I don’t know what heaven will be like. There are angels there, I’m told. There is some biblical evidence that they sing. And if they sing, then what comes out of their seraphic mouths is probably representative of some extraterrestrial musical genre that has no counterpart on earth. God knows we’ll have had enough of the usual gangsta rappers and pop tarts and earnest singer/songwriters when we get there, and it will be a relief to hear something different. But I’d still like to believe that the angels will brandish electric guitars. There is some good here on earth, common grace abounds, and there’s no sense in the wholesale banishment of the familiar from the afterlife. The music will be new, but it will retain echoes of what was good and glorious on this earth.
And if I’m right, then I suspect I got a preview of the heavenly host last night. Sigur Ros came to town and played like garage band cherubim, making a holy racket, sculpting a wall of noise that was simultaneously soothing and soaring and teeth-rattling. It was a beautiful, gloriously loud hymn of praise, whether they intended it that way or not, and more than a few of us religious types confessed afterwards to experiencing something remarkably like worship. If this is what it’s like around the throne of God, I can’t wait.
Lead singer/cherub Jonsi played his electric guitar with a bow, like a mutant cello, and made unearthly sounds with his voice. “Eeeeeuuuuu Syyyyyy Ohhhhhh” he sang on at least six songs, his falsetto soaring impossibly upward. It’s Hopelandic, a made-up language based on nonsense syllables and his native Icelandic, but I’d prefer to think of it as the angelic dialect of the heart. That mysterious phrase, repeated many times, sounded at various times like longing, yearning, grief, sorrow, joy, the unanswerable questions you hurl at God when your best friend dies of cancer, the wordless cry of joy when you witness the birth of your child, a thousand other moments of spiritual combustibility and incandescence that cannot be contained by cognitive knowledge and understanding. If it sounds trippy, it is. The gauze curtain that the band sometimes played behind, accenting shimmering shadows and spectral shapes, and the late ‘60s Pink Floyd freakout lightshow, only added to that impression. But that’s the territory explored by this band. It has nothing to do with objective communication, and everything to do with hotwiring the soul to the ineffable and the sublime.
On a more mundane, terrestrial level, we heard about half of Takk, the band’s latest album, several songs from the unpronounceable ( ), and, best of all, several new songs not yet released. For those of you familiar with the albums, take everything you know and ratchet it up several levels. “Glossoli,” from Takk, which opened the show, went from a brooding but serene placid beauty to a crescendo so intense that my body was literally shaking from the sound. Chalk it up to the booming bass if it makes you feel more in control. String quartet Amina, who opened the show, played several songs with Sigur Ros, and the coda to the haunting “Gong” faded so slowly and beautifully that the rowdy, beerswilling audience (this being Cowtown, after all), numbering in the thousands, was utterly silent. The encore’s closing song, Untitled #8 from ( ) (wow, is that a weird phrase to write), was a triumph of thunderous percussion and rapturous beauty, the music building and building until you were convinced that it could not possibly achieve a greater crescendo, and then building some more.
Then the band left the stage with a wave, and Jonsi uttered his only spoken words of the night. “Takk,” he said, Icelandic for “Thanks.” I muttered it under my breath myself, but it seemed inadequate compensation for what had transpired. Just what is the proper expression of gratitude for a rock ‘n roll seraph?
Sounds fantastic. Sorry I couldn't be there. I'll try to catch them next time they're around.
Best show I have ever experienced.
Transcendent. I felt like the band and the crowd were both unknowingly experiencing an aspect of the Kingdom of God.
Common Grace should be more common ;)
I know I just saw them in October, but you've made me incredibly jealous all the same.
I can't think of any other time where I've sat for three hours and walked out so emotionally sapped and so spiritually uplifted.
shoot. now i regret not going.
on a somewhat related note, evidently the same word that made people think that angels play harps is also the root for guitar. i don't know the exact word, but i do remember someone told me that a long time ago...so maybe the angels will be playing guitars after all.
I hope you're right, Mike. I'd like to think that all the biblical references to lyres and harps can transfer to stringed instruments in general, and that God will recognize that the evolution of the stringed instrument culminated in the Fender Stratocaster.
Of course, I'm going to be sorely disappointed if I find banjos up there. O brother, where art thou? Gone to hide from the heavenly hoedown.
But what about Sufjan-banjo? Is that allowed? I would be sorely disappointed in a Soof-banjo-less eternal kingdom.
Kate, Sufjan gets in on the special Non-Bluegrass Banjo Dispensation. Of course, half my church will still be moaning that he doesn't deserve to be in heaven in the first place, and that he deserves to spend at least 3 - 4 millenia in purgatory for inflicting his "music" upon us.
Kate, by the way, is Kate Bowman-Johnston, who works for the Calvin College Student Activities Office, and who, along with her cohorts, is responsible for bringing the most amazing collection of musicians to a college campus I've ever seen. For example, here's the concert lineup for the next couple months:
-- Jenny Lewis (from Rilo Kiley)
-- Sigur Ros (this weekend)
-- David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion)
-- Vic Chesnutt
-- Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club)
-- Will Johnson (of Centro-matic and South San Gabriel)
-- Nickel Creek
That's just in the next couple of months, folks. Would that the Ohio State University, with its 50,000+ students, could do so well. Check it out: http://www.calvin.edu/admin/sao/
Kate is also a wonderful, insightful writer who writes for several publications, including Christianity Today. Check out her article "Redeeming Our Shock Words," for example:
I've always felt that the heavenly harps are more akin to pianos which, after all, are just boxed up harps with a complicated mechanism which replaces fingers as the string pluckers.
I'm a little hazy on my ethnomusicology, but I don't think any fretted instrument qualifies as either a harp or a lyre. I think fretted instruments are in the zither family.
As far as music in heaven: I think that the music is not literal but a symbolic representation of enjoyment. The author of Revelation did a hell of a job in coming up with this symbolism. I'm sure that there are a few misguided souls who think that continual music would be more representative of hell than heaven. I pity them.
I believe that there will be continual music, regardless of one's eternal destination.
In heaven, I think it might consist of my non-existent 300 GB iPod in shuffle mode. This is hard to envision for others, but I believe that in heaven we'll be made whole, and the entire universe will share my musical taste.
In purgatory, it will be Foreigner's "I've Been Waiting" paired with Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand," over and over and over again, for however many millenia you are fated to await your ultimate eternal destiny.
In hell it will be The Tramps' "Disco Inferno." Forever and ever, Amen.
Geez. I am FURIOUSLY blushing right now. Andy, thank you for your kind words! Calvin is indeed a great school for this sort of thing.
And I'm glad to hear that Soof-banjo is allowed in (your version of) heaven. :)
I was quite impressed with the amount of emotion Jonsi inserts into his performance. Were you at the second show at Calvin? It was outstanding when he ended up breaking his bow...
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