»It will be a very human performance«

A conversation with Carsten Nicolai

Some call him an »avant-garde electronic tinkerer«, others an electronic pioneer, and his music is occasionally characterized as minimal techno, as retro-futurism or psychedelic-amorphous sonic art: Carsten Nicolai – perhaps better-known under his pseudonym Alva Noto – has been one of the most well-known figures on the electronic music scene since the 1990s. Together with the Japanese composer and pianist Ryūichi Sakamoto, he composed the soundtrack for the film ›The Revenant‹ in 2015 (nominated for a Golden Globe in the film music category). Born in Chemnitz in 1965, the artist first worked with Ensemble Modern in 2007, jointly creating the multi-media work ›utp_‹ at the Mannheim National Theatre, on the occasion of the 400-year anniversary of the city’s founding. At the 2012 Ruhrtriennale, Nicolai, Sakamoto and the members of Ensemble Modern shared the stage once again.
As part of the festival Frankfurter Positionen, this spring will see a transfer of the recently released Nicolai album ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ to the instruments of Ensemble Modern, with Alva Noto as soloist. The multi-media work, which combines music with video and light installations, will be tailored to the space, in this case the Frankfurt LAB.

Stefan Schickhaus spoke to Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto about this unusual project.

Stefan Schickhaus: As a visual artist creating prints and installations, your name is Carsten Nicolai, as a musician you go by the name Alva Noto. Is your pseudonym an attempt to strictly separate your two artistic fields of activity?

Carsten Nicolai: I only separate them on the outside. Alva Noto is something akin to my band name; I use it to produce and market my music. In the electronic music scene, where I began recording during the mid-1990s, it was and is customary to have not only one name, but lots. The artist’s name was reinvented, so to speak, with each release. I know someone with more than 60 alter egos. I think it has something to do with assuming different roles, as an actor would. Personally, I began as Noto, and it was only a few years later that I wanted to add a more concrete personalization, so I added Alva, almost like a first name.

StS: Could it have something to do with the fact that electronic music stands for something that is beyond personal, as it is not created by human hands? To put it bluntly: algorithms instead of soul? And hence the avatar name?

CN: To me it’s totally different. There is lots of soul in my music. The longer I work on this Alva Noto project, the more emotional the music gets to me. Take ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹, for example: that is one of the most emotional albums I ever wrote – or composed, or recorded, or whatever you care to call it. To me, it runs very deep.

StS: The ›Xerrox‹ series began in 2007, and it is no coincidence that its title is reminiscent of the photoelectric reproduction process of xerography and copying machines of the Xerox brand. Was there no copyright dispute about the name?

CN: I built in this little mistake, the double »r« which also stands for »error«. After all, this is about a copying process with a mistake built in. The mistake is what turns the original material – at first it was borrowed or manipulated samples, but now I write melodies for this purpose – into music.

StS: Your method is to transform electronic tonal material by copying, similar to the process of putting a picture on a Xerox copying machine and continuously making copies of those copies. How do mistakes even happen when the copying happens digitally?

CN: In my studio, I developed software together with a programmer which executes a copying process with a slight shift of the resolution factor. Then this process is repeated 20 or 30 times. A CD, for example, is sampled at a frequency of 44.1 kHz and 16 bits. If you manipulate these two parameters slightly, information is detracted and the software starts to interpolate the gaps. The algorithm then invents something to fill the gaps. In a certain manner, it gets creative. A mechanism of alienation as creative potential – that is what intrigues me about this.

StS: The original data for the first ›Xerrox‹ albums were samples, but for ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ they are special »melodies«, you said. Isn’t that an irritating term in the field of electronic music?

CN: Let’s call it recognizable tonal sequences then. Or harmonic progressions. If you want to put something on a copying machine, first you need a recognizable image.

StS: In an interview, you said that your collaboration with Ryūichi Sakamoto made you lose your »fear of melodies«. Up until then, was a melody something that was not allowed to happen under any circumstance in electronic music?

CN: Yes, one might say that that was the rule. After all, the point was a negation of everything that classically defines music. At the time, I was interested only in sound, and that is a quality which continues to interest me greatly. I thought the notation of music was absolutely obsolete, as it only represents pitches, intervals, dynamics. But not sound itself. That was my point of departure, breaking radically with tradition and creating something completely new. Working with Ryūichi Sakamoto showed me that perhaps I was limiting myself too strictly by these rigid rules and becoming too dogmatic. Ultimately, orthodox behaviour is very limiting.

StS: Now there will be an instrumentation of ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ for Ensemble Modern, in other words, an adaptation of music which is generated purely electronically for analogue instruments. Do you have experience with real instruments?

CN: I studied classical concert guitar for three or four years. The quality of such an instrument is a small universe unto itself. Of course I find a much larger universe in electronic music, but the cultural importance of classical instruments is enormous. Electronics can never be culturally anchored in the same way.

StS: In 2000, Ensemble Modern transferred Frank Zappa’s Synclavier sounds to its instruments. Is that comparable to the process you are now undergoing with ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹? Or how should we imagine the technical and logistical process? How is an ensemble score generated?

CN: I already used numerous classical instruments for ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹, in the shape of electronically generated softsynths which I recorded via a keyboard. So that gives us a basis for the transfer. However, it will certainly not take place literally. Rather, the point is to tease out the acoustic advantages of the instruments, giving the whole thing a new and totally different quality. It would be a doomed and, most importantly, pointless undertaking to simply want to replicate the electronic version as closely as possible. Especially the percussionists will take a very experimental approach, and we will find fascinating equivalents for the sounds. I am delighted at Ensemble Modern’s willingness to experiment.

StS: Where might the musicians reach their limits because your music does not take the human factor into account, simply because it is by nature electronic and doesn’t have to?

CN: As an electronic musician, I have the fantastic possibility of being able to adjust every parameter, also in retrospect. When a piece is performed live by »real« musicians, things can never work out one hundred percent. So the performance in Frankfurt will be a very human one. Things will happen that simply can’t be controlled.

StS: You completed ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ in February of 2020, when the coronavirus had not yet reached pandemic proportions and cultural and social life, at least in Germany, were still unrestricted. Still, you claim that ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ is something of a soundtrack of the pandemic. Why is that?

CN: This music has a very melancholy aspect. It is quiet music, not for the masses, but highly individual. It is for the time when we withdraw in winter. When we revert to ourselves. And the subjects of isolation and withdrawal from public life are part of this pandemic. The music was created before the coronavirus standstill, but it was released at the same time as the first lockdown started.

StS: The term isolation tends to have negative implications, whereas the music on ›Xerrox Vol. 4‹ does seem to emanate contentment and a feeling of warmth and security, not the coldness of isolation.

CN: To me, isolation is a good thing. Because I have time to take care of myself. To follow my thoughts or carry out work. When I want to be creative, I need isolation and withdrawal, not encounters. To me, isolation means concentration.