Sigur Rós Courts Scholarly Controversy

Iceland’s post-rock swooners release an album centuries in the making

J.P. Williams
The Gleaming Sword

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Sigur Rós, 2006. Photo by Theorb. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Summer, 2000. Black Eyed Peas are known to only a few discerning hip-hop fans, Radiohead is months from bending minds with Kid A, Prankster is in trouble, and internet radio is a new thing. Much like traditional radio, it plays the same songs over and over, among them “Nookie” by Limp Bizkit, “Change (In the House of Flies)” by Deftones and any number of singles off Moby’s Play. One band I don’t remember hearing on popular radio but managed to track down somewhere online was Iceland’s Sigur Rós.

As of that summer, Sigur Rós had only released two albums: Von (1997) and Ágætis byrjun (1999). Online descriptions of the band’s music tended to focus on multi-instrumentalist Jónsi’s bowed guitar, angelic falsetto and made-up language of Hopelandic. One would expect no less creativity from a band whose original label was Bad Taste, home of The Sugarcubes. Twenty plus years later, the band released Odin’s Raven Magic (Krunk, 2020), a classical/post-rock fusion situated at the crux of scholarly controversy.

The Performance

Odin’s Raven Magic first happened on April 21, 2002 at the Barbican Centre, City of London.¹ It was composed by Sigur Rós in collaboration with musician and neopagan leader Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, fisherman and rímur (a kind of Icelandic poetry) chanter Steindór Andersen, and violinist Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir.² Also on stage were the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Árni Harðarson,³ and members of The Sixteen Choir.⁴ Icelandic artist Páll Guðmundsson designed the stone marimba assembled from 54 stones selected for pitch but left in their natural state.⁵ Together, these musicians set to music “Hrafnagaldr Óðins,” an Icelandic poem of anonymous authorship.

At the end of the poem “Hrafnagaldr Óðins,” the god Heimdall blows his horn. Here he is seen holding it in a panel of the Gosforth Cross, 10th century A.D. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Poem

“Hrafnagaldr Óðins” has stymied many a scholar. The oldest extant manuscripts date back to the late 17th century.⁶ Scholars once believed the poem originally belonged to the Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda) written around 1000 C.E.⁷ In 1867, however, Norwegian philologist Sophus Bugge claimed that it was written no earlier than the 17th Century.⁸ Around the time of the premier of Odin’s Raven Magic, the text was the subject of renewed interest due to writers Eysteinn Björnsson and William P. Reaves posting a new translation online and Icelandic scholar Jónas Kristjánsson making the case for the earlier dating.⁹ The brochure for the premier performance of Odin’s Raven Magic included the Björnsson and Reaves translation.¹⁰

“Hrafnagaldr Óðins” isn’t easy to decipher, but generations of interpreters have established a general narrative. The poem opens with the Norse gods and all of creation experiencing an intense sense of foreboding.¹¹ Iðunn, goddess of youth, falls from the upper branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, down to its roots.¹² Odin, king of the gods, then sends Heimdall, Loki and Bragi to ask a woman in a shadowy realm, possibly Iðunn herself,¹³ wither wends the fate of the world¹⁴:

“The wise one asked
The server of mead,
Scion of gods
And his road-companions,
If she knew the origin,
Duration, and end
Of heaven, of hel,
Of the world.”¹⁵

The only reply they receive is weeping.¹⁶ The trio returns to Odin to report the failure of their quest.¹⁷ Throughout the night, the gods ponder how best they might address the approaching doom.¹⁸ The poem ends with Heimdall blowing his horn,¹⁹ which may portend the coming of ragnarök, the final battle at the end of all things.²⁰

The Recording

Sigur Rós wouldn’t release a recording of Odin’s Raven Magic until two decades after the premier. When the band did, the recording was of a 2004 performance in Paris with the Conservatoire de Paris Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum Choir.²¹ I don’t know if Krunk Records and the band decided to skimp on frills or if my copy is missing stuff, but the packaging and art is nothing more than a matte black outer sleeve adorned with a glossy black raven on the front and two ravens on the back, presumably Odin’s servants Huginn and Muninn.²² But who needs frills when the music is what counts?

Detail of 18th-century manuscript showing Odin and his crows. Photo by Ranveig. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Music

The album opens with “Prologus.” This instrumental establishes an uneasy mood through pensive strings, timpanic rumble and jarring horns. It’s Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings meets Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question meets modern symphonic soundtrack. Building on the ominous atmosphere, Andersen and the choir begin intoning the poem in “Alföður orkar.” Anderson’s voice is at once plaintive and resigned, at times strikingly similar in timbre to Einar Selvik of folk-metal band Wardruna. Like the prelude, this track begins in brooding, then builds, only to brood again. All is not well in the home of the gods.

The ensemble then continues through the rest of the poem. “Dvergmál” is notable for the first appearance of the stone marimba, which has the warmth of other marimbas yet the precision of a xylophone. Here, it seems to hang in the air as if the stone isn’t singing so much as shimmering like water or dancing like fire. Indeed, it calls to mind Richard Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” in the opera Die Walküre. This is also when Orri Dýrason joins on the trap, laying down some of his wonderful brushwork, and Georg Holm on bass. The result is exactly what fans expect from Sigur Rós and it’s an album highlight. The heroes’ journey is about to begin.

Stendur æva” transitions to the narrative proper as Iðunn descends from Yggdrasil. Along the way, Jónsi joins on vocals against a choral backdrop and stream of digital clicks and clacks. Elements build until the full Sigur Rós swoon is in effect. Having established a palette of moods, the musicians use it to complete the tale, culminating in “Dagrenning.” This track begins like a choral requiem, perhaps one existing in the half-light between pagan innocence and Christian sin, but then everything joins and crescendos, like Wagner throwing all the themes into Brünnhilde’s immolation in Götterdämmerung. It is dawn and the wyrd of the gods is at hand.

Review

Odin’s Raven Magic is an impressive work in its own right. While some listeners may wish for fewer classical and more rock moments, there’s no denying the heft of the concept or the musicians’ talent, and the stronger moments are among the band’s best. It’s even more welcome as something new from a band whose releases from Takk… (2005) forward had begun to sound samey. All but dedicated fans would be hard-pressed to find much daylight between the more accessible Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008) and the heavier Kveikur (2013). Odin’s Raven Magic, with its symphony and choir, rímur and stone marimba, represents a distinct sound in the band’s discography.

Sigur Rós’s YouTube channel insists that the poem “Hrafnagaldr Óðins” has been reinstated in eddic literature proper, but this does not appear to be the case. In 2011, between the first performance of Odin’s Raven Magic and the release of the recording, Annette Lassen of the Viking Society for Northern Research of University College, London published an exhaustive study claiming and offering support for a consensus in favor of postmedieval dating.²³ She sees no reason, and I agree, why this should detract from the poem’s value:

“The poem should not, however, be seen as a falsification, rather it should be seen as an expression of an antiquarian interest in the ancient eddic art. In the first printed writings about Iceland, learned Icelanders express pride in this art.”²⁴

Whoever wrote “Hrafnagaldr Óðins” and whenever it was written, it stems from eddic literature, which stems from the oral tradition of the skalds, the bards of the Viking Age. The poem glows with its heritage, as does Odin’s Raven Magic. Sigur Rós’s album is not only a fascinating listening experience but also a contribution to scholarship and the still unfolding magic of Icelandic literature.

References and Footnotes:

[1] “Odin’s Raven Magic,” Wikimedia Foundation, last edited October 17, 2022, 9:41, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odin%27s_Raven_Magic

[2] Ibid.

[3] With some exceptions, I have endeavored to keep diacritical marks and letters that may be unfamiliar to some readers of English. While some may see it as imprecise, you may consider the letter eth (ð) to correspond to a voiced “th” (as in “the” or “this”) or simply “d.”

[4] Barbican Centre, Sigur Rós & Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Steindór Andersen: Odin’s Raven Magic (brochure, 2002), 3.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Annette Lassen, Hrafnagaldr Óðins (Forspjallsljóð) (Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011), 28.

[7] “Odin’s Raven Magic,” Wikimedia Foundation.

[8] Lassen, Hrafnagaldr Óðins, 11.

[9] “Odin’s Raven Magic,” Wikimedia Foundation.

[10] Barbican Centre, Sigur Rós & Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Steindór Andersen: Odin’s Raven Magic, 6–7.

[11] Eysteinn Björnsson and William P. Reaves (trans.), “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” verses 01–05, https://web.archive.org/web/20020624145625/http://www.hi.is/~eybjorn/ugm/hrg/hrg.html.

[12] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 06–07.

[13] “Odin’s Raven Magic,” Wikimedia Foundation.

[14] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 09.

[15] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 11.

[16] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 12–15.

[17] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 16–21.

[18] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 22.

[19] Björnsson and Reaves, “Odin’s Raven-Chant,” 26.

[20] Lassen, Hrafnagaldr Óðins, 106.

[21] Sigur Rós, “Alföður orkar,” YouTube, December 3, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoqLscNxkwo&list=PLvsYXqtYjMYcpnyfSEEJVQkPz0K_9sAN3&index=2

[22] Despite its name, opinions differ as to whether ravens appear in the poem itself. Lassen claims that even the appearance of the word “raven” in the title may be due to a misunderstanding.

[23] Lassen, Hrafnagaldr Óðins, 7, 10.

[24] Lassen, Hrafnagaldr Óðins, 26.

Note: I wrote this for Medium.com. If you are reading this on another platform, it has been pirated. I quit the Medium Partner Program, so I’m not doing this for money. It is nice, however, to know someone’s reading, so please clap or comment to let me know somebody’s out there. Gladius adhuc lucet.

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J.P. Williams
The Gleaming Sword

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Maybe some short book reviews for a while.