Alva Noto: For 2

For 2, Berlin-based Carsten Nicolai's second dedicatory recording, offers a refreshing change from the cool, cerebral Alva Noto style that has come to identify much of his work, like that issued on the Raster-Noton label. As with the first For collection, the new one brings together compositions Nicolai created in honour of influential figures such as industrial designer Dieter Rams, filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, composer Phil Niblock, and German dramatist Heiner Müller. Listeners expecting a further variation on the Alva Noto style might be disappointed to discover that many of the settings eschew beat structures altogether and are fairly elaborate in their arrangements; those who have long hoped to hear Nicolai open up his style will find the recording considerably more satisfying.

“Garment,” which takes its inspiration, oddly enough, from a translucent textile designed, has Alva Noto fingerprints all over it in its sine tones and minimal beat structures of pops and clicks, but it also distances itself from the austerity of that signature style by the inclusion of strings that drape themselves over the pulsating rhythm base. Similarly, Nicolai's signature bass and sine tones thread themselves through “Sonolumi,” but such elements almost disappear when they're overlaid by a wave of ambient shimmer. The absence of beat structures—so indelibly a component of the Alva Noto work —renders settings such as “Villa Aurora” (which incorporates outdoors field recordings) and “Pax” (for Ryuichi Sakamoto's Chain Music) almost unrecognizable as Nicolai pieces. “Cosmonaut” would be more like it, judging from the crystalline ambient character of the setting created for Heiner Müller, “Argonaut,” while the Tarkovsky and Niblock pieces, “Stalker” and “Early Winter,” are brooding, finely wrought ambient settings. A subtle dash of humour surfaces in the “Anthem Berlin” Nicolai composed for the Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland, the fictional land founded by artists Carl Michael von Hausswolf and Leif Elggren, when a few seconds of a standard marching band snare roll are elongated into a smeary, speckled thrum.

Two pieces Nicolai composed for a prize-giving ceremony in honour of Dieter Rams (best known for his Braun designs), “Interim” and “T3,” on the other hand, are exemplars of the Alva Noto style, but in this case it's appropriate, given how much the minimal sensibilities of Nicolai and Rams coincide. But they're the exception to the rule on this welcome departure from the Alva Noto persona. It's telling that the recording ends with an additional version of “Argonaut” that finds arranger Max Knoth recasting the piece as a chamber orchestra setting—further evidence of just how different the album is from Nicolai's Raster-Noton material.

May 2010