When Sigur Ros broke into the music market in 1999 with its sophomore full-length, Agaetis Byrjun, fans and critics alike had a gut feeling that the Icelandic quartet was something special. Not because it was the hip new world-music artist or because the vocals were in a half-made-up language, but because the world needed a dose of good, melancholic music.
A critically acclaimed full-length and EP later, and Sigur Ros’s Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do EP still pays justice to that.
Last October in Brooklyn, the band collaborated with Radiohead to score the music for the Merce Cunningham modern dance piece Split Sides. The three instrumental pieces Sigur Ros performed — “Ba Ba,” “Ti Ki” and “Di Do” — were designed to be played in any order. The band improvised a twenty-minute section of music over a previously recorded backing track using two sheet-fed music boxes, a glockenspiel and the world’s first “bummsett,” an instrument made of eight ballet shoes on a rack.
The outcome is eclectic. The music boxes add a definite fragility to the EP, perhaps the most delicate Sigur Ros music to date, almost Nutcracker-esque. In many cases, you would associate music-box noises with cheesy horror movies, but in this setting it works. Toward the end of the record, the tone goes from playful to almost sinister and brooding, recalling Radiohead’s Amnesiac.
The album’s only flaw is that each track takes its time building up the layers — music boxes, piano, et al — only to have a dead-end crescendo. “Di Do” takes a darker route than the other tracks. It merges stormy weather sounds with a robotic Cunningham voice and adds faint keyboards in the background. And just when there’s enough commotion to make the listener snap to attention, the EP ends.
Still, Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do is beautiful. It’s as hidden away as Bjork’s “Vespertine,” braves the elements in its sound the way Mum or Mogwai do, and floods experimental ambient to the likes of Pram and Bark Psychosis.
And, as the music plays, you can visualize the abstract dancers waltzing onstage until the final curtain closes.