The chimeric Raster-Noton label was formed in 1999 when Rastermusic, founded by Olaf Bender and Frank Bretschneider, merged with Carsten Nicolai’s Noton.archiv für ton und nichtton. In a recent interview for this very website, Nicolai attributed the label’s success over the years to the consistency of their aesthetic. And it is true, the label has become deservedly well known for its consistently innovative minimalist electronica. However, as oxymoronic as it sounds, there is a lot going on within their particular brand of minimalism. For one thing, there is a world of difference between the spindly rhythmic lattices of Bretschneider, and the ultra-repetitive techno of Bender’s Byetone project, and that is before you take into account the range of projects under Nicolai’s stage name Alva Noto, from the dense granulation of his Xerrox works to the twisted electronic pop of anbb to the sequence of iconic collaborations with the pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto. There is much more to Raster-Noton than just the music: both Bender and Nicolai are also visual artists, meaning that as well as having some of the crispest sleeve designs (and some of the most stylishly reductive packaging) Raster-Noton live shows can be spectacular audio-visual affairs. The idea of that aesthetic emerging from the soundsystem of the 150 year old Roundhouse, and filling the spaces between its metal struts, with a choice selection of Raster-Noton acts appearing as part of the Short Circuit’s series of label showcases, was therefore one which promised much.
The diversity in Raster-Noton’s output seems to have increased steadily over the years, culminating in their ongoing Unun series of 12″s, which have included some abrasively avant-garde contributions from the likes of NHK, Aoki Takamasa, Mika Vainio, and Grischa Lichtenberger. Berlin resident Lichtenberger is another of Raster-Noton’s school of audio visual artists, and appropriately enough he played in the Roundhouse’s intimate theatre space, his crouching silhouette picked out against a triptych of rapidly-scrolling light projections. His particular brand of music is digitally crisp, but with its roots in more natural sounds: this included acoustic instruments, but also, for example, a rhythm which sounded like a glass marble falling down a marble staircase. While the combination of these sounds with a brutally rough sandpaper harshness was at times reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Drukqs, thanks to the freshness of the rhythms it never felt any less than totally current.
Also in the more esoteric batch of recent recruits to the Raster-Noton roster is the French sound poet Anne-James Chaton. He first turned up on Alva Noto’s Unitxt album, creating his own distinctive instant biography of Nicolai from the ephemera contained in his wallet. His Roundhouse performance was based on his new album Événements 09 which focuses, as the title suggests, on events from the year 2009. Newspaper headlines are turned into vocal loops: “Piña Bausch Piña Bausch Piña Bausch”, “the King of Pop is dead Pop is dead Pop is dead”, the natural inflections and non-vocal elements (intakes of breath, pursing of lips) creating tight rhythms over which he could spray the chopped up detail from the rest of that day’s happenings, barking strings of numbers like a sadistic bingo caller. It is complete media information overload, repetitive rolling news broadcasts chattering relentlessly and spinning the same limited snippets of information across vast spaces of time.
Atom TM’s performance felt less substantial, and certainly not substantial enough to fill the huge main space of the Roundhouse. It did, however, show that behind the austere facades of their back catalogue, the label has been developing a sense of humour. This much is obvious when you consider that Uwe Schmidt, as well as releasing the Liebgut album on Raster-Noton, was also the man behind the Senor Coconut releases, which included covers of songs by The Doors, Deep Purple, Michael Jackson, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and, mostly famously, Kraftwerk, all done in a Latin American style. Smartly dressed on a podium with his kit on a small square table, flanked by two huge green-screens showing computer script, the tongue-in-cheek nods to the pioneers of German electronic music continued. He also inverted the Senor Coconut process by performing an electro cover of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va”. It was only when he started dipping into Liebgut that it started to feel forward-looking in any sense, even if I do find the idea of a track constructed from the loathsomely overly-familiar chunter of mobile phone interference anathematic.
Thankfully, Schmidt didn’t seek to take advantage of having a Yellow Magic Orchestra member present in order to perform an irreverent live duo. Instead, it was Alva Noto who was to play with Ryuichi Sakamoto, in the worldwide live premiere of their latest album summvs. Over the course of their five collaborations, there have been subtle shifts in their dynamic as a duo: Noto doing more processing of the piano sound, and even adding electronic melodies, while Sakamoto has been increasingly interested in the less conventionally musical aspects of his piano, keen to explore the boundary between sound and noise. So whereas Vrioon felt much more like the clash of two very different soundworlds, summvs is more cohesive, like the duo have found a common language. At times, and especially after the abstract contemporary classical piece which preceded it in _utp, it feels surprisingly accessible. They played all of Summvs here, in order, with only a couple of interjections from elsewhere, and all accompanied by the sort of visuals which would be familiar if you’ve seen them play live before (including via the Insen DVD).
And so the swarms of wasp-like electronics in the teasingly vague introductory piece “Microon I” were represented by a pulsing horizontal band of waveforms, with the planes of Sakamoto’s piano notes slicing through; on “Microon II”, Sakamoto’s contributions were holes punched onto a scrolling screen, producing something which looked like a primitive form of computer data entry (an interesting nod to the intersection between the physical and the digital). The microscopic pulses of “Reverso” found themselves translated into intricate grids, but more interesting was how the piece lived up to its title: Noto fussing with an icy, high-pitched melody, and Sakamoto spending most of his time listening to the sounds of his short piano phrases reverberating and fading into nothingness. He was then to create the basis of a decidedly discordant track from deep inside the piano, tearing at the strings, creating a sound which merged into Noto’s electronic distortion. As the set progressed, more and more colour began to appear on screen, which matched the progression of the music, which became warmer, richer and less stark. About half way through, Sakamoto somehow located the theme from his “Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence” in the midst of an electronic haze, and the set built to its melodic pay-off with their version of Eno, Moebius and Roedelius’s “By This River”.
The night came to its climax with Olaf Bender performing a set of his Byetone material. In contrast to the increasing sophistication of Noto and Sakamoto’s work, Bender revels in the crude, repetitive nature of his work; as he played “Plastic Star”, the two screens either side of his set-up counted up the bars relentlessly, the large white numbers reaching upwards of five hundred. While they didn’t get the audience response they demanded, thanks to the all-seated nature of the main space, his tough, steel, structures, locked end to end, found their own echo in the Roundhouse’s imposing circular framework. Both the Roundhouse and Raster-Noton have undergone a good deal of change since they were first set up, but thankfully some of the most well-designed structures are also built to last.