BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 17 MAR 06
Featured in
Issue 97

Insen: Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto

BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 17 MAR 06

In recent years, international Electronica has evolved from the colder, more urban intensity of artists such as Pole, Bola and Plastikman to explore the relationship between digital effects and what can almost sound like a tentative reclamation of classic, Schoenbergian Modernism. Recent releases such as Systems/Layers (2003) by Rachels, or John Convertino’s Ragland (2005) have thus declared a re-animating process of enquiry – an enlivening, visceral awkwardness, almost – in a genre that might otherwise have become too at ease within its own aesthetic languor.

In such a context, the two recorded collaborations by the legendary musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and the German artist Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) Vrioon (2002) and Insen (2005) are among the most infectiously absorbing creations of minimalist electronica since Brian Eno’s pioneering Discreet Music (1975). A brilliantly sustained dialogue between piano and electronics, they invoke a mesmeric quietude that is as richly satisfying in the poise of its melodic and structural resolutions, as it is in the seamless merger of its filmic romanticism and meditational subtlety.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – founder in 1978 of the Kraftwerkian electronic ensemble, Yellow Magic Orchestra, musical chameleon of post-Punk Synth-Pop, Oscar-winning composer of the score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor (1987) – has throughout his career perfected a musical language in which the yearning melancholy of western romanticism is tempered and further honed by oriental delicacy. His soundtrack for Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) in which he also played a starring role, contained perhaps one of modern cinema’s most haunting sections of musical scoring, subsequently released (with lyrics and vocal by Sakamoto’s friend and collaborator, David Sylvian) under the title Forbidden Colours (1983).

It was with an audible gasp of recognition and delight, therefore, that the capacity audience for Sakamoto and Alva Noto’s Insen performance recognized the meticulously re-assembled notes of this iconic refrain, as they were drawn together with consumate poise, as though from nowhere, towards the closing moments of this 90 minute concert. The effect was at once monolithic and playful – its unashamed, filmic plangency allowed to both subsume and retrospectively adorn the cumulative structure of the preceding pieces.

With the soundscape of the music described on a rectilinear screen, translated into shifting patterns of minimal, topographic visual accompaniment, the intense partnership between Sakamoto’s refined romanticism and Alva Noto’s simultaneously deft and deferential electronic interventions, was as thrilling to witness as a virtuoso tightrope walk, and, ultimately, as emotionally pulverising. What you got was a compelling, architecturally assured abutment of opposites: at times an almost sub-sonic bass and the most icicle-like, Ravelesque shimmerings of piano chords; the bumps, clicks and pulses of white noise, underpinning what could have been the excised notes from a deconstructed keyboard study; acoustic resonance and digital urgency, human reverie and technological sleeplessness; of the desire for resolution and the condition of disruption. So carefully reduced to such elemental causes, the reconciliation of these opposing qualities – signed off, so to speak, with the enchanting flourish of Forbidden Colours – was a privilege to witness.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.