Ryuichi Sakamoto & alva noto: Insen

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Ryuichi Sakamoto & alva noto


Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 10 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Online music retailer Boomkat has been hailing the piano as the “new thing” in experimental electronic and ambient music, where ‘home listening’ electronic artists such as Hauschka, Taylor Deupree and Gonzales have taken to the ivories, favouring a style rooted in simple, loosely structured Satie-inspired melodies and the occasional subtle electronic intervention. The duo of alva noto (Carsten Nicolai) and Ryuichi Sakamoto have been pursuing this course for several years now; this concert firmly posited them as godfathers of this ‘new’ style.

“Vrioon” (2003) and “Insen” (2005), both released on Nicolai’s German-based label Raster Noton, pitted alva noto’s crisp electronics against Sakamoto’s lazy, sustain-drenched piano meandering. Sakamoto’s style is instantly recognisable: a pretty combination of diatonic Eastern cliché, slowed-down Debussy and a smattering of ECM-style jazz improvisation. Carsten Nicolai (alva noto) tends to work with a fairly limited palette, restricting his laptop to producing only the most inorganic of sounds: digital clicks and cuts, sine waves, white noise and cavernous bass thuds. He adds the warmth of Sakamoto’s piano to his output, sampling live and manipulating these sounds into thinly granulated hues. The result is a self-consciously hi-tech and sharply defined update of Brian Eno’s Ambient series. The present performance concentrated on works from Insen and a number of new pieces.

Problems arise when reproducing ambient music (that is supposed to recede into the background) in the concert hall, where one’s concentration should be focussed on the performance. Sakamoto and alva noto worked around this in two ways: by creating an equally weighted visual component that not only corresponded to but was generated by the music, and by the addition of a number of new tracks: louder, hard-hitting and more geared to live performance than their recorded output.

Sakamoto opened the concert by heavily depressing single bass notes, seemingly ‘prepared’ as his right-hand could be seen digging around the piano’s insides. As each note was struck, large white dots pulsed into life upon the rectangular video screen to the back of the stage and hovered awhile before decaying with the piano notes that created them, which alva noto seemed to be commanding this from his ‘podium’ – an angular dais upon which sat two laptops and various controls which seemed designed to resemble a hyper-modern grand piano. He soon added high pitched sine tones, which built into richer melodic drones chopped into rhythmic dispersions of clicks. Sakamoto moved up the keyboard, producing short flurries of melodic phrases only to return, with both hands, to the lower register. Lasting around seven minutes and retaining a relaxed tempo with few sudden surprises, this set the tone for the majority of the pieces performed and threatened the audience with monotony.

Fortunately this was not to be. One piece featured striking white-on-black images derived from Japanese katakana script, again effected from the piano keys, while rapid, jagged vertical lines jigged madly to the sawing electronics. The piano tones were then picked up by alva noto, chopped, reshuffled and looped alongside the ‘real’ piano, to the point where real and processed became indistinguishable. This offered moments of serene beauty – aqueous echoes of piano reverberating in space, combining lushly with electronic ticks and pulses.

The final piece was astounding: Sakamoto produced waves of piano notes from repeated two-to-three note phrases, much like Charlemagne Palestine or Terry Riley, atop a thick flickering drone from the laptop and wild zigzagging lines on the screen, each element building in momentum until being suddenly killed off.

A final encore of Sakamoto’s most famous piece “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” ensured the audience had a melody to whistle on the way home. My train carriage was filled with people doing just that.



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