Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 29 May, 2005
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London
The work of Yasunao Tone exists in a conceptual framework where – like the work of John Cage – the process of a work’s execution is more significant than its – indeterminate – result. His famous piece for “wounded CD” involved Tone recording music onto a CD, then subjecting it to preparations involving pinholes and scotch tape. This premiere performance of “Paramedia-Centripetal” revives ideas first expounded by Tone in his award-winning piece of 2000 whereby the graphic creation of Japanese text is converted to sound via several levels of remove. Tone appeared and sat leisurely behind a laptop and a flat digital board upon which he began to write Kanji with a light pen. A screen, divided in two, displayed both Tone’s hand gestures upon the board and the calligraphic results.
Originally conceived as a dance piece, one was left to follow the pithy movements of Tone’s hand and the magical creation of black lines of script. As his hand danced across the screen, motion sensors varied the output of sound in terms of frequency, volume and channel, much, as my understanding has it, like a theremin. Aurally, “Paramedia-Centripetal” consisted of an abrasive, unstable barrage of noisy high frequencies, jagged bass hums and dynamic changes in level. Tone’s pen seemed initially an amplified scalpel being dragged across fine china, later channelling forth vague samples of koto, enka-crooning and foggy American radio broadcasts. While the relationship between sound and image was far from precise – there appearing a delay or scramble between gesture and utterance – the staccato bursts of noise directly mirrored the rapid play of lines comprising Kanji characters. Most welcome in marrying truculent dissonance to Japanese Zen iconography was a rejection of the tired and over-worn Japonsime clichés even Cage fell prey to.
Yasunao Tone’s fluid, haphazard bursts of sound provided a balanced counterpoint to the mathematical precision of the German musicians. Dispensing with all notions of indeterminacy, the Raster Noton group relied instead upon the cleanness, rigidity and precision inherent in work produced within digital machines. Olaf Bender, silhouetted behind several laptops, projected clean white blocks onto the black screen, these moving, swelling and expanding as the music evolved – a finely sculpted procession of microscopic pings and scrapes, piercing sine tones and dense bass thuds. No trace of organic sound (or vision) was recognisable whatsoever, Bender producing all sounds directly from digital tone-generators. Closely related to techno, with its strict adherence to 4/4 rhythm patterns and mathematical linear development, Raster Noton music deviates by its almost complete negation of funk. Any sense of acoustic warmth, of haziness, blurred boundaries or indistinction becomes impossible, the audience saturated with binary overload as both sound and vision cohere in increasingly intense, stroboscopic order. Despite this, Bender’s performance (the strongest of the night) was very powerful and dynamic, creating an astounding sense of tension from fine handling of minimal resources – his monochrome retro-futurist grids, sparing use of both aural and visual colour and keen understanding of musical development evoke a uniquely nightmarish machine dystopia.
Carsten Nicolai followed, adhering to Bender’s rhythmic patterns while adding hiss and the discomforting sounds of electrical connections. His visual palette became busier, thin white etch-a-sketch shapes dancing upon the cold black backdrop. Signal, the ‘supergroup’ of Frank Bretschneider, Bender and Nicolai concluded the evening with an evenly paced, more varied version of what had preceded. While thankfully no single artist overran things, this final work developed into an almost painful bombardment of machine-art. Bender, Bretschneider and Nicolai are uniquely gifted artists, bravely immersing themselves in digital and painting a beautiful, if terrifying picture in binary code. Menacing, overwhelming and refreshingly cathartic, Raster Noton put on a convincing and powerful performance.