Rock-n-Roll Paradise


By Dyana Herron

The first time I experienced a true yearning for heaven, I wasn’t in church—I was at a rock concert.

I mean, if you could call it that. In Atlanta, in what amounted to not much more than a glorified gymnasium, Icelandic group Sigur Ros (in English: “Victory Rose”) sawed out their trademark brand of intensely emotive, atmospheric music. I say “sawed” because frontman Jonsi Birgisson creates his unique sound in part by drawing a violin bow across the strings of his electric guitar, beginning slowly, then escalating to a furious, dervish-like ecstasy.

In the dark of the auditorium, the bow extended his already unusually long, slender arm to an unnatural length, like the hinged leg of a grasshopper rubbing the air. And everywhere there was sound that sounded different than I knew sound could sound.

This would be a great disappointment to my mother. In the evangelical church I grew up in Christians were taught to want nothing more than to live in heaven—the gold-streets, crystal-sea, mansion-lined, mega-paradise described for us in the Book of Revelation. But also because when I eventually walked down the aisle at my wedding to a Sigur Ros song, she leaned over to say, “They sound like humpback whales, and not in a good way.”

If my mom found out a concert made me think of what heaven must be like, she would want it to be the Eagles, or possibly Vince Gill.

The heaven I was raised to hope for, though, didn’t appeal to me as a kid, nor does it now. I’m more of a bungalow girl than a mansion girl, more gym shoes than gem stones. Plus what kind of God would design such a place as forever-home for His children? Something, I should think, of a Daddy Warbucks/David Hasselhoff hybrid who emerges glistening from the pool, clutching a ruby-encrusted tennis racket before catching a ride to the courts on the nearest unicorn.

Actually, the unicorns I could live (eternally) with.

But mostly I stopped thinking about heaven, not caring so much what it was like just so long as I escaped hell. That is, until the evening when that music began and the lights went out in the room and came up on the stage.

A large projection screen was lowered behind the performers. It glowed white for several minutes before beginning to flicker, and shadows moved across it as if on the surface of still water. At first the dark shapes were mysterious, abstract, but then suddenly they would cohere into something familiar—the smiling face of an elderly man, the blinking eye of an infant, two figures embracing, then letting go. Just as quickly, they would melt away again into nothing recognizable—variable light on snow.

Added to these, the instrumental sound and the flashing images, were the lyrics. Even if the group had been singing in Icelandic, of course I wouldn’t have been able to understand them. However, the words sung were in a gibberish language the band has dubbed Vonlenska, translated as “Hopelandic.” Hopelandic consists of phonemes linked together and repeated—not to communicate rational meaning, but to enhance and add another dimension to the music, to be interpreted not by the brain but by the heart.

One label often used to categorize Sigur Ros is “ambient.” Looking that word up now in dictionary, I see it means, “Encompassing on all sides; circumfused; investing.” That’s exactly what it was like, being in that room with others who were experiencing the same sensuous investment. We were collectively encompassed, and we were collectively in awe and in love. I found myself thinking, for maybe the first time in my life, “I want to experience this forever.”

And that was it. That was the point at which my limited, temporal brain first experienced a glimpse of yearning for forever.

After the concert the feeling faded, as feelings do. Then last Saturday night, attending a show by the Canadian group Great Lake Swimmers for their new album Lost Channels at a humble theater in Harvard Square, I was reacquainted with it. This music was starkly different, sparse, sometimes no more than acoustic strumming with the plunk-plunk of a banjo joining in. Lead singer Tony Dekker looks, in his paleness and beardedness, more than a little like the classical renderings of Jesus. He dresses like Jesus would if he were thirty-ish and alive today, and sings almost hesitantly out of the right side of his mouth.

Whereas Sigur Ros created an atmosphere that bombarded the senses, Great Lake Swimmers stripped everything away. Sigur Ros filled up the space, while Great Lake Swimmers emptied it, erased all excess, whittled us bare. This is not a dichotomy new to Christianity, in the way we think of the Creator, or the Word, or Christ’s sacrifice— filling, emptying, eventually forming new spaces we did not know could exist. But last week in the theater I tried not to think about it too much, choosing to be carried away by the Lost Channels instead of trying to figure out on what body of land they would eventually have me deposited.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.