Radiohead and Sigur Rós performed an improvised gig to soundtrack a ballet in New York. The event, Split Sides, took place at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music for the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company, as the finale of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
The bands provided live music to accompany the dancers in two 20-minutes pieces. All of the show’s elements – including the order that the bands played and the order of the dancers’ choreographed routines – were chosen by random rolls of dice on the night of the performance. There were also two possible backdrops, by photographers Chaterine Yass and Robert Heishman, two set of costumes (one black and white, one colour), and two light plots.
Choreographer Merce Cunningham’s idea was to make the music and the dance independent, so the dancers learned their routines in silence. Sigur Rós had seen the choreography only once and Radiohead hadn’t seen the dancers perform at all.
The bands took different approaches to the challenge. As the dice decreed, Radiohead played first from laptops, keyboards and mixing desks they had set up in the orchestra pit.
Thom grinned up the crowd and danced while twiddling knobs and humming into a microphone. The band used snippets of what sounded like the narration to a documentary about religious feasts, radio static and ambient noises to build a wal of shuddering, disjointed sound. Closer to ‘Kid A’ than any other Radiohead material, the performance was unlike anything they’ve ever done, as they were essentially making it up as they went along.
It didn’t correspond at all to the movements of the dancers, which made the effect even more intense and unsettling.
Sigur Rós devised their own instruments for their piece, which had a much prettier and more meditative tone than Radiohead’s. The instruments included a glockenspiel played with a cello bow, and two music boxes which they’d customised with masking tape so that they could set their own notes on a loop.
Their most ingenious invention was a collection of eight ballet shoes, which were each wired with microphones and placed on parallel prongs. The band then rubbed and scratched them to make ambient sounds. The two bands performed live only on the opening night.