Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto: summvs

The collaboration between Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, and Ryuichi Sakamoto has produced a significant amount of highly original music and proved to be a fascinating exploratory journey whose forms, though incremental and grounded in a particular configuration, have often exceeded expectations. summvs is the fourth album by the duo for Raster-Noton, but the additional releases, the Revep EP and the Insen Live DVD, are invaluable in providing a fuller picture of their collaborative work.

Noto/Sakamoto’s first album, Vrioon was released in 2002 and established the format: Sakamoto playing acoustic piano, Nicolai providing electronic rhythms, treatments and accompaniment. Sakamoto’s playing comprised an impressionistic romanticism with roots in Debussy, Ravel and Takemitsu. The binary oppositions of acoustic and electronic, performance and programming, repetition and uniqueness, romanticism and minimalism provided a rich bedrock of tensions as well as a structure pregnant with opportunities for development and manipulation.

Although summvs has been described as a return to basics, in fact it presents a variety of negotiations between the aforementioned oppositions. At times it continues the process of abstraction that was first signalled by “Intro”, the freely improvised opening passage on 2006′s Insen Live and which was developed to full-length on _utp, Noto/Sakamoto’s 2008 collaboration with Ensemble Modern. On “Reverso”, Sakamoto’s piano is less crystal clear than before and is subject to the extended repetition of a single figure: at play here is the titular reversal of roles. At other times, compositions such as “Halo”, “Microon I-III” and “Naono” achieve a merging of approaches that verges on the etiolated.

Without the subtle undermining of complacency resulting from the use of performative and sonic contrasts, there’s a sense both of the music settling into predefined roles and of an uneasy suspicion of incipient affectation. Key to this is the change in Carsten Nicolai’s practice. His contributions previously exploited dance music’s fascination with sonic extremes, with the synthetic bass a powerfully sculptural agent, while in the higher registers meter was formed from mica shards. The result was an intense morse codification of rhythm, signals at times so brief as to be almost not there. On summvs, those rhythms are blurred by cloud, they merge more easily with the ambient electronic backdrops resulting in a more unified sound. This loss of space between the music’s elements means that it is more immersive, but at the same time the experience is less spatial, less architectural, more indistinct.

In the latter half of summvs, the duo reprise their practice of recording a highly recognisable composition external to the duo’s work together and radically recontextualising it. This approach was first demonstrated on “Ax Mr.L.”, a treatment of Sakamoto’s signature theme, “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”. This time, they feature two versions of “By This River” by Brian Eno, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, which was released on Eno’s 1977 album Before and After Science. As soon as the unforgettable melody is sounded out, and after divesting oneself of any expectation of hearing Eno’s dulcet tones, the duo gradually deconstruct the song into an extended form rich with echoes of the original.

summvs represents a tipping of the balance in favour of Sakamoto’s romanticism, with Noto sonically providing more of a supporting role. Many will welcome this – the result is after all rather gorgeous – but it’s at the cost of a sacrificing of tension previously achieved by a range of dynamic contrasts. The end result is also less strikingly original than its early predecessors, Vrioon and Insen.

The review was published on The Liminal

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