On Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Musical Duets

by Thomas Brett

In one of the more austere corners of contemporary experimental electronic music resides a series of luminous collaborations between the musicians Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Ryuichi Sakamoto.  Over a series of five recordings, Vrioon (2002), Insen (2005), Revep (2006), utp_ (2008), and summvs (2011) the duo have explored mixing electronic and acoustic sounds into a meditative whole that is at once icy and expressive, breathing and precision-engineered.

Both musicians are polymath artists.  Nicolai, who is German, makes electronic music under his Alva Noto alias out of the barest of materials, looping tiny shards of sine tones, static, and fuzz to make a rhythmic music that is minimal in sound but alive with constant micro-changes.  Nicolai/Noto also runs the Raster- Noton label and creates sound art pieces that have appeared in art galleries worldwide.  Sakamoto, a pianist and composer, is music royalty in Japan.  He founded the electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra back in the late 1970s, has written soundtrack music, scores for the opening ceremonies at the 1992 Olympic Games, designed ringtones, and collaborated with numerous other artists on projects ranging from operas to pop songs.

The Noto-Sakamoto collaborations were composed by the artists trading audio files back and forth.  While I have no idea how exactly the music was created, it sounds as if Sakamoto’s modal chord-based piano playing (improvisations?) were subjected to Noto’s digital treatments–looping the piano, stretching and repeating phrases, dissecting it into micro-slices–with some Noto static-fuzz percussion added in to make to make it all gel.  Sometimes the music sounds like a piano infected with digital viruses, scattering its notes into strangely ordered patterns guided only by the most minimal of frozen rhythms.  What I like about the music is that it merges Noto’s and Sakamoto’s distinct voices into something unique.  But let’s go deeper.

In electronic music making, one always runs the risk of succumbing to what could be called sound fetishism–that is, ascribing supernatural powers to particular sound timbres.  The electronic musical instrument industry certainly encourages this with their non-stop release of “new” sound presets that promise to take your music to the “next level.”  Everyone wants either the newest sound or, for the adventurous, to create their own never before heard sounds.  In this way, everyone wants to be a pioneer sound explorer, discovering treasures out of which to make new music.

And yet, here we have Noto and Sakamato using a deliberately limited sonic palette–basically just piano and digital sine tones and percussive static–which does two things.  First, it brings you, the listener, back onto familiar ground. There aren’t really any “strange” sounds on these recordings, and so the music, while unique, is never exotic for exotic’s sake.  Second, using a limited sonic palette allows Noto and Sakamoto to focus on really interesting structures and relationships between the sounds.  It’s amazing, actually, how much can be done with so few materials.

Listen to the track “Moon”:

If you’re interest is piqued, you can watch them perform live here:

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