, this love letter to Iceland, this sonic postcard, shows the very overwhelming 'livingness' of space - although many camera shots are static, the film presents an almost always overpowering visual and aural aesthetics of excessive beauty that causes one to simply realise that this place (and indeed, this very film - which is another matter entirely; but for now I think about the unbelievable feeling of whole-body goosebumps I got when I saw and heard and moreover felt Starálfur, and how Heima is somehow more than being at the concerts shown) is alive, breathing and animate - and it is continually (re)animated through Sigur Rós' music, through sound. There is no split between nature and culture, there is actually no distinction - instead there is the knowledge that everything, everywhere is a sounding board - the revelation of the overwhelming physicality of music that Heima presents. Watching (hearing, feeling) this film is an entry into the absolute limitlessness of nature's continually unfolding, shifting sonic texture, that eventually can no longer be understood (my attempt here has undoubtedly failed to convey the experience) but must be felt.

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