macro-micro-minimalism July 2006
A conversation between Carsten Nicolai and Daniele Balit
In 1997, with the installation labor e, Carsten Nicolai offered public access to his work, now more and more focused on the interconnectedness of sound and technology. His production tools were presented on a simple worktable: a mixing board, some waveform generators, a DAT recorder and some loudspeakers. The instruments showed his fascination for the direct transformation of electricity into sound – as a virtually physical phenomenon.
Nicolai, who today is a major figure in both the electronic music and visual art fields, had started recuperating old oscillators and other machineries from university laboratories, transforming them into musical instruments, discovering their potential to work as source for a new usage. In this context, Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, heart of the former power station, now magnificently alienated, offered a striking scenario and a retrieval of the origins from his early work.
Nicolai’s performance was second in a line-up that included Robert Henke aka Monolake and Ryoji Ikeda, and was programmed for an evening event titled, Ultra: Extreme Economy in Electronic Music and Visualization, part of UBS Openings: The Long Weekend – Minimalist Monday.
'If you had to make a new version of labor e,' I ask him in our Berlin-Rome conversation, 'what would we see on your laboratory table today and to what degree does your current sound production make use of digital technology?'
'The equipment for a new version of labor e would not be so different from what I used in the early days,' says Nicolai. 'Of course, I would include more digital equipment. The computer would probably play a key role in things such as recording and post-production, while I wouldn’t use the DAT machine anymore. I would choose a more developed speaker system and I would update my oscillators with some more precise ones, such as those used for tectonic research. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me that analogue equipment is much more precise than digital equipment, especially in high frequency ranges. The standards for the digitalisation of sound are quite limited. Even if they have improved in recent years, digital equipment is basically designed for a perceptual range from 20 to 20,000 Hz, which is what our ears can perceive. If I want to go out of the range of listening – which I also did in the past – I would probably not use a lot of digital equipment. From my experience, you can perceive more with analogue: even without hearing it, you can perceive a much wider frequency range.'
This demonstrates the background of Nicolai’s interest in sound. As he explains, he is not interested in a musical approach to frequency, but in exploring the limits of low and very high frequencies, electro-magnetic waves and frequencies that can produce light. 'For me,' he says, 'this is a kind of universe which cannot be confined to any one specific range.'
When Nicolai performs, under the name alva noto, there is no doubt that the laptop is the main tool. 'I try to have as much control as possible over a performance. I use computers to help design my sound pieces in a really precise way; in terms of spacing, silence and frequency. To do all that in real time would be very difficult and probably too complex and imprecise for a live situation. But you can learn the software as if it were a musical instrument. This is what I’m doing at the moment. It’s only by the experience of performing for so many years that you learn to play it as an instrument.'
I ask him what types of variables and parameters are involved in his live performances. 'In general,' he says, 'my performances have presets: I programme visualisation patterns that can react very specifically to frequency ranges. Mostly, the visualisations are based on frequency analyses. That means that there’s no pre-made picture beforehand, no QuickTime movie or anything pre-made. Everything is created in real time by the sound that I’m producing.' That also means that alva noto’s performances are unrepeatable. 'Of course you can document them,' he explains, 'but the computers are generating a new picture each time so it’s never the same; it never looks the same twice. With regards to the sound, although I am playing pre-recorded tracks, I play them in a way that provides maximum flexibility in terms of spacing, timing, mixing... quite a lot in fact.'
Although Nicolai retains a certain level of control in his live performances, this is not necessarily the case with his installation practice. 'You can try to control an environment in the beginning, but soon some unpredictable and uncontrollable events change it,' he says. In the gallery context he follows a path close to empirical research. He sets up systems that follow their own course.
Has his practice been influenced by important sound experiences from the 1970s, for instance by people like Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman or Alvin Lucier? 'Those are experiences that I’ve come to know only recently,' he reveals. 'Maybe that’s a good thing, because I would not have done many things, knowing that they had already been done! Yet, it’s extremely interesting to see from which perspective the same issues are addressed. Recently I met the Vasulka Brothers and it was exciting to confront our practices, to discover how many things we have in common.'
For the Ultra event at Tate Modern, Nicolai performed xerrox, the name of which references a ‘Xerox’ copying machine, with an added ‘r’ for ‘error’. In this piece, surprisingly, the melody takes a central role. The long notes played in xerrox interact with the field of noise particles to expand the aural space. This is a new aspect in Nicolai’s music, which is usually built on beat, noise and glitches. Is it wrong to see this as a direct influence of Ryuichi Sakamoto? 'Certainly the long collaboration with Sakamoto – seven years now – has not left me unchanged,' he says. 'I developed an interest in melody and harmony that appears in xerrox for the first time. One of the reasons is that melody leaves a more profound and lasting impression on memory. The relation between noise and melody is quite interesting to me.'
xerrox also has a sort of romantic aura, a tendency towards the sublime. The visual and sonic landscape created by Nicolai has a grandeur reminiscent to that of a natural landscape. However, in opposition to this immense sense of scale is something that originates from a rather close encounter with matter. The audience is transported into the core of energy fluxes, physically perceiving the vibrations from a multitude of frequencies. It is like laying your ear to an atom and listening to the sound made by all of its particles. It could also be perceived as the sound of galaxy forces. Nicolai establishes a relationship between micro- and macro-vision that somehow appears to explode traditional notions of minimalism. 'What’s funny about the evening at the Tate is that none of us thought that we had been so minimalist!' he says. ' xerrox certainly has this magnitude element. It’s a work that develops on a micro level to then expand towards a macro dimension. This type of dialectic between micro and macro is certainly a central theme in my research.'
Although in electronic music performances, audio-visual interaction is quite a common practice, it remains rather difficult to avoid imposing specific images on the audience and limiting their representational processes, their imagination. 'I agree with that completely,' he states. 'That’s been my experience. Since I started performing around 1996-97, I’ve never used any kind of filmic strategy for the visualisation of sound. Even when using complex methods of analysis, it is difficult to escape from a kind of cinematic experience and to prevent the audience from losing contact with the sound. I always say, jokingly, that I try to make the images a bit boring. What I mean is that I’m trying to equalize sound and images to get both on a similar level of perception.'
In xerrox the relationship between aural and visual particles is very tight. The sound is visualized in the process of organisation. 'As I was saying earlier, I am not interested in a narrative of pre-made pictures or in any kind of metaphorical language that implies using images for sound,' he says. 'My idea is that, through a process of analysis, I connect sound very closely to the picture. I am analysing the complexity of sound. For xerrox I use a traditional method of analysis that basically measures phase and frequency simultaneously. The visual particles are organized through these analyses of sound. This is a process that develops in real time and that each time is very different, depending on what I play.'
Nicolai is interested in the self-organisation of particles 'because they do not deliver an image that can be associated with something you’ve seen before. Maybe your interpretation starts creating images and you might think you see something, but at the same moment that they appear they disappear. It’s a very fragmented image,' he continues. 'The pixels, the grains, are taking over and they are trying to organise themselves in such a way that it becomes almost like a Rorschach test.'
From the perspective of Nicolai’s work, minimalism is not anymore only a magnifying glass on micro-realities, but hence seems to become also a tool that opens macro-visions of an increasingly complex universe –- the experience of which can be seized through mutable perceptions and synesthesias. It will be interesting to follow such trajectories as Nicolai’s research evolves.
Daniele Balit, July 2006
Live performances by Robert Henke (aka Monolake), alva noto (Carsten Nicolai) and Ryoji Ikeda. Ultra-minimalism in electronic music and visualisation for The Long Weekend 2006, Tate Modern