August 31, 2009

Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Insen (2005, Raster-Noton)

Writing about the "melancholy piano noodling" of '90s videogame soundtracks last week, I was reminded of a fantastic collaboration between piano-meister Ryuichi Sakamoto and uber-minimalist Carsten Nicolai, under his Alva Noto monicker. Sakamoto was an innovator in Japanese electronic music throughout the '70s and '80s, as a member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was sort of like a Japanese Kraftwerk, and a popular soundtrack composer. With a prolific back-catalog of over 50 albums, not to mention 12"s, concert DVDs and other multimedia projects, I have to admit that I am only familiar with a handfull of Sakamoto's recordings, and mainly his material from the late '90s on. His '00 "BTTB" album of solo piano compositions on Sony Classical was a particular favorite of mine for many years, with that distinctive melancholy sound that I love. Carsten Nicolai, meanwhile, has been prolifically releasing CDs of his own since the mid-'90s, usually under the names Noto or Alva Noto. A pioneer of the micrsound genre, his compositions make use of tiny slices of digital audio, simple sine waves and noise pulses to craft intricate rhythms and textures. The majority of his releases have been on the influential Raster-Noton label, well known for their innovative and avant garde packaging and presentation, for example in their buzz-generating countdown-to-the-millenium 20' To 2000 series of 3" CDs or the [O]acis Box. While I appreciate Nicolai's craft and innovation with extremely futuristic sound design, I am not a huge fan of actually listening to most microsound CDs more than maybe once, as they tend to make me feel like I am stuck in some sort of digital computer nightmare. Even before I heard the Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration, however, I knew that the combination of Sakamoto's gentle piano textures with Nicolai's digital processing mastery would be exciting. And indeed, their '02 debut CD "Vrioon" made a big splash with critics and fans, with both artists producing a synergy of exciting ambient sound greater than the sum of its parts. Noto sculpts micro-rhythms and soft textural sequences around Sakamoto's clouds of notes, occasionally processing the piano through glitchy granular filters, making for both a meditative and other-wordly sonic experience. After a three-year break, I found their second CD "Insen" to be even more engaging and memorable, and the follow-up "Revep" EP continued to maintain the high standards, including a fascinating reconstruction of Sakamoto's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" soundtrack theme. More recently, a CD+DVD set called "utp_", documenting a live concert with the German Ensemble Modern, was released last year, which I've not yet heard. Any of the Noto + Sakamoto CDs you can find are worth hearing, and genuinely unique music by two masters in different fields of ambient sound.