Despite releasing albums since the early-2000s and working with everyone from Blixa Bargeld to Iggy Pop, Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, has been at pains not to term himself a musician. I remember watching a panel discussion where he mused that despite releasing over ten albums, he barely owned a single instrument. Instead he chooses to work with scientific tools: oscillators, waveform generators and basic audio processors. Rather than thinking in terms of tempo, time-signatures and harmonies, it’s a question of grid sizes, frequencies and oscillation speeds.
Carsten was born in 1965 in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), growing up in Karl-Marx-Stadt – now Chemnitz – before moving to Dresden to study landscape architecture, a subject that still interests him and which perhaps explains his mathematical approach to composition. He also explored visual art, which led him to begin experimenting with sound, with a particular focus on rhythm and the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum. Carsten’s releases feature bass frequencies so low they are felt physically rather than heard on the scales we have become accustomed to. Similarly, his music frequently includes piercing high-end tones; 14kHz is a particular favourite of his – the test tone emitted by East German TV sets during intervals between programmes.
It’s not all lab coats and oscilloscopes though. You can catch recordings of him on Boiler Room with one finger raised in the air, blasting the audience with static and sine wave techno hybrids. Similarly, the label he co-ran for nearly 20 years, Raster-Noton, features plenty of work straddling the line between electronic academia and tongue-in-cheek pop or dance abstractions. Take a listen to Atom™’s chart music satire HD, or Kyoka’s disjointed vocal collages on the ‘Ish’ EP for example.
Raster-Noton began as a joining together of Carsten’s NOTON imprint and Olaf Bender’s Raster Media in 1999, separating into two labels again in mid-2017. NOTON resumed operations as a solo imprint earlier this year with Live 2002, dusting off an archived live collaboration between Carsten, Ryoji Ikeda and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio, who sadly passed away last year. The label is also shortly set to release Glass, a joint project from Carsten and long-term collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto. The project saw the pair invited to record an improvised performance at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, playing a range of instruments as well as using contact mics to extract tones from the building itself. The recording is an enigmatic and meditative listen, picking up on the building’s tranquility, but also an uneasy sense of isolation.
We caught up with Carsten last week to discuss Glass, celebrity budgies and what it was like growing up behind the iron curtain.
I’m enjoying your album with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Glass. It differs slightly from your other work in that it features – dare I say it – you playing something approaching an actual instrument. You were playing the crotales with something like a string bow?
Yeah. I think it has a little bit to do with the fact we’ve recorded five albums together, more or less. There was no plan to continue recording more because for us they are kind of complete. During the last tour, four years ago, Ryuichi got cancer as you probably heard. We stopped touring while Ryuichi focused on his health and recovered. I think this changed how we wanted to continue with our collaborations.
One idea was not to plan as much as we did before. To keep projects more open and have a level of improvisation; don’t have tracks that you need to replay, but instead step into completely new territory. One of the first offers we got was to make a really beautiful improvised show in the Glass House. A friend of mine – Irene Shum – who wrote some liner notes in the record, she initiated that project.
You two were reacting to her proposal?
Right. I studied architecture and actually there was always a plan to look for unusual performance locations. We talked for a long time about doing a project in Barcelona in the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion which was kind of a blueprint for the Glass House. He [Philip Johnson] designed it I think maybe twelve years later. We wanted to take the architecture as the instrument. It’s why the album is called Glass, because the building is made of glass. We added some instruments based on this idea.
I think what was radically different in this case was that Ryuichi was only using acoustic instruments and electronics, not the piano.
So you’ve switched places a little bit?
[Laughs] Kind of! I was playing some acoustic instruments because it felt very natural in that location. It was a great restart to our collaboration. I completely agreed with Ryuichi in that we didn’t want to start at the point we stopped – touring and playing existing tracks that we’d already recorded. We wanted something totally open and new.
Because we’ve known each other for so long, we didn’t need to talk much about what we wanted to do, we just did it. It feels very new to me to improvise in a situation and see what happens.
Do you remember your first meeting with Ryuichi, and what’s it like looking back on 20 years working together?
Yeah I remember it quite well. It was in ‘97 I think, so 21 years ago. It was my first trip to Japan; I was invited by the German Goethe-Institut with Oval, Porter Ricks and Ryoji Ikeda. Our first gig was in Tokyo. Afterwards I was with a few friends including Ryoji and some people I didn’t know – I didn’t know many people at this point because it was my first trip to Japan. I met a lot of people then that I’m still in contact with and Ryuichi was there watching the performance.
Ryuichi is a very open-minded person and he asked me if I would be interested in remixing some stuff. I said of course; at this time he’d just released an album which was more like Brazilian music I would say – it seemed very far away from what I was doing. Around that time I was going a very experimental way; working with high frequencies, sine wave constellations… He gave me the material and I did a remix. He loved the remix and he more or less kept sending me material…
…for 20 years.
Kind of! [Laughs] I mean now it’s a little bit different, sometimes we have a focused situation like when we worked together on The Revenant. I’ve collaborated with him on a few little soundtracks before too, like my own short movies.
Is it true you made an opera about a budgie?
That’s the opera with Michael Nyman. We called it an opera but of course it was not a real opera. It has a vibrato and a wonderful story behind it. We only did one performance but I still have all the recordings and materials. We always wanted to publish a book about it because there’s so much material about this budgie.
It featured on lots of TV ads and so on right?
It did. The woman who had this budgie was kind of teaching him to talk. He became so famous that there have been some records released of him talking and singing, and then they used him for advertisements and so on.
A celebrity budgie.
[Laughs] A celebrity budgie. The backbone of the story is very interesting; he got humanised. In a way he was trained to speak, but on the other hand everybody thought he was a real human. It happens very often with pets when you love them too much, they get humanised and in the end they become like a family member. This budgie was almost a perfect example of how much a pet can become a member of the family. It’s a great psychological study too because they did some research and they found a diary as if it was written by the budgie! It was a little bit curious but at the same time fascinating.
In terms of electronic music, John Cage wrote a book about birds and electronic music. It had this kind of feedback system into the fact that birds have influenced electronic music for a long time. It became a kind of conceptual work in the end but I liked it.
Going back to the Glass House, I was reading about how Philip Johnson initially lived there but in the end used it just for entertaining; it brought him a fair bit of unwanted attention from what I can tell. Apparently Yale architecture students made a bit of a game out of trespassing on the property. What were your impressions of the space the first time you visited?
If you know the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, you can see the inspiration clearly. I think for him it was such a modernist icon. He tried to build something like it for himself. I think as an architect you always have the problem that you would like to do radical things but it’s very dependent on who gives you money or the purpose of the building. This building only served one purpose; it was for him a very experimental building I would say, but at the same time he could be as radical as he wanted because it was for him.
It’s nice to see something like that actually get built as so many experimental buildings just remain as blueprints.
I think it’s always interesting to see this kind of small scale building, especially as Philip Johnson was mainly doing large scale buildings – skyscrapers and so on. He changed his style from very modernist to post-modernist and back. I think the family own the property and there are also three more buildings there and some other structures. You can see that he was trying to build pavilions and experimental things where he could learn about how to approach his bigger buildings. It was very obvious.
The Glass House is kind of radical in a way because the first time you enter the Glass House it’s very beautiful, but you’re asking yourself is this a place I could live? It feels like a house for a single person rather than a couple or something and I think he built it more for studying and for isolating himself.
How far down the line did you get yourself as an architect?
I studied architecture but I specialised in landscape design. I studied during the East German times, the GDR times. During that period it was problematic because there wasn’t much experimental architecture. There was social housing and very generic modular buildings. The architectural standard was very low I would say. The perspective studying architecture in East Germany was very sad. You study the radical ideas of 1921 and know that you’re never going to build anything like that…
This was the same period I studied deconstructivism. A lot of these architects did projects in this time that were so conceptual and radical that no-one ever thought they were going to build anything. In a way this is the reason I was so interested. Coop Himmelb(l)au, or Daniel Libeskind; for me it was always a surprise that Daniel Libeskind built buildings because I never thought about it. I thought it was more conceptual work. His drawings were a big inspiration for me but it was more or less paper architecture let’s say.
Studying architecture, I was more interested in the conceptual ideas and I am still very influenced by this kind of thing.
Can I ask you a little bit about that time in East Germany? I read in another interview that when you were younger the TV was always on, and there’s a frequency you use that was emitted in old TV sets which gave you a feeling of comfort. What kind of things were you watching, and were you intercepting broadcasts from the West as well?
You have to understand in that time TV stations didn’t broadcast the whole time. It was only specific programmes; it was mainly in the morning. Programmes for teaching and then they stopped until the afternoon. Then there were more entertaining programmes. A lot of movies that were liked in East Germany, but it was a very limited selection. There were a lot of Fellini movies, for example, maybe because of his political and social criticisms on capitalism.
The biggest influence for me was maybe not the TV programmes, but the test picture [laughs]. It was basically a test frequency and a test picture… There would be eight hours of programmes and then 14 hours of test picture! The only thing that was moving on the test picture was the digital clock [laughs]. I think it was a 14kHz tone or something like that in the background.
I was reading about the guy who presented ‘The Black Channel’, which was essentially used to denounce or reinterpret Western broadcasts…
Yeah I remember this programme; ‘Die Schwarze Kanal’. Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler was the presenter. For us it was clear that it was propaganda…
It’s a funny story with him because his name tells you he is from an aristocratic background, but he became a communist in the end. He was criticising capitalism; he took the news from Western TV and he was giving you background information saying that it’s all lies. Of course as a viewer you didn’t believe it.
I see your work as very boundary pushing in lots of senses… Do you feel the fact that there was the opposite of that when you were growing up – lots of artistic repression – had an impact on you? Did that inspire you to push things further when the wall came down and you had this freedom?
Of course, I think that’s a big influence. Some things you realise much later that you are being influenced by, even if you thought you weren’t. I think this is a very natural situation; everyone is influenced by their childhood. I think as children we didn’t really have the whole picture because it was a very local situation for us, it was the Cold War. Everything was very politicised every day and I think when you become a teenager then you start looking to alternative information sources. Music was very important for us during this period because music was the main media where you could find alternatives of how to live your life, let’s say. A simple example is that you could ask someone which band he likes and know how he’s politically thinking or the mood he’s in. If he likes The Cure he’s a depressed guy maybe or if he’s into The B52s he’s more happy.
You mentioned just then how if you listen to The Cure you might be a fairly sort of demure character; I was wondering how you see your own work in that light? I often feel like you’re presented as quite a serious figure, maybe because your work takes a lot from science and mathematics. Do you see yourself as this serious researcher or is there still something playful and fun about making music?
Totally. I think when you do music you can’t ignore this and maybe this is the biggest fascination. Even if you have a very analytic way of approaching music or take a lot of influence from psychoacoustics; if you’re trying to find out what is sound, what are frequencies and what are electromagnetic waves…
I was very interested in reading more about what exactly sound is but in the end, even with this background and even with experimental music it has a very individual approach. You do things you like basically. Even if you can’t describe why; there’s no conscious explanation of what you just did. This is the beauty of music too, that it has this power. You do things with a certain discipline and then at some point you can say I like this a lot and I think this is part of the process with music. Maybe you realise at some point that you do music; I always had a problem calling myself a composer.
Do you feel more relaxed about calling yourself a musician now? I mean we talked earlier about how on Glass you’re playing the crotales…
I think it’s much easier for me to say that I do music now, in the past I found it difficult. It’s just an acceptance maybe, after realising that you’ve put out a lot of records already… [laughs]
You meet people too; like I worked with Blixa [Bargeld] from [Einstürzende] Neubauten. As a musician you are very isolated, you listen to a lot of stuff but you always work in isolation and think it’s only happening to you. When I met Blixa and he was telling me about the early days I was fascinated that so many other musicians started in a similar way to me, not knowing that in the end they are musicians.
The music world is full of these people that didn’t study music and started just doing things. They started from a different angle and a different background, but great music appeared in the end.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the divergence of Raster Media and NOTON if that’s OK; NOTON is going to be your own projects right?
For now, yeah; it’s still in process. We separated our labels mainly because after 20 years some part of the structure of Raster-Noton became like too serious of a label? It was always founded as a tool for us; an artist tool let’s say. Some parts of the label became so important that we couldn’t really tell any more if we were a label or if we were artists. It was always two labels; Olaf [Bender] was based in Chemnitz and I was based in Berlin…
I think the main motivation of the label was independence. In the beginning we achieved a lot of this independence because there was a strong group feel. We had serious concepts, the layout and design that everyone had to follow; but maybe ten years ago we started realising that it was about individual projects rather than group projects. Frank [Bretschneider] left the label – we still kept him as a member of course but he was not very interested in label work anymore, he wanted to do his music – he moved to Berlin and then I moved to Berlin. I think there was a moment where we simply had to decide to go our own ways because Olaf wanted to do the label, and I wanted to follow stronger artistic concepts rather than building a structure around a label.
Was it something that happened suddenly or were you thinking about it for a long time?
The whole process and the discussions started five years ago already. To be honest, we were afraid that we would lose opportunities not working together anymore. We tried to figure out what could be a good model for continuing, but in the end there weren’t many options. We decided to separate and see what would happen.
It must have been quite daunting in the sense Raster-Noton is a very established name. I know the label was always a collaboration between Raster and NOTON but that was certainly news to me when I heard about the split. Lots of people don’t know the complete history of the labels.
In the background there is a lot of very boring stuff. You have to figure out publishing rights, mastering deals, all this stuff. Basically in the end these discussions became kind of stiff. There wasn’t much movement happening and we didn’t know how to react to it. To run a label these days is difficult because you have to exploit yourself and the other people on the label as well in order to make something that will work financially.
I always wanted to wait for the 20-year anniversary so we could publish the book. In a way, when we published the book and had this installation done – the big Berghain show – this was the moment for me when I said it’s time to start something different. Even if you give up on something that had a great impact and was very positively communicated on the outside… Sometimes you have to break yourself in order to continue.
Next on your own label is UNIEQAV, which you’re also playing at the Barbican. Can you tell me a bit about the album? Anne-James Chaton is playing with you at the Barbican as well right?
It was a natural choice because we’ve been collaborating a lot; he was always part of the Uni series. He had a performance project based on his own texts I worked on with him and we’re actually working on a new collaborative show at the moment. It will probably premiere next month.
To come back to my album, I have this tendency towards concept albums as you maybe realised [laughs]. I started with the Transform series, then the Uni series and the Xerrox series. For Uni, the idea was always to do three records sitting in between experimental music and club music. I was diving more into rhythmic concepts. If you listen to UNIEQAV, it’s between rhythmic music you can listen to at home or in a club; sitting between these situations. The Barbican is a seated venue so I don’t know if that’s good or bad… It will work there too, but it could also work in a small club in Japan.
I’m always collecting material and I know it’s time to record when I have enough material. I took a different approach with this album. I built the live set first and then played a few tracks to see how they felt. During the recording process I realised that I wanted to add many more tracks. It was a very fast process in a way. It took me like half a year to finish.
I wanted to ask a bit about Live 2002 – it had been sitting in hibernation for a bit?
I discovered it in the archives, it was the only recording I had from when me and Ryoji [Ikeda] performed together with Mika [Vainio]. The main reason I put it out as the first record was because Mika died last year. Me and Ryoji wanted to support his family and decided to do a release and give the family the money. Theoretically we probably wouldn’t have put that record out because if we had the option to touch it again we all would do it differently. We said no, let’s release it as a document as we can never touch it again.
It felt wrong to do anything to it without Mika being part of the process?
Of course. We had to edit it down a little bit because some parts were very distorted so we had to cut them off. We took at least ten minutes of pure noise out – we all loved that noise attack in the live situation, but on a recorded work maybe not… We wanted to emphasise the quieter parts.
Do you remember your first interactions with Mika and the first time you heard Pan Sonic?
I think the first record I got was Vakio; it came as this beautiful blue 10”. They were called Panasonic at that time. I had a meeting with Mika when he was living in Toku and then I was living in New York and going between the two places. That’s how I met him. We worked on Mikro Makro together, became friends and continued working together. We lived in New York at the same time and did some more recordings.
You have previously mentioned the importance of having a really good soundsystem to listen to your music. Do you think about the listener’s resources? I’m lucky enough to have decent speakers but lots of people wouldn’t be able to afford a quality soundsystem.
There was a period where a lot of people asked me what kind of speakers they should listen to my music on. I’m not going to give recommendations as it should work on everything; that’s a part of the mastering process.
I had a friend that used to master in his car…
A car is the best! I always say if the mastering works in the car then it works everywhere. It’s definitely one of the best places you should test your CD. I always test in my car before mastering even, to see how the mixes sound. When you have a long drive you have plenty of time so you can see what works.
I’m learning to drive at the moment and I’ve stopped thinking about music in the same way; the question now is would this sound good driving on the motorway.
The great thing about driving is it becomes a road movie automatically. You’re creating the soundtrack. One of the best visualisations for music is driving through a tunnel at night. It works with any music I think [laughs]. It’s so filmic it’s kind of unbelievable. I think there must be hundreds of movies where they have these scenes, because it works so well.
‘Glass’ is available now on 12” vinyl.