ALVA NOTO INTERVIEW
CARSTEN NICOLAI IS A GERMAN ARTIST, BORN 1965 IN KARL MARX STADT, GERMANY. HE GREW UP DURING THE COLD WAR AND AS A CHILD WAS INTERESTED IN BATS AND THEIR ULTRASOUND COMMUNICATION. HE STUDIED LANDSCAPE DESIGN BEFORE TAKING UP THE ACTIVITY OF VISUAL AND SOUND EXPERIMENTALISM, IN WHICH HE TRIES TO OVERCOME THE SEPARATION OF ART FORMS AND TO OFFER AN INTEGRATED ARTISTIC APPROACH.
HE IS INFLUENCED BY SCIENTIFIC REFERENCE SYSTEMS AND HIS WORKS EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES (AS WELL AS THE ERRORS) OF MATHEMATICS APPLIED TO THE VISUAL AND MUSICAL FIELD. HE HAS PARTICIPATED IN IMPORTANT INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITIONS SUCH AS “DOCUMENTA” AND THE “VENICE BIENNALE” AND, SINCE 1986, MADE SEVERAL SOLO EXHIBITIONS ALL OVER EUROPE. IN THE MUSICAL FIELD HE WORKS AS “NOTO”, CREATING HIS OWN CODE OF SIGNS AND SYMBOLS AND AS “ALVA NOTO”, BRINGING THESE EXPERIMENTS INTO THE ELECTRONIC MUSIC FIELD. HE HAS PERFORMED IN THE GREATEST MODERN ART MUSEUMS OF EUROPE AND THE US AS WELL AS IN MANY CLUBS AND CONCERT HALLS. HE ALSO WORKS ON MANY COLLABORATIONS WITH OTHER MUSICIANS, SUCH AS BLIXA BARGELD FROM EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN, PIANIST RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, COMPOSER MICHAEL NYMAN AND RYOJI IKEDA.
Photo by Dieter Wuschanski
YOUR FIRST RELEASE AS ALVA NOTO (BACK IN 2000) WAS NAMED “PROTOTYPES”, AS IF THOSE COMPOSITIONS WERE SOME DRAFTS FOR A NEW KIND OF MUSIC AND MUSIC-MAKING. WHICH BACKGROUND EXPERIENCES AND ARTISTIC/MUSICAL INFLUENCES LEAD YOU TO UNDERTAKE THIS KIND OF EXPERIMENTAL ACTIVITY?
I have always had a futuristic approach towards music, being interested in something that is somehow “looking-forward”. I have never pursued retrospective feelings and have always tried to find and explore new ways of listening and making music (although these may be based on already existing works). I was also influenced by science-fiction movies and by the Cold-War climate I grew up in, which made the idea of a new aesthetics and a new kind of life become part of my work and my research.
“Prototypes” was largely inspired by an Austrian artist who designed a few operas around the year 1965 (the year I was born); these operas were called “Prototypes” as well and although they were not very technologically advanced they looked ahead to many other things I could see around me when I was younger.
HOW DO YOU FEEL THOSE IDEAS EVOLVED DURING YOUR WORK IN THE PAST YEARS?
I think I have an idea where my musical work may lead, a kind of masterplan I would say, but on the other hand there is the experience I make performing which also affects my studio work. In the last five years my work has been mostly influenced by live experiences rather than studio-controlled ones and this is what is behind the new series of “u-works” (unitxt, univrs) I’ve been up to. I always had this idea of series, the masterplan I was talking about before, but there is surely some flexibility inside of it, and when working on sound I have to react to the feelings I experience moment by moment and that may tell me which way to go. I don’t want to control the creative process in a too strictly intellectual way.
WHAT ARE THE NEW POSSIBILITIES YOU FEEL YOUR WORK HAS RIGHT NOW?
I think that now computers offer many possibilities, because everyday you can get new tools you can work with and expand your creative potential. Also in big musical productions the use of computers is nowadays a common standard during recording and studio work, as any other musical instrument. This has been possible due to the continuous release of more powerful processors and smart software. Now that these possibilities are a standard, it’s more about learning to use them the right way and this is what I’ve been doing during the last years – building an instrument (although it’s built inside the computer) and learning to use it properly.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST DISCOVER THE POSSIBILITIES OF USING THE COMPUTER IN THE MUSICAL FIELD?
In the very beginning I was interested in the possibility of working mobile, with extreme flexibility, being able to capture an idea as soon as it came in my mind, wherever I may be. The use of small and flexible devices I could carry with me was important also due to the continuous necessity to travel and so I was really into digital technology and into the use of laptops for musical production. In the early years I did not care about having a proper studio set up, I needed as much flexibility as possible. At the moment a computer represents a fantastic alternative to work with, whatever your needs are.
HOW DO SOFTWARE AND DIGITAL POSSIBILITIES SUIT YOUR NEEDS DURING THE CREATIVE PROCESS?
At the moment we have a great variety and opportunity of digital software to use for audio/video projects. And if something doesn’t exist yet we can be pretty sure that it will in a little time. Additionally we have the possibility to design our own programs to work with. I think this is an incredible situation, these tools being so easy and accessible. But all these opportunities we have are almost overwhelming, so I think we should pick some and make the best out of them.
DOES THE MACHINE ALWAYS ANSWER PROPERLY AND EXACTLY TO THE GIVEN INPUT OR THERE ARE SOME RANDOM SPACES OF ACTION (BOTH IN THE STUDIO AND LIVE ACTIVITY)?
I’m very interested in using software the “wrong” way sometimes (not using them only for the purpose they were created for) – it’s part of the creative process of an artist to make things different, which means pushing them to the limit and exploring how far they can go. And this is extremely easy in software-controlled environments. This is actually what I do when I’m in the studio. While performing live I try to avoid breakdowns, also because I really like to have an organic workflow and so I want the computer to easily perform what I am asking it. Driving softwares to the edges and experiment with filters and other structures is for me studio-time.
WHICH ROLE DOES YOUR HUMAN PERFORMATIVE ACT HAVE, WHEN GOING ON STAGE?
I think that one of the biggest mistakes is that people believe that computers can do something you cannot do. But as I see it the computer only executes what I told it to do, so performing behind a computer is the same as performing behind a piano or a normal instrument. With the computer you have no possibility to show which processes are happening but you can do more tasks and more complex sound elaborations using computers than with any other instrument. I really enjoy playing with it and not actually showing everything I do, so the listeners can focus on the sound and maybe the lack of movement is compensated by the visuals, which in my case are very performative, since they react in real-time to the music. I have a lot of freedom since I can be invisible when on stage and I feel this is a great opportunity.
I ATTENDED YOUR SHOW IN BOLOGNA IN EARLY 2012 AND I WAS IMPRESSED BY THE USE YOU MADE OF SOUND AS THE UNIQUE SOURCE FOR THE CREATION OF THE VISUAL ASPECTS OF YOUR SET. HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS INTERACTION BETWEEN SOUND AND IMAGES FOR YOUR PERFORMATIVE PURPOSES?
Visuals compensate the lack of a performative act and they also take from the sound and give birth to something new. I always try to present things that are close to their purest form: sound and visuals as well - I do not use images which may be narrative, I use graphic analysis of the sounds, something basic which may leave space for the imagination of the listener/viewer. The visual part has always been of great importance to me, because the visual artistic activity is also part of what I am doing. Sound and images are two aspects that are very prominent in my work and I like to connect them as closely as possible.
I ALSO SAW A SHOW OF YOU AND BLIXA BARGELD IN BERLIN IN 2011, AND FELT THE UNION OF HIS DEEP VOICE AND YOUR RADICAL ELECTRONIC SOUND GAVE BIRTH TO SOME NEW MUSICAL EXPERIENCE. WHEN WAS THE IDEA OF WORKING WITH BLIXA FIRST CONCEIVED AND WHAT PURPOSES DID THE TWO OF YOU HAVE WHEN YOU STARTED THIS PROJECT?
I was interested in working with Blixa while remixing some tracks for the transpray album in 2003, since we had met a few times and Blixa liked the idea of working with somebody coming from a different background, he was very open-minded. We started 6 years ago in San Francisco in the RML Laboratory, where we began experimenting and doing a 25-minute performance. Since then we have continued to play live and out of this live experience we recorded the material for our first album.
We have just recently been in the studio recording some new tracks, and every time we play live we have new tracks that are not yet recorded. These recordings will be made, and will be released sooner or later. When we go to the studio it requires a lot of time, our recording process is quite slow!
HOW DOES YOUR APPROACH TO MUSIC CREATION AND PERFORMANCE CHANGE WHILE WORKING WITH A VOCALIST OR OTHER MUSICIANS SUCH AS RYUICHI SAKAMOTO?
I really do welcome influences coming from outside, material like the piano of Ryuichi or the voice of Blixa is very welcome to me because it stimulates my creativity and brings many new ideas to the mind. Sometimes it is much easier to start with these other sounds than to work on my own material, so I feel very stimulated especially when collaborating with these two people.
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