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Alva Noto: "For 2"

img  Tobias

For almost his entire career, Carsten Nicolai has – politely and with utmost patience – tried to dismiss claims about the supposedly conceptual nature of his oeuvre. It hasn't been easy. With his work circling around fundamental sound sources like sine-waves and digital artifacts including hiccuping glitches and corrupted bytes, his work has always seemed a minutely planned metaphor for the gradual penetration of human society by machinal data-streams. Interviewers would habitually open with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his past as a gardener (an involuntary assignment after having been discharged from military service), ignore his rejection of academic formalism (Nicolai initially started out making a name for himself in the German underground gallery-scene) and then turn towards their favourite topics: What message was behind the transmedial component of his performances? How to define the relationship between context and composition? What kind of philosophy drove his passion for drama, cinema and the visual arts? When Nicolai revealed that he frequently opened word documents as images and emails as sound files to make use of their raw data for his pieces, this only seemed to confirm the popular image of a sympathetically eccentric intellectual to whom all art, underneath its perceptional surface, was essentially nothing but ones and zeros.

When Nicolai released the first batch of for-tributs on Line in 2004, some of the commentators must therefore have been flabbergasted that it included an homage to a highly influential duo all-too-often neglected in elitist circles: Ernie and Bert. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, consisted in the fact that although the connection between influence and composition wasn't always trivially straightforward, even the seemingly impenetrable, absolute and analytical art of Alva Noto apparently drew its inspiration from sources made of flesh and blood. Although „For“ opened up the door to Nicolai's soul wider than ever before, however, it didn't prevent him from continuing his forays into the world of elevated background noises („Xerrox“), microtonal patchworks („Unitxt“) and contemporary composition („Electronics“ with Berlin-based New-Music-pioneers Zeitkratzer) over the next few years. Perhaps he was simply right all along with one of his most to-the-point observations: What may sound visionary, futuristic and cold today may be considered classic and beautiful in ten years time. The world, it seemed, had simply caught up with the music of Carsten Nicolai and was finally able to appreciate its hissing bleeps as the electronic manifestation of a bleeding heart.

As „For 2“ now proves, this conclusion is just as appealing as it is imprecise. Again, Nicolai has payed tribute to a selection of his personal heroins and heroes. Among them are relatively unsurprising choices such as Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom Edward Artemiev realised some haunting analogue-synthesizer scores, as well as Tarkovsky's compatriot Evgeny Murzin, whose advances into the translation of visual stimuli to sound is today considered groundbreaking – coincidentally, both Murzin and Artemiev worked with the ANS synthesizer Nicolai is operating here. The literary department, meanwhile, is represented by Lion Feuchtwänger's wife Marta and seminal German dramatist Heiner Müller, whose „Hamletmaschine“ has been set to music by Industrial luminaries Einstürzende Neubauten and composer Wolfgang Riehm among others.

The musical representations of these equally strong and vulnerable, both passionate and obsessive personalities are as diverse as their characters suggest: „Argonaut (for Heiner Müller)“, presented in two different versions, is an ultra-minimal, surreal yet tender sequence of variations over a stoic harmonic pattern. „Stalker (For Andrei Tarkovsky)“ opens with cosmic snow and a monologue from the homonymous movie, then settles into an extended coda in which sensual Glockenspiel-tones and fragile frequencies coalesce into a romantic melody. „Villa Aurora“, finally, its name a reference to the historic home of Marta and Lion Feuchtwänger which would turn into a meeting point for German emigrants in Los Angeles during World War II, is nothing but a peaceful one and-a-half-minute-short field recording taken on location at the premises, with the remnants of a Piano-chord slowly fading into the sounds of chirping birds.

The rest of the album is made up of more typical contributions, even though, at the same time, the dedicatees may be considered rather unusual: Opener „Garment“, for example, praises the virtues of a „translucent textile designed in connecting sections“. „Pax“ is an ode to the wonderful tradition of chain-music, occasionally known under its Surrealist-moniker of „Exquisite Corpse“. And „Anthem Berlin“ was written as a proposition for the national anthem of Elgaland-Vargaland, the artistic kingdom proclaimed by Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren. A blend between early clicks-n-cuts-era Alva Noto and his more recent excursions into deep, warm and cinematic Ambient, these pieces simultaneously breathe intense calm and antsy, subcutaneous suspense, the music overflowing with almost sculptural basses and crystalclear bell-timbres and displaying a threedimensionally arched sound image.

Quite clearly, Nicolai's influences seem to be directly shaping his output. When dealing with character-scetches, his palette is based on melody, harmony, acoustic colours and tangible development. If, on the other hand, innate objects or abstractions are under his microscope, the outcome has a pronounced textural quality to it, defining singular spatial and arrangemental laws. This opens up a new interpretational perspective on the development of the Alva Noto catalogue: With their focus on robotic precision and cool purity, his first releases  may simply have been the result of an interest in reflecting upon more philosophical and intangible questions. The more his oeuvre has expanded to include personal reflections over time, the more it has incorporated an emotional factor Nicolai has always considered an integral part of his art anyway.

For someone who has always regarded music as a universal language, „For 2“ represents yet another powerful step towards an open-ended cosmos of sound and composition. On the other hand, this artistic galaxy opens a whole new set of questions. Carsten Nicolai may not be through with explaining his art after all.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Alva Noto
Homepage: Line Records

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