"The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid."
-J.D. Salinger, “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”
I can’t really think of anything more ready to be turned into a metaphor than clouds; they morph, change colors, precipitate, evaporate, are sometimes present and are sometimes not, cover things, reveal things… but they’re also one of the most timeless concepts. Happiness can fall into this category as well. While intangible, it’s a notion that’s pliable, like clouds are both physically and theoretically. There are certainly emotions that can get on our nerves—dramatic tendencies, anxiety, coldness—but happiness is not one of these. Clouds will always hover above our heads, and our heads will never grow tired of happiness. Or joy, for that matter.
The modern media has turned happiness into a neon collage of smiley faces, flowers, and rainbows. While these things can certainly make us happy (or nauseous), they do not, at least to me, represent the pure emotion of happiness. My mind definitely does not conjure up images of bright yellow and whatever else is often plastered on mock-60s tee shirts when I am truly happy. Happiness is much more subdued and warm and often feels you’re sitting at the bottom of a pool—you’ll eventually have to come up for air, but in the moment it’s serene. The emotion itself is incredibly difficult to shape artistically. It’s different for everyone and is incredibly complex, almost too complex for an accurate representation. However, Jón Þór Birgisson and Alex Somers have done a pretty good job.
Jón , also known as Jónsi, is a modern Icelandic musical legend. Not only is he part of the post-rock band Sigur Rós, but he also has a solo project and was featured on the Q2/NPR 100 Composers Under 40 list. He even invented a language, Hopelandic (better get on that, Rosetta Stone). It’s a common mistake to assume that non-classical musicians aren’t composers, but they most definitely are, and Jónsi is a perfect example. Alex Somers is his boyfriend, and together they make up the ambient, electronic duo Jónsi & Alex. Their debut album, titled Riceboy Sleeps, even reached number 1 on Billboard’s Top New Age Albums list. The nine pieces on the album evoke a sense of innocence while hinting to the fact that they are actually very wise. Almost all of the pieces are around eight minutes long and are separate safaris in and of themselves, including tranquil swells from choirs, epiphany-like walls of sound, and nostalgic, ambiguous recorded sounds. “All the Big Trees,” “Indian Summer” (which I heard on Q2 a little while ago), and “Boy 1904,” which includes audio of the last castrato, are three amazing tracks, but it’s like picking gold coins out of a gold bowl.
I went on a walk today equipped with a camera and the J&A track “Happiness,” the first one on the album. As I mentioned before, weather is often like happiness and is unpredictable but incredible when it happens at the right time in the right form. I’m incredibly lucky to live somewhere where the skies are like watercolor paintings almost every day, and was luckier still today when Georgia O’Keefe decided to take the paintbrush for a while. “Happiness” is my favorite piece on the J&A album, not only for its overall emotion, but how that emotion is transferred to different areas of the object. The way I hear it, there are three different dimensions of the pieces: the source, the deliverers, and the receivers. The source can be viewed as either the minds of Jónsi and Alex or the attacks of the tide-like notes in the beginning of the piece. They crescendo and reverberate slightly, flying around the head of the listener like a strong gust of wind or a far-off idea. Every once in a while there’s a section of twitchiness that fits in perfectly. The deliverers are the notes that sit below these protruding figures; like a tunnel, they are the inner walls while the source is the tangible thing that travels along inside. They do not present themselves like the sources do, but instead they float alongside like remora fish on sharks. The receivers, in this piece of music, are the strings that start to surface towards the middle of the piece and fade out at the end. They absorb all that the sources have created and the deliverers have… delievered.
During my walk, I found that the clouds imitated this process.