Lost at Sea
by Tom Körp
We were heading north on 295, our headlights pointing the way home from Washington, D.C. There was the lingering stench of cigarettes, stale beer, and faint BO—classic eau du concert. It was pervasive, that combination of darkness and smell. Granted, the latter had lost some of its initial potency, partly because I’d gotten used to it, mostly because I was too tired and too congested to be concerned with how badly I reeked. That, and the cold November weather cooled things down quite nicely after the shoulder-to-shoulder inferno of the 9:30 Club, sweat wicked away with the rapidity of playground secrets that fade from importance just as quickly as they gain it.

Make that the cold December weather, as the Iron & Wine and Calexico concert had taken place late on the 30th of November, and the present drive occurred on the cusp of the first day of the last month of the old year. That’s hardly important, per se, but it’s good to know if you’re keeping track.

Still, there was the darkness. It was all around us, around the car—my roommate’s Audi A4 sedan, a humming blue mass of German precision-engineering which he guided through the unfathomable pitch. Outside, our way was detailed by high beams and the occasional streetlight, dull beacons casting vague circles of light in between formless stretches of darkness. Inside, numbers and dials glowed red on the car’s console, gauges and buttons unobtrusively illuminated for the benefit of drivers who care about such things as fuel levels, engine heat, and time. Time, which seemed to drag on, unaffected by the continuing revolutions of wheels, belts, and gears that sped us homeward.

Then there was the calming blue glow of a fourth-generation iPod, its white charger reaching out like a lifeline or an umbilical cord to the red circle of an illuminated cigarette lighter. The iPod clicked and whirred in Chris’s hand as he ran his thumb around the toggle-wheel, palming the device with one hand while lightly grasping the steering wheel with the other. I’m not entirely sure if his eyes were, like mine, watching the road ahead. Rather, what little could be seen of the dark road ahead.

It started slow: sound drifting casually through the darkness as I turned to stare out the side window at what would normally be a world of trees, road, and sky. There was nothing. No moon. No stars. A vague blur where the traffic lines ended and nature supposedly began. Nothing but the ethereal tinkling of a xylophone and stray chords from a piano, music striving against the howl of the wind and the drone of the engine. Those notes, a light and repetitive build-up, were followed by what could only be a human voice.

There were words, maybe, in some language far-removed from English. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it—definitely not a Romance language, as there were no easily-identifiable consonant sounds. It was a dense choral gibberish of semivowels and diphthongs, contortionist words that I could never train my mouth to emulate.

“What is this?” I ventured to break through the paradoxical silence of sound.

“Sigur Rós,” came Chris’s clipped, matter-of-fact answer. “Just listen.”

I followed the growing mass of vocals and instrumentation, waited as the piano and xylophone developed slowly over a staccato scratching noise, a sound like fingertips slid quickly over sandpaper. For the life of me, I couldn’t place that sound, couldn’t trace it back to its origins. A washboard? A muted guitar? Feedback? A flaw in the recording? Whatever it was, it was hiding just below the surface of the song, simultaneously keeping time with the piano and threatening to break away from it.

Then it did.

The xylophone and the vocals dropped away, leaving only the piano and that incessant scratch, a scratch that dropped to a low drone before exploding with a blast of strings, percussion, and distorted guitars. The voice resumed its otherworldly hymn, a celestial croon that began to ebb and flow through and above the darkness and the piano’s melody. Drums and strings resonated throughout the car, shaking it with the combined forces of wind and sound.

I felt inspired, then anxious. It was too much—rather, there was not enough going on, nothing else to distract me from the sound, from that voice. My left hand was drumming out a muted tattoo on my knee, a vague tap-tappa-tap-tap that was felt rather than heard. I gripped the side passenger door with my right hand in a failed attempt to ground myself, to use one of my other four senses to break the song’s hold. I even considered throwing the car door open and willfully spilling myself onto the rushing macadam, a violent response to a sound that was both oppressive and liberating. Trapped inside that car, I found myself crying, my head turned to the side as thin, warm trails worked their way down my cheeks. Staring out the window, I watched the blurred darkness in vain for the better part of seven minutes, listening to something that I could feel without even understanding what it was that I felt. Panic, sadness, awe. I was enthralled; captivated by a beauty that I did not think I could ever measure, let alone fully appreciate. I sat there, listening, as everything else—the car, the unseen world, Chris—began to fade to the background. And yet, for the life of me, I could not understand a word of it.

á lífi
Kominn heim
á lífi
Kominn heim
það kemur kafari

Then again, I don’t think that was supposed to. Or that I even needed to, for that matter. I would later learn that Jón Þór Birgisson, the lead vocalist and guitarist of Sigur Rós, sings in both his native Icelandic and in Hopelandic, a language of his own creation. The song in question, “Sæglópur” (trans: “Lost at Sea”) is predominantly sung in the latter, its beautiful mess of nonsensical sounds made to resemble Icelandic, all the while playing into that wonderfully frustrating aesthetic of postmodern indeterminacy.

I’ve had similar experiences to that night, both before and after. I’ve heard songs that made my hair stand on end, that caused me to shudder violently as though a cold hand were suddenly placed between my shoulder blades. Songs that sent me to tears regardless of the situation, that raised legions of goosebumps regardless of heat and cold. Some call it Stendhal’s Syndrome; I call it a really good guitar riff, or a vocal hook that hits just right. More often than not, it’s caused by the music, not the lyric—it’s a gut feeling, something that happens when the mind shuts down, when the critical faculty switches to standby while waves of sound slap against the ears and the diaphragm, when the heart skips its own beats in a frightening attempt to keep time with a song. Sam Beam of Iron & Wine had caused a similar reaction earlier that evening during a performance of “Trapeze Swinger”; I had to pinch my bicep to the point of bruising in order to keep from weeping midway through the chorus.

I’d like to say that I was successful, but I can’t stand liars.

My friend Tom had once mentioned that driving on a high bridge on a cloudy, moonless night was like driving over nothing. I know the feeling: the world drops away, and your stomach with it. It’s like a sudden plunge in an elevator, or an airplane at takeoff with your eyes closed. It’s like being lost at sea, with nothing but horizon, sea and sky in every direction—the heartbreaking illusion of ultimate freedom.

Trapped in that car, I gazed ahead at the road, its gray surface an ever-shifting parody of television static. The song having finished, I was free to think again. I thought about Sigur Rós, about the greater post-rock movement, if you could call it that. I thought that life was not about melody, at least not in the straightforward sing-along sense. Life was not mimicry. Life was—life is—chaos and disorder, a random series of insane occurrences and nuanced coincidences. The challenge, then—the fun, if you will—is trying to create a sense of order from that morass of happenstance; it is the act of finding order despite the chaos, if only for a moment. But that order isn’t obvious, and no one ever finds it absolutely. More often than not, it finds you. But it is there, and even the most accidental stumbling upon the melody—the most unexpected appreciation of the harmony contained within the dissonance—is essentially worthwhile. And it should never be taken for granted.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Prose (July 26th, 2006)