Kjartan Sveinsson, the onetime multi-instrumentalist in Sigur Ros, has written an opera and it is gorgeous. Titled Der Klang Der Offenbarung Des Göttlichen (The Explosive Sonics of Divinity), the piece in four movements exudes a yearning so powerful that I have rarely heard anything quite like it. The best art, as we’ve discussed before, tends to be steeped in a search for that which is beyond, it reaches out and touches infinity within the confines of that which ought not be able to contain it. Thus the power of music to turn the human soul inside out, it speaks what we cannot voice but nevertheless feel in the very marrow of our bones, a sort of divine homesickness.
Kjartan clearly has this sense of longing in mind with Der Klang. Based on the book World Light by Halldor Laxness, it puts to sound the mysterious yearning for beauty that Laxness describes in a young, Icelandic poet named Olaf Karason. The role of poet is as likely to be mocked as it is to be praised, and poets are often considered vain dreamers, fools who have their head in clouds. Karason must overcome pathos and ugliness in order to, well, not exactly to achieve greatness in the way the world describes it, but in order to put his soul in the hands of the muse. The typical measurement of what’s practical and what isn’t is turned on its head – compared with the yearning for beauty, worldly success is irrelevant.
This same sense of abandonment to beauty is present in the music of Sigur Ros, which why they’re my favorite musicians working today. Their art refuses to give in to the ironic posing that has gripped many of their fellow artists and remains stubbornly earnest and naïve. It is a music of pure beauty. Even apart from Sigur Ros, Kjartan continues to work in the same vein. Der Klang is the jarring voice of the gods sweeping down a volcanic, Icelandic mountain and sweeping us away. The shock isn’t caused by a challenge to our preconceptions or by confusing us with feeble attempts at transgressing our sensibilities (like much of modern art); it isn’t a neologism. No, the shock is caused by the overwhelming sense of beauty that cascades over the listener and actually draws us deeper into the underlying structure of the universe. It is shocking because it reveals that ordinary life and seemingly straightforward forms of music can unhouse a beauty that will make you weep. Listen closely and you will hear the gods speak. They will whisper from any ordinary thing and reveal that nothing is what we thought it was. Nothing is ordinary, and if you look hard enough prose unfolds into poetry. This is perhaps why Kjartan refers to Der Klang as “banally romantic”. It seems quite ordinary at first listen, but that is what is so powerful about it, the longing for beauty enchants and brings all things together and yet, it seems so normal.
Especially during this month of November when we make a special effort to remember the dead, music like this reminds us that the communion of saints remains with us yet. Life is never ordinary and death isn’t either, the dead intertwine with every rasping note from a bow drawn across a string, every family dinner, every child’s soccer game.
I shared one of the movements from Der Klang online and was rewarded with a masterful meditation on the piece by Bryan Cross, who does great work over at Called to Communion. His thoughts trend towards the intersection of the dead and the living that he hears in the music. I’m going to quote him in full and leave it at that, I hope it encourages you and as you listen to this music, you too will be drawn into an encounter with your true home:
“When songs resonate with the human soul, as the ancient philosophers knew well, they sign and uncover what is already in the soul, including, at its center, the hidden memory and hope still latent within the soul, of what once was and is to be, that deepest human longing across and above all time, namely the restoration of all things lost, of all things broken or sundered by sin, by accident or by death, of all to which rightly-ordered love within us stretches out through all time past, present, and future but is not yet, that final, complete, and everlasting reunion of the human family, of all the heroes, siblings, children, parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors, ancestors, friends, loved ones, saints, of all the millennia, whose inanimate bodies and bones now wait in inert silence in the soil or the sea, a reunion in a transcendent banquet of which our present feasts are but mere signifying types, a table spread out before us, a rooted unmovable place, now being prepared for us, of unbroken and unbreakable eternal joy and rest, in unshakeable and indomitable security, protected from any further severance from every good, in nakedly transparent, absolutely vulnerable but completely safe, authentic friendship and communion with one another, and with the One from whom we all come, and in Whom all Good is to be found and enjoyed. This place, of which all present places too are types, is our true home and final end. And in certain songs, as they resonate with the soul, we hear the overtone of that place, behind the cloud now keeping it out of our sight, we hear that place calling us home.”