Part 6: Sigur Ros at the Harpa Concert Hall

…continued from Part 5: Iceland in Full Circle

I can’t believe I’m doing this, I thought, as I sat at my computer last September with another flight reservation to Iceland loaded in one browser tab. A hostel reservation was loaded in another. And in the third, a ticket to Sigur Rós at the Harpa venue in downtown Reykjavik on December 30. I had entered my credit card in all three browsers. Everything was set. All I had to do was pull the trigger.

I was hesitating. I shouldn’t be doing this. I need to save my money. I was just there. And I’m going back already? I stared at the screen for a minute, conflicted. Then all at once, I thought “No”, and closed out the browser – and with it, my next adventure abroad. It was frugal, and wise. I did the right thing. I didn’t regret my decision.

Sigur Rós had toured the world for most of that year, playing in big cities across Asia, South America, Europe, the states, and finally their hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland. They organized a four-day festival, Norður og Niður at the immaculate Harpa Concert Hall in downtown, headlining in the main Eldborg Hall for four sold out shows. It was a celebration of ambient music, art, theatre, and darkness: Northward and Downward.

The venue is geometrically flawless, I think, as I walk through the door. It is a prism of steel and glass, with thousands of complex shapes pieced together with precision – like something an architect drafted with a deliberately complex algorithm. I want to fly a drone in the main hall. I wait on the second floor with my day ticket to watch Julianna Barwick perform in a small theatre. Others gather around the entrance as we wait for the doors to open. She cancelled a tour in America one year to tour with Sigur Rós, and now many of their fans are also hers. I’m not at all surprised at her following.

I find a seat near the top and she comes out to the applause of 200 people. Stage lights dim to soft tones of blue as she takes the audience across a vast soundscape of ethereal bliss. Each song begins with a simple melody or texture, and by looping each harmony over the last, she transforms each sequence into a booming choir. Her music builds and fades with the grace of the aurora; I listen and feel like I’m floating across an interstellar plain between astral systems. It goes as far as my imagination can take it. Then all at once she ends as quickly as she began. I’m back on the ground. We applaud.

I leave and see a crowd of people pour out of Eldborg for the third of four Sigur Rós concerts that week. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.

I spend the next day exploring the city and go back to the venue two hours early because I can’t wait any fucking longer to see this band. While I wait outside the door, Julianna Barwick sets up to play on an open side stage, because why the fuck not?? I’m convinced that the festival is just trolling me now. I get another glass of wine and watch her play even more of her graceful, ambient compositions.

Finally, I go into Eldborg and find my seat. The band walks onto the stage to a packed house of cheering people. They begin.

The stage darkens, and lights surround Jónsi like fireflies as he begins a simple note over a light backdrop of ambience. The three members literally play in the middle of their own light show. I quickly realize as I watch them that the light show is becoming a masterpiece of its own – changing in tones and moods with each nuance in their music. Somebody had a lot of fun building this.

For two hours, they play music from twenty years of songwriting, many times bringing me back to moments in my own life when their songs were with me. I think as far back as the early 2000s – a time when I was confused and uncertain about my future. I didn’t have the foresight or self-assuredness at the time to know that I would turn out okay.

The lights change colors to the piano intro to Sigur 1 from their Untitled album. I’m reminded of a girl who I met in my young years as a bass player. She liked my band and I liked her. We’re still friends.

The haunting intro to their signature track Glósóli captures the audience to the beat of a steady drum. I think back to the video; how its story connects with our adventurous inner child. In front of a panorama of Icelandic mountains, a brave group of kids are found climbing over lava rocks, jumping off of cliffs, flying over oceans. Likewise, Jónsi’s falsetto is soaring over the noise.

They fade into the familiar, hopeful resonance of Festival, my favorite track from Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust. This album came out in 2008 right before I left to start a new life in Chicago. I remember wanting to put all of my baggage and pain from my life in Virginia behind – to hit a reset button and build a new life for myself.

The Air and Water Show happened soon after I moved to the city. I contacted a young Couchsurfer from Stockholm and we met to watch the air show at the North Avenue Beach. The bassline and guitar melody carry the second half of the song, and I think about when I sat with her on the sand – watching jet planes soar over Lake Michigan, over the skyline, between the buildings, across the city. We were each on an adventure. She was backpacking around the country and my journey then was inward. I never saw her again. But I never forgot that day.

By the end of the second hour, they have played many great songs from a twenty year span of memories. They close with the climactic Popplagið. One final story comes into focus as they drive through the chords and flashing light.

Last September I decided not to go to this concert. I sat at my computer, one click away from buying tickets to this very show. Ultimately, I got cold feet and backed out. Because it was too soon, too expensive, too whatever. I closed the ticket reservation and went about my day with little regret. When I came back the next day and loaded up their music, I was instantly overwhelmed with sadness.

I thought about my last night in Iceland in August, when a local asked me what made me want to visit her country. I told her that I was a fan of Sigur Rós of many years, and their videos from the mid-2000s made me curious about the Icelandic countryside. How their documentary Heima chronicled a series of unannounced shows they did around their country after a world tour. And how they ended at a park in Reykjavik in front of a huge audience. Ever since I saw that, it was my dream to see them play for their hometown crowd.

I suddenly knew that this was probably the only chance I would ever have to see this dream become realized. If I didn’t do this – if I didn’t buy these tickets – then I would never get the chance to again. Nor would I ever feel the same way about their music. For the rest of my life, I would have to live with an incredibly heartbreaking mistake – one that I might still have time to save if I stop fucking around and buy those concert tickets right now!

Frantically, I loaded up the itinerary that I closed out yesterday, well aware that any one thing I needed might already be sold out.

But everything was still there. The tickets, the concert, the closure, and the memories to come.

I took a breath. I pulled the trigger.

Now, they escalate into one last crescendo amidst the chaotic precision of their light show, masterfully projecting a wall of noise amidst the cheers of hometown friends and fans worldwide. They ring out to feedback. They put their gear aside. They take a bow.

And then it’s finished. And I don’t regret my decision.

But the celebration isn’t over yet. On the next night, I walk up the main street toward Hallgrímskirkja with Val, Jorge, and Zuzka to celebrate New Years Eve. The city has come alive with an incredible country-wide fireworks show. We near the top of the hill as they celebrate the holiday with huge bonfires and rockets exploding all over the city. For hours. All while the bells of the old church ring in the New Year. Having just been here in August, I was on the fence about coming back to Iceland so soon. But I know after everything that I made the right choice. I think every great place deserves a second visit. And possibly more.

Takk og gleðilegt nýtt ár, Ísland!

“Og hér ert þú, Glósóli (And here you are, Glowing Sun)…” – Jónsi Birgisson