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14 October, 2004

Review: Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do (Sigur Rós, 2004)

This EP (mini-album?) has been mentioned frequently in a number of music discussion groups I visit.  Typical conversations might be summarised as:
"I understand this is different to their earlier albums; what's it like?"
"It's... different."

I thought I'd better elaborate on that!

It is indeed 'different'. Imagine Sigur Rós without the lead guitar, without the bass, without the drums, without Jónsi's falsetto voice. The stripped-down remainder is 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do'. In other words, this is almost impossible to identify as Sigur Rós material, but once one knows, one might detect (or impose) something of their characteristic 'feel', in music otherwise entirely dissimilar to that of 'Agaetis Byrjun' and '( )'. If you already like the band, there's no guarantee you'll enjoy this. A taste for, or at least tolerance of experimental music would help. It developed from a specific purpose, as part of Merce Cunningham's contemporary dance project 'Split Sides', as accompaniment and inspiration to the dancers rather than the focus of a listener's attention, and is arguably less successful away from that context.

'Split Sides' was made up of two alternative pieces of choreography, costume design, set design and music, the latter provided by Sigur Rós and Radiohead (it seems there's no intention to release a recording of their contribution). The combination of these elements was determined randomly on the night, by dice. The music and choreography were prepared entirely independently; the dancers first heard the music at the premiere (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 14 October, 2003 - hey, that's exactly a year ago!).
Sigur Rós' backing track incorporated recordings of Merce Cunningham's voice, his tap-dancing feet, and the dancers’ footsteps in their Manhattan studio. The band improvised over this live, using two sheet-fed music boxes, a glockenspiel and a 'bummsett' (a homemade percussive instrument comprising eight ballet shoes on a rack), closely watching and hence both inspiring and taking inspiration from the dancers.
The band took the results of the improvisation back to Reykjavik, recording 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do' in late November before participating in further 'Split Sides' performances in Paris in December.

The running time is under 21 minutes, one continuous piece indexed into three sections of approximately six, eight and six minutes. I think they work best in this sequence, but were intended to be played in any order.

'Ba Ba' begins with the sound of a musical box, playing slowly, as if powered by clockwork on the point of winding down completely. This is joined and gradually drowned by a simple, repetitive keyboard melody. Once the listener has had a couple of minutes to assimilate the resulting rhythms, further layers of keyboards are added, but before this develops, the keyboards merge to a drone and a more sonorous tone emerges over the original simple keyboard melody and musical box.

By the start of 'Ti Ki', the musical box, now plainly two musical boxes, is (are) in the foreground of the soundscape, accompanied only by the quiet noises of people moving around a room, a subtle 'crackle' which begins to mimic the multiple rhythms of a clock's mechanism as the boxes' notes become increasingly distorted. Some are reversed, others stretched to resemble sustained keyboard notes; the introduction of a simple piano melody halfway through seems a natural progression, though the overall effect is of multiple rhythms rather than a more conventional instrumental piece.

'Di Do' is the only track to feature vocals - interlaced fragments of Merce Cunningham speaking voice over possibly Native American wordless singing, all against a background of industrial white noise/an approaching underground train. This background gives way to keyboards, becoming louder towards the halfway point, even beginning to sound like a Sigur Rós track. Then everything suddenly breaks down into, well, noise - a cacophony of distortion which makes challenging listening. Yet a basic rhythm remains, and the musical box is also audible, as everything subsides, to silence.

I think I like it. Not one I expect to play frequently, but if I'm in a certain mood, or wish to induce it, I suspect this is a piece I'll reach for.

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