Though his math-rooted music and the visuals that complement them are complex and at times rather abrasive, German visual artist and musician Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) commands a room like a Zen master. What the audience witnesses is a perpetual climax, driven by Nicolai’s fluid triggering of visuals built with custom TouchDesigner software. His setup is calculated down to the smallest detail, and yet he’s allowed himself plenty of room for improvisation, pulling viewers inside his network and through his supersonic visual tunnel.
Earlier this month Nicolai performed as Alva Noto for Montréal’s International Digital Arts Biennial, debuting his newest audiovisual performance, a piece built around his 2011 release univrs. The next morning, in the same space at Musee d’art contemporain de Montréal, he premiered unidisplay, a wall-sized, muti-layered projection sandwiched between two mirrors on either side, which gave it the illusion of extending infinitely into the ether. A couple of dozen different visualizations draw you in, accompanied by a rotating series of hypnotic sound bytes.
Before he took off on a 10-day South American tour with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, we sat down with Nicolai in the foreground of unidisplay to get into the details of his performance and installation and his exciting new music project with Raster-Noton labelmate Olaf Bender.
The Creators Project: Let’s talk about your new album. You said the music evolved from a live context. Can you describe that process of making music?
Carsten Nicolai: I think it started with unitxt (2008). And I think I started recording this album when I was touring in Japan. In a way, I recorded this album in a very strong life, in advance of application in a live context. I was also partly recording during the tour, during sound check, making new things and so on. And then I started playing the songs, so it’s quite rhythmic as well. And univrs—I still use this “uni” idea—is a continuation of that in a way.
So basically, I continued composing and, in the end, I was really kicking out all of that new material, and then I realized I possibly had more than enough material to sit down and really go to the studio and record a new album. It was really growing out of playing live, and many of the tracks I’d already played live. And there always comes this point where I say, “OK, I have to record it now,” otherwise I continue recording, and I lose them. That’s how I explain it. So you practice.
Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai) at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal on May 4, 2012
For installations, you don’t practice. It’s a little bit more like creating something that lives on its own. There’s not a timeline, let’s say, there’s no particular time to do something with it. In a way it always has to run at the same level. A performance has a peak or a dynamic. What I like about performance is that you share it all together at the same moment. On the other hand, with installations, I can totally step out of it. I can leave the museum and the piece is running. This is great, and already, this is a change in how you do things, how you design things and how you create things. The connection between the two is overt. For one, I’m using the uniscope. A uniscope is this idea of a collection of scopes for visualizing sound, and unidisplay, is more based on visual sounds rather than just sound. It has a sound connection. It’s very gentle, but it’s not really based on this idea of sounds, it’s really based on visual sound through architecture.
That’s funny that you used the word “timeline” in installation because the mirrors on both sides really kind of make it seem like it lasts forever.
There’s a clock in this piece, you know. The two panels are clocks. It’s tricky. We timed it so that you should see this for a certain amount of time, and that’s how you go through all of the panels. But maybe next time I won’t show some of the panels, or only one. But there are two panels inside that are clocks—graphical representations of clocks. This is nice in a way, when you see a practical representation of a clock. And then neurons—then you produce a kind of negative time, like running backwards. It’s kind of nice, kind of philosophical. Time runs forwards or maybe it runs backwards. There’s always this theory about this second world existing that looks absolutely the same, a parallel world but in a negative polarity. There’s a lot of speculation, scientific and philosophical speculation, about the parallel universes that might exist.
What’s the process of switching from live performance to the installation?
The setup of the installation is the same as the setup for the performance. And actually for the performance it was really incredible that we could have the mirrors, because normally I would not be able to install a piece in such a beautiful setting of this scale for the live performance. Normally we have a stage, but we don’t have the possibility of this 18-meter-wide screen. So, it was by chance that we could do that. It would be a pity not doing it like that.
Most of your music is created digitally—all of it, pretty much. I was wondering if there were any sounds from the natural world that you really like?
At the moment, I’ve started using a lot of field recordings, generating a lot of sounds that you don’t hear the source as coming from computer recordings. They sound like really complex computer generated sounds, but they’re actually from really pure sources, natural sounds.
Where do you like to take recordings?
My favorite recording is from a train station in Kyoto. It’s an incredible, beautiful hall. There are the very weird sounding acoustics of thousands and thousands of people moving through the space. It makes this kind of wonderful complex sound of people moving and talking, and you can’t understand anything, but you can hear a lot of things happening, and a lot of people. It’s a great recording. I use a lot of noises, and they have very a strong relation to like waterfalls, oceans—like that kind of white noise that exists in nature. In the moment, I really like noise as a source for sound. Last year, I was always very keen on sine waves, very pure waveforms, and now I’m much more interested in noise.
Where will unidisplay go after Montréal?
In September, this work will be shown in Milan, Italy in a huge industrial hall dedicated to art installations. I hope since it’s in North America we can keep touring a lot of the time in America. I would love to perform, maybe in the Pacific. We don’t know if we’ll ship it or rebuild it, but it would be fantastic.
What are you working on next?
I mean, this is one really big work for me, and as you know, I’m working in sound. At the moment, I’ve come up with a project with my friend Byetone, Olaf Bender. We are both running the label Raster-Noton. We’re touring a lot and have been for many years, and sometimes we’ll start playing together out of the blue, like for an encore. And we decided that one day we should go to the studio together and make a recording, and this is what we’re doing right now. We’re recording a new album, and we’re building a new live show and building visuals. Actually, we got signed by the British label Mute. They wanted to work with Raster-Noton so we said, “Why not this project?”
What’s the project’s name?
It’s called Diamond Version. The concept is electronic, but it’s very open to working with noise or with singers, with people we really like, or good friends. More poppy, more experimental—it stands in between them. And we’re trying to be modern too.
Alva Noto performance photos courtesy of Elektra 13. unidisplay photos courtesy of Galerie Eigen+Art Berlin /Leipzig and Pace Gallery.