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Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakomoto: summvs

img  Tobias Fischer

There may be other intimate creative unions. But with both musicians confessing that part of their mutual attraction for each other rooted in the other's ability to make themselves whole as an artist, the collaboration between Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakomoto has almost seemed like a fully-fledged relationship. Just like Sakomoto's almost painfully honest confessions added a human element to the scientifically inspired and technology-smitten Alva Noto cosmos, Nicolai's crystal-clean, meticulously sculpted sine-wave-Pointillism infused his soulmate's open-heartedness with a whiff of mystery and darkness. As with any functional relationship, each partner is surrendering a bit of his own personality and gaining plenty more in return: If, today, Alva Noto releases are increasingly leaving their ethos of machinal purity behind to venture into the realms of melody and emotion instead, then this is doubtlessly a direct result from the German-Japanese liaison. Vice versa, Sakomoto, too, has admitted to feeling his solo oeuvre enriched through the interaction with someone so obviously from an entirely different corner of the musical spectrum. Amidst these outward signs of harmony, the announcement of summvs representing the end of a cycle may come as a surprise, to some even as a shock: Has one of the most widely appreciated love affairs of the experimental scene come to an end?

Although the exact implications of some vague interview-statements prior to the release of the album will remain to be clarified, what can be said with absolute certainty is that with their fifth full-length the duo have, after heated flirtations and an exciting period of emotional rapprochement, now entered into a phase of stability. At this point, both know about the other's strengths and weaknesses, what arouses his interest and what turns him off. As a consequence, their themes and sequences have increasingly conflated and turned inter-related, inseparable and indivisible, until the result, on predecessor utp_, sounded rather like a consolidated vision rather than a blend of two bipolar styles. With summvs Nicolai and Sakomoto have now returned to the simplicity of their Vrioon-debut, albeit from a different angle. While, on the latter, the two respected the other's sphere of action for fear of being intrusive, it is now mainly out of complete and utter trust. As a result, the pair's personal fusion of abstract electronic timbres and acoustic sources has come to perfection on this effort, with Sakomoto's piano navigating through Nicolai's greyish drones, surreal field recordings and seas of static as though it were taking a casual stroll through the park on a warm midsummer's day. Meanwhile, almost all of their contributions would equally work on their own and without their partner's music – sings of a bond offering a great sense of freedom and unity at the same time.

And yet, both are still looking for way to keep the fire burning. There are several telling moments on summvs, on which the traditional roles of the players are turned upside down to make way for an intriguing new balance. On the first of their two cover version of Brian Eno's „By the River“ (from 1977's Before or After Science), for example, Sakomoto first introduces the main theme as an unaccompanied piano passage and an almost verbatim quote of the original. Then Nicolai eagerly picks it up, transforming its colour into a dreamy bell-sound and making it oscillate joyfully, while the piano resigns itself to adding cool and complex chords. It is just one of many open displays of Nicolai coming to terms with expressing what could be construed as hands-on sentiment through his art, of him taking over the emotional lead rather than responding to it – another occuring on „Reverso“, on which, again, it is Sakomoto's looped and pitched-down grand, which acts as a stoic musical metronome, from which fragile electronic flashes of sonoluminescence rise with heartwrenching tenderness.

And yet, Sakomoto hasn't stood still either. Through the addition of three experimental cuts („Mikroon i-III“) performed on a 16th tone piano built according to the design of Mexican pioneer Julián Carrillo, his performances are exploring the fine details in between the chinks of Western tonality. These pieces, closer to contemporary composition than to experimental electronics, are spread out across the album and served in concise three-minute portions. And yet, despite their brevity, they can be considered as Leitmotives for the work as a whole, which seems to deal with a refinement of the senses rather than revolutionary steps. After all, ten years after their first joint musical steps, Nicolai and Sakomoto are still, essentially, using the same tools. Still, they have managed to keep their perspective on them fresh, the expansion of nuances on the keyboard mirroring the discreteness of some of the microscopically refined samples. The devil is undeniably in the detail here, as nothing will inherently shake up whatever view one might have had on this project. And yet, if the extension of expressive possibilities eventually results not just in new sounds but new forms as well, the combination of empathetic enrichment and microtonal extension does offer an intriguing proposition in terms of the project continuing into the future.

It isn't with every single track on summvs that the duo manage to make this future palpable. But it is only fair to admit that the fact that they have chosen each step of their shared path with utmost care has somewhat obscured how far they have already come. Ryuichi Sakomoto and Carsten Nicolai may be a decade into their musical relationship, but their passion certainly shows no sign of abating.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ryuichi Sakomoto
Homepage: Alva Noto
Homepage: Raster Noton Recordings

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