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Alva Noto

Surfing on the data flow

Alva Noto

With “univrs”, Alva Noto's approach to techno seems clearer than ever, adding an evident 4x4 backbone to his usual symphonies of crispy noises, digital glitches and punching basslines. But there's more about it; here, the man himself tells us more about.

By Robin Howells

Carsten Nicolai: an artist who grapples uncompromisingly with the aesthetics of digital information? Perhaps. Alva Notois typically an alias for some of his more accessible work. Even so, albums such as 2001's “Transform” sound like music captured and algorithmically stripped to a minimum, reformatted as pure tones and the atomic units of computer audio. The sounds could almost be pictured as machine code, serial moments of transition between binary values. “Unitxt”, from 2008, even pirates data from office software on some tracks, compiling it directly into the audio stream.

None of this is really central to his appeal, however, at least not in an enduring way. Rather, it's different set of attributes: for instance, in a long series of collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto (including “Insen”and “Vrioon”) the obvious qualities to emerge are the work's humanity and vivid twin personalities. Nor does it take long to spot sensitivity and deliberation in Nicolai's solo material. Laborious editing by hand and eye turns out to be crucial to his methods, reflecting the truth that lazy conceptual exercises aren't part of his repertoire.

He has always navigated outside of genres - despite the vocabulary of “Transform” being copied and pasted enough times by others to acquire a familiarity after the fact. That said, his latest album comes closer to external quotation, or at least paraphrase. While it's characteristically Alva Noto, “Univrs”does hint more clearly than before at devices (such as rhythms and basslines) found in contemporaneous electronic music. Factor in spoken vocals, among other things, and the product becomes his least elusive yet - just the progression needed, maybe, at this stage in his continually evolving output.

Nicolai has always been active in the crossover between sonic and visual arts, not to mention a recent diversification into opera with Michael Nyman. Released on his label Raster-Noton (curated with Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender AKA Byetone) “Univrs” turns the focus once again to his core practice. At least, it's hard not to see it that way, although Nicolai himself would probably disagree. At any rate, the opportunity seemed like a good one to probe some of the motivations and techniques that make him distinctive.

Could you outline the techniques used on your latest album, “Univrs”? People might find it hard to imagine the processes that yield these sounds.

In a way, I developed my very own unique technique, how I program beats -- or not really program, how I edit beats. So for me one of the main working tools is a very simple editing program. I'm editing most of the beats and most of the rhythmic parts with pure waveform editing. And really precisely shaping every waveform as I like it. So it's not drum machines or a sequencer involved in this case, it's a long editing process. But this time I used as well software that allows me to generate [sounds] based on samples -- granular synthesis. And it's a really fantastic algorithm. I used a lot of granular synthesis especially for the non-beat sounds: the surfaces, lets say, the static noises. They're all generated with this granular synthesis. That's pretty much it, in a way.

Over many years I developed that idea to work with this editing program. And I think that makes it very fast and very easy to work. Maybe it sounds really incredible, difficult and slow, and maybe it is sometimes, too. But maybe I need, as well, this kind of fight, or this kind of slowness. Otherwise I feel like I didn't do it really myself. I really wanted to craft each sound by myself.

Do you methods vary from one album to another or have you developed a consistent way of working by now? Is “Univrs” influenced by working with collaborators such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Michael Nyman?

The consistent [thing] is the techniques I'm using, they're all the same. But I really try to achieve for every kind project -- if it's a project with Sakamoto or if it's a project with Nyman or if it's a project with Ryoji Ikeda -- I try to achieve a unique sound experience. I think this is something as well when a collaboration is important, and I'm realizing how great or how challenging it is to work with someone together. Basically with the results you are coming to something that really you could never do alone. So inside these projects, maybe then once you've found a way to deal with it you are realizing that you have a kind of working style or a kind of technology, maybe it's a patent even, maybe it can be a handicap in the end too. That's something I have really tried to craft. For instance with Ryuichi Sakamoto we've completed now the fifth album and as well I felt like the way how we produced the album needs a new challenge, and we really explored a lot of possibilities, how to deal with this collaboration. And maybe it's good to close that cycle and just stay open for other ways of, let's say, changing perspective and things. It does not mean necessarily me and Ryuichi will never work again together. It means maybe that if Ryuichi and me go together it should sound different. Or should have a different approach, after ten years working with that. It feels very natural that you're asking yourself for new horizons.

Can you explain the forms of text you've woven into the album? In spoken word on “uni acronym” (and in several titles) you use a series of abbreviations. Does this help make associations with cultural phenomena, a little like Kraftwerk tended to do?

I think, obviously, it's a certain love for acronyms. Kraftwerk is maybe a very easy example, that makes a very easy connection, but actually acronyms are always -- we're surrounded by them. I'm travelling a lot, and when you're taking a train into the city you see all these kinds of advertisements and the very short acronyms of companies and logos. I'm very interested in logos too, the graphical image of logos. So I started collecting these acronyms, the three-letter acronyms, and I got so attracted to it. In a way, the concept fed into the titles as well. So there are many little references [in] each of the acronyms. When I wrote “fac” for instance, it was actually the catalogue numbers of Factory Records in the three letters, but it could mean “factory”, it could mean “fact” or something. I'm playing with this kind of abstraction, what you could imagine what is behind that word.

You've often described an interest in rules and generative processes, on the one hand, and error and chaos on the other. There's a suggestion of the scientific in your work, but of course it's not merely science. Do you consider it a fusion of art and science?

This is a very long topic. You can talk for hours about it. I don't think, really, that it's a fusion, at least not in my work. I think I'm more interested in the 'in between'. A fusion would be maybe the wrong word. Because there is a lot of space in between these topics. And I think there is a lot which both fields share.

I'm interested in these areas where we share things: these scientific ideas and artistic ideas, they basically cross and I think this is something that is very rarely looked at. And I think we have to give this kind of art more attention, this kind that [is] in between things. Building connections is one of the biggest challenges for us: seeing connections and seeing the bigger perspective, that's very important. That's not only for music or for art. I think this is a very general idea.

Are factors like handiwork, imprecision, spontaneity and improvisation significant to the way you create? Far from being programmatic, your music always seems to bear the mark of a human touch.

I think especially when you play live, tools become really flexible in the moment and you have a possibility to be incredibly open. You can always play differently and it can be very open minded. My early music-based socializing in East Germany -- one strong, live music aspect was free jazz. It sounds very weird now, but in a way I feel like that time, it's kind of feeding back into my way of how I produce things. And I like certain kinds of free elements.

As well, maybe, it's a counterpoint to very rigid and strong organization of beats, for instance. I really think to have a counterpoint to that is very important. Maybe that gives a certain kind of human touch. That's something that I really always find very important, not to be just technologically clean and cold and very mathematical -- algorithmic or something. I think it's very important as well to have a certain poetry inside, like a certain metaphoric idea of feeling, let's say. In German we say "poetics", like a poetic aspect.

You've said before that you're more interested in 'sound' than music. Despite that interest, do you feel it's difficult to present pure sound in itself? Isn't some musical or visual framework generally necessary as packaging?

Yeah, I mean, I talk about sound. Basically, I mean not sound in the range of hearing. I really talk about ultrasound or subsonic sound sources and the possibility to work with this kind of sound. We still don't know that much about it, I think. And I wish we would have more laboratories for sound. I don't necessarily mean studio space or performance spaces: I wish there would be more studios that would have a certain acoustic quality and a certain kind of speaker system where you really could try things that you maybe could not try elsewhere. When you talk about purity -- I'm more interested at the moment in the purity of working with the concept of sound, rather than the purity of sine waves for instance. This is for me only a small part and I would like to see a little bit more of a wider perspective.

Do you find dance music a source of inspiration? One could imagine parts of the new album, especially, being played in clubs.

Of course. You have to understand that Raster-Noton has always been in the shadow of dance and club contexts. We grew up in a techno music background. Early techno releases -- there's a label from Berlin that is called Electro, for instance, that is really influential for me. Sähko, Mika Vainio's releases as Philus that have a kind of Detroit feeling: this kind of very stripped down techno is still very influential. But the typical techno dance record, maybe not that much.

There's another aspect that maybe is not so obvious: I'm a really big fan of funk and Prince and James Brown. And it sounds weird, but these kind of syncopated rhythms, they're quite influential for me, like the early drum machine patterns of Prince. Funk and soul patterns are really strong influences.

Most people are convinced that the music industry is ceasing to function according to old models of production and consumption. Do you feel the impact is significant for you, considering you were already operating on the fringes of the business?

Of course we are in the middle of a big shift of the music industry at the moment: the movement from physical formats to digital. Raster-Noton, always from the beginning we wanted to create objects -- and not mass produced objects. I think this maybe helped us to survive this really difficult time. And it's very clear for me that the physical format should never disappear, so the label will continue to make releases. On the other hand, of course we will have digital things always available, especially our back catalogue. That's great, that we have things like our back catalogue available digitally. But I think in one way we're quite old-school: we really believe in the physical product and we really want to create beautiful packaging and designs, maybe some books and vinyl editions and so on. We really want to focus on that even stronger in the future.

Did I foresee that kind of thing? Maybe not, maybe it was just artistic feeling. We always wanted, as artists, to have a great release in our hands, that we can be properly proud of for years -- not have compromises on packaging and so on. I think we survived by taking care of those things. And I think this is something maybe not foreseen, but I think maybe we felt that.

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