Through their four collaborative projects to date, the German experimental artist Carsten Nicolai, operating under his Alva Noto pseudonym, and the Japanese pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, have explored the space between the acoustic and the electronic, and between music and noise. In doing so, they have not just invented a language, but continued to refine its grammar and syntax. After their last release _utp saw them expanding their tonal palette, by working with Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, they have pared the sound back to its basic elements for their new piece summvs. In advance of its premiere at London’s Roundhouse on 12 May as part of a showcase for Nicolai’s Raster-Noton label, I spoke to them about how their working relationship had changed over the years, and how that working relationship had changed them.
You are both people who collaborate often with others, but what first attracted you to each other’s music? It is, on paper, with its mixture of classical analogue and modern electronics, not an obvious combination.
Ryuichi Sakamoto (RS): In any genre of music or maybe art there are a few good ones. Probably when I first heard Carsten’s music, I was not very familiar with this area of music, but I could immediately tell he was good. He can tell, I can tell, we creators are like that.
Carsten Nicolai (CN): It was the first time I came to Japan that we met. I was working in really extreme high and low frequency ranges, and a young community started that was picking up on this kind of extreme sine wave composed music. From when we started with the very first song for Vrioon, this combination was totally unusual – the acoustic instrument and this very extreme way of dealing with minimalism, the sine wave frequencies and very short impulses of sound. It was unusual, but it was challenging – the collaboration went on, we’ve recorded five albums now, it is still a topic that is interesting to explore.
Do you think it is too easy to categorise the analogue side as the human, warm, emotional element, and the digital as the artificial, cold, logical one, when in fact the opposite may be true?
RS: More than 30 years ago when we started Yellow Magic Orchestra people would automatically say the music was cold: because of the image of the band, because we used synthesizers and computers, and that was rare and new then. Looking back from now, the music of YMO is very organic in a way. We creators or artists are naturally trying to escape from the stereotypical aspect about how we are categorised.
CN: This is our advantage – we are not thinking in these categories or making these connections. That is the reason you can say the answer is either way. It is quite obvious that the specific music, however it is made, can be emotional or not emotional; it is a personal sound, not about whether it is analogue or digital.
RS: Emotions are very individual things. Some sounds would be very emotional for some people, and very cold for others.
Has working with Carsten influenced your solo career, Ryuichi? Your last solo record in particular seemed very interested in the border between sound and noise.
RS: Actually, yes. The exploration of the area between noise and sound is kind of a familiar subject since John Cage, who I have been a big fan of since I was a teenager. More recently since I started working with Carsten I’ve been sending him my piano recordings. I was recording my improvisations, and when I hit one note I just wait until it completely vanishes. But the area of vanishing point – is it noise or still piano sound? Physically you cannot tell. That experience is very, very fresh to me, and it automatically reminded me of the subject of John Cage of course, so it is like a big circle to me, returning to my teens, and was a very inspirational experience. So yes, that influenced me a lot.
Likewise, Carsten – since you’ve started working with Ryuichi, you’ve been involved with some more obviously musical ventures recently (such as with Michael Nyman and Blixa Bargeld). How has working with a musician like Ryuichi changed how you approach your work?
CN: Specifically, when we started touring and playing together I learned of course a lot about the classical notation system and tonality, and as well I noticed a little bit of a fear of melody. This collaboration introduced melody as a very strong element to my work. Maybe the Xerrox albums would not have been possible had this collaboration not happened before. I think this exploration of memorisable melody lines and working intentionally with melodies did not exist before in my work, I was really avoiding that in many cases, looking more towards noise than real sound. And I lost this fear, basically. It had a big impact.
_utp felt very different to the albums that had gone before, larger and more complex. How has the way you work changed over the years, right up to the date of the new album, S?
CN: It was a challenge to work with Ensemble Modern on _utp, but finishing it was a really big amount of work. We both longed for the moment when it could be more simple again. It would be great to step back to where we have less people on stage, and have less elements, and just work how we did when we started.
RS: From the beginning, album by album, we’ve been trying different approaches. On the first album Vrioon, he did not touch my piano recordings at all, he just added his sound. So it started in a simple way. Then on the second one he manipulated my piano sound, so the collaboration went deeper. And so on. Then Ensemble Modern came, which was a big challenge for us. I still feel we didn’t consume all the possibilities we had, so there would still be some possibility of working with Ensemble Modern again, or working with other acoustic instruments, rather than just the piano. The possibility is always open. But yes, as Carsten said, on this fifth album, we kind of returned to this collaboration between just us, maybe because _utp had such an impact on us.
So this isn’t necessarily going to be the last collaboration between the two of you?
RS It isn’t stopping yet. It is not even at a conclusion.
CN: It shows a circle. We are writing a sentence and making a full stop. But it doesn’t mean we won’t write again, or that there are no sentences to come after that. Maybe the fifth album just marks a circle. I’m sure when we are touring, some new pieces and some other ideas will come. So, as Ryuichi was saying, there is always a window, a view outside, a perspective. It doesn’t mean we are stopping.
RS: But on the other hand, we liked the idea of using the word virus [the first letters of each of their releases], it is a nice word. But it wasn’t our intention at first. We only realised we were making the word virus when we were making _utp, it was pretty late. So that is why it sounds like we are stopping, but no.
CN: Maybe like I said, it is like a word now, and it will become another word. You never know.
Your previous shows, as documented on the Insen DVD, have had a very strong visual element. Are you working on something similar for the new piece? How important do you feel that these visuals are to the overall experience?
CN: In a way the live show will be similar to the Insen show, it will have a visual component. It is a very tactile, very beautiful element that can add another layer of abstraction to the live show, and I always say it is building a bridge, as it can visualise or show something of the action we are doing. It has some possibilities.
Being given a chance to take over the historic Roundhouse venue for an evening of your label’s music must feel like a vindication of what you are doing with Raster-Noton, Carsten. How has the label maintained its position of artistic strength for such a long time?
CN: Basically, Raster-Noton is an artist-run label, we are artists ourselves, releasing our music. That has created this strength, this identity. Our packaging and design from the beginning was very serious, straight and unique, this is something we’ve kept on doing. In a way, without knowing it, we created inside of this experimental electronic music a label that people recognised for putting out a specific kind of music with a specific aesthetic, creating an opportunity for people to follow us. If you like one of our releases, or if you like how we think and present things, you will probably like another. It is, of course, a pleasure to be at the Roundhouse, other people have been telling me how important the Roundhouse is. It has a great history, and we are looking very much forward to being part of that history.