Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto: Vrioon

Given that the cover design of Vrioon perpetuates the minimalistic design aesthetic associated with Carsten Nicolai's Mille Plateaux releases Prototypes and Transform, one understandably might expect it to be similar in sound. However, the involvement of Noto's collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto pushes Vrioon into unique territory. Just as Cyclo., the piercing Alva Noto-Ryoji Ikeda collaboration, evidences a sound complementary in spirit to the sine-tone minimalism of Ikeda, so too does Vrioon inhabit a romantic pianistic realm indebted to Sakamoto's classical leanings. The collaboration thus deepens one's appreciation of both artists' respective talents as well as exposes a gentler side of Nicolai than has been heard before.

Both artists bring to the project impressive resumés. Originally a member of The Yellow Magic Orchestra founded in 1978, Sakamoto's profile has since broadened through his involvement with soundtrack composing for films like Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. Nicolai is known for his electronic recordings, his gallery works, and the Raster-Noton label which he co-founded. After meeting Sakamoto during his first tour of Japan, Nicolai was asked to remix some Sakamoto material for the Japanese magazine Code Unfinished. Apparently Nicolai's rhythmic additions to a piano piece delighted Sakamoto to such a degree that it initiated a two-year process of music exchange, creation, and development that resulted in Vrioon. The 54-minute recording includes six quietly impressionistic tracks ranging in duration from five to almost fourteen minutes; in fact, to identify separate tracks is almost misleading, as Vrioon creates a singular mood of non-abrasive ambience. There is a dreamy quality to the recording, a sense of time arrested, of moments stretched and prolonged. The piano's romantic warmth contrasts with the pristine, elegant effects and rhythms provided by Noto who seemingly manages to generate endless variations using a small arsenal of sounds. The becalmed pieces unfold slowly, often assuming a static, sculpted quality. Sometimes, it seems as if the electronics predominate with the piano functioning as an added instrument (“Duoon,” “Noon”), whereas at other times the piano predominates with the electronics playing a supporting role (“Uoon 1”). However, even this characterization goes too far in suggesting a degree of separation that is not borne out in practice. Closer listening reveals a subtler integration of the two, with electronic textures used more subliminally to enhance and extend the piano's resonance, for example. Ultimately, given its quiet, self-effacing nature, Vrioon could be regarded as little more than an interesting diversion for Noto and an unusual addition to Sakamoto's discography. Dismissing it in this manner, however, would underappreciate significantly the high quality of this affecting recording.

March 2003