Stargazing with Carsten Nicolai
On the 26th of April, the pan-European orchestral collective s t a r g a z e, conducted by André de Ridder, will collaborate with electro-musician Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto for a live instrumental, audio-visual performance at the Barbican.
Alva Noto, one of the best-known representatives in the electronic music scene since the 1990s, composed the fourth part of his Xerrox series in 2020. Based on the concept of digital replication of source material, the Xerrox project deals with the manipulation of data (melodies) through endless reproduction. A process of making copies from copies, the sounds of which are changed in such a way that they can hardly be associated with the original material. This creates a sound spectrum of completely new sounds: Copies of originals become originals themselves.
Now, Alva Noto joins forces with orchestral collective s t a r g a z e to realise an instrumental version of the Xerrox series, specially arranged for the ensemble. A multimedia work that combines music with video and light installations.
We caught up with Carsten before his performance to talk about East German radio, accessing a deeper level of consciousness and his best tips for young artists hoping to break into the world of electronic music.
By Lucy Rowan
Where did your relationship with electronic music begin?
None of my first experiences with music was with electronic music specifically but with elements of it. As a kid, I was a bird watcher, so I was heading to the forest to watch birds and make notes about their noises, but not by seeing, by listening. I think this was my first encounter or involvement with music that triggered a lot of electronic music. The second experience was listening to the radio. Since I grew up in East Germany, I would try to tune into radio stations on shortwave frequency range and most of the time radio shows were coated with abstract sounds or spy messaging. They would cover up numbers or messages with radio noises. The third biggest inspiration was the TV. When I was a kid, the TV Channel had just a test picture and sine wave frequencies.
Which musician are you currently finding most awe-inspiring?
I always have phases I go through. At the moment, I really love Meredith Monk. Of course, a very classic one is Tōru Takemitsu, and there is a Danish composer who is also amazing Astrid Sonne.
Your event at the Barbican takes selected tracks from your Xerrox series - Could you tell us a bit more about Xerrox, where did you take most inspiration from for the series and what was your process?
We have selected ten tracks out of the first three volumes of Xerrox for the show in London. Xerrox is a series of five albums and the inspiration comes from a copy machine called Xerox, it is a very early invention that we all probably know. I did a slight misspelling of it for the title. The process is to take a copy of a copy of a copy, which I always found inspiring. When I was staying in Japan, there was this melodic bell music playing in the hotel, which I recorded. I then tried to replay that on my computer after copying the files, and for whatever reason, these files got completely corrupted and played only half the speed. Based on that, I found inspiration to copy high-resolution formats into low-resolution formats and work with the interpolation of noises that the computer generates. This idea was the starting point. I worked extensively with this principle for the first two albums.
Maybe later on, for album three and four, I basically switched back to the original composing of more melodic parts and the classical structure of the pieces were moved a little bit more to the foreground.
What is so unique about your work is that you reinvent and rework samples so adequately that it creates whole new pieces and subgenres within it - What is it about this style of creating that you enjoy the most?
Actually, what I enjoy the most is that there are several processes to it. I usually take quite a long time to write these pieces and very often, I collect them over the years. Before I start going into the real recording process and finalising them. There are two main steps, one is creating the melodic part and the second process that I enjoy very much is working with melodic metaphors - manipulating, distorting, destroying and interpolating them into different sonic qualities. Sometimes I use very experimental and unusual methods, which means I never know what the result will be. When you start using feedback systems or very grainy bit rate changes, the outcome is completely uncontrollable, which means this step is the most organic and creative.
Your artistic process seems to sit on this border where art and science meet. How can we tap into science or mathematics to understand music better?
I think music is always related to mathematics - scale and proportions, the nature of tones and notated tones. I am not so interested in bringing more consciousness when I listen to music. For me, what’s interesting is to work with music on a deeper listening level, where you don't necessarily need to switch on your understanding. This is the greatest beauty of music or sound in general, that it can talk to you on a very direct level without having to understand or contextualise everything. You simply dive into a deeper level of consciousness. And this is something we don't fully understand or struggle to explain how that happens. There is still a lot of research to do to understand how we perceive that and how our brain understands music without being too conscious of it. For me, that is more interesting than the purely mathematical side or logic of music.
How do you feel about having your music realised with a live orchestra? What are the possibilities and/or limitations of this?
To work with an orchestra is a challenge, of course, and it has a very different quality from working in a controlled environment, like with a computer or in a studio situation. The orchestra has a lot of human aspects, and the quality of the pieces is different. I think the greatest opportunity is that it can be played by other musicians, not just me, this possibility of the music to be reinvented with different kinds of instrumentation as it was initially composed. This is the most beautiful part. The most tricky part is that every time you play, it is impossible to create the same sonic quality. Even when we play, every time is different, everything has a life - the microphone, the temperature of the room, it all impacts you. I am used to working in a super controlled environment where I can be careful about the sonic quality of each element of my compositions so this is a challenge.
At the Goethe-Institut London we are constantly working to continue Britain’s cultural relationship with Germany - What has your relationship been like with the UK throughout your musical career?
I have always had a very close relationship with London. I always received a warm welcome in the UK. I have many friends, many labels, magazines and shops that supported my music from the beginning. The Wire magazine was one of the first music magazines that ever wrote about my music and there are many British labels who recognised our achievements. This kind of recognition somehow ended up in a very close, collaborative situation, where I did a lot of exhibitions and performances. I have a lifelong relationship with the UK and many great friends have evolved out of it.
How can we continue to encourage musical exchange between Germany and the UK? What can artists, cultural institutions and governments do better?
One of the biggest problems for musicians is Brexit. All the paperwork and logistics make it much more difficult to exchange as easily. I wish we could get to a situation where we feel more open and less regulated, less paperwork would be much better for the exchange. This has been recommended a lot, and we know what needs to happen for it to improve - barriers need to be reduced so it can be more inclusive.
What is your best advice for young musicians hoping to break into the highly saturated electronic scene?
My best advice for musicians for young musicians is to believe in your stuff, be consistent and "have a long breath” as we say in Germany. Follow your heart and follow your ideas. There is no such thing as an instant success. People achieve a lot when they follow their vision. Sometimes it needs more time until the plant starts growing and blooming, but remember, you need to let it grow!
You can still book tickets for the Alva Noto + s t a r g a z e event here.
Order link for Carsten's new album NOTON available on the 5th of May.
Stream of a single from the album.