I first heard of Carsten Nicolai, 1/3 of the trio comprising the group signal, a few years ago when I went to see an installation of his work in a small art gallery (the name of which I cannot now remember) in Tokyo. All I remember is that it was located somewhere near Harajuku on the Satsujin Dori. This was in 2001 or 2002, and was one of the first times I had been exposed to granular synthesis.
You can read all about it in any number of places, but the idea behind granular synthesis is that sound is the illusion produced when the brain perceives millions of static sound particles in succession and “animates” them into a whole. Granular synthesists work with miniscule granules of sound, exploiting their traits of onset, decay, pitch, and frequency to build their compositions. It’s a big part of what makes glitch music “glitch”, but it also has a lot of applications that wouldn’t be associated with anything alien-sounding. You can produce a number of audio processing effects with granular synthesists, from reverb to resonance, and it might pass by the notice of your ear as a natural, expected, and transparent environmental trait of the sound.
Carsten Nicolai, operating under monikers Alva-Noto, Noton, Noto, and a few others in addition to his given name that I don’t have background on to list here, does not compose music that sounds like a natural, transparently-produced sound occurring in the environment. This is meticulously sequenced pops, clicks, throbs, and hums. If it were to stop there, though, this would be nothing more than a cheap gimmick. It does not stop there.
He is joined here by fellow Raster-Noton label-founders Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender, two musicians who, like Carsten Nicolai, began working in Iron Curtain East Germany and who also have always worked to emphasize the junction of the visual with the audible in their work. Olaf Bender designs the graphics for the Raster-Noton label in addition to his composition work, and Bretschneider operates under the musical alias Komet. What makes the fruit of their collaboration more than the gimmick of odd sounds comprising rude music is that it not only exploits the occasionally surprising musicality of odd and unnatural butt-ends of whole sounds or completely artificial sounds of extremely, at first listen, tonelessly short duration, but that it also exploits the way our granular perception of sound applies to larger pieces of music and collections of noise. It only takes a minute to acclimate before you find your head bobbing to the hypnotic rhythms pulsing in the hiss and static, and it doesn’t take too many more to catch yourself wondering if some of the sounds you’re hearing in your headphones are coming from somewhere outside the few centimeters traversing your ear canal. If you’ve gotten too confident in your prediction of the patterns in the noise, you’ll be surprised quite a few times by noises that don’t mesh environmentally with the rest of the composition. Clouds of hiss that fade in and seem to echo out as though they were echoing in a room in the real world might fool you into thinking they have to abide by real-world physics. But the point is that this music was not produced in an environment. Your brain, in its never-ending quest to make things easier for you, might relax having built that model of behavior. But when a new sound, higher pitched or not in phase with the way other sounds appear to be decaying in the artificial environment of this music, makes itself audible, the whole experience falls out of kilter.
This music is as much an exercise in unlearning listening habits as it is an opportunity to enjoy new sounds. It’s as much a display of conceptual and technical talent and a love for music on the part of the musicians as it is an experiment in dealing not only with the particulate aspects of the granularity of sound, but the spatial and perceptual aspects, as well. It pairs clicks and hums and clouds of static to make resonant micro-melodies hidden away in “backgrounds” as well as beats. It distances some relationships between the perceived aspects of space between other sounds and pairs other aspects of nearness and distance in ways listeners may not have learned to hear.
You can take a listen here:
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