Alva Noto – HYbr:ID I

Serious matters

There are two ways to write about an album. The easy way: you use the existing material provided by the label and make people think that you understood everything. The difficult way: you try to actually comprehend the artist’s concept and intention and use your own words to describe what you make of it.

Difficult is relative of course. If we’d be talking about, say, the latest Ed Sheeran album the level of complexity on a scale from one to ten is at around 0.5 – but if the subject matter is an Alva Noto album the needle will swing way over to the other side of the spectrum.

It would be easy to just browse over the information, look at all the art that comes with the album and just think yeah looks and sounds really cool, but I’ll never comprehend what the hell this guy is doing so I’ll just skip that part.

Somehow I can’t do that. Yes, I primarily bought this album because I like Carsten Nicolai’s music – but I find it hard to just leave it at that. I do want to understand what went into it, what is there to comprehend beyond what I get to hear.

Some aspects of how this music was created are easy to understand. For example the simple fact that it was commissioned for the score of a choreographic piece called “Oval”. Dance. Performed by the Staatsballett Berlin, directed by Richard Siegal. Which explains the titles of the nine pieces which all include the word “oval”.

If you’ve heard the album do yourself a favor and go take a look at some of the videos you’ll easily find – it’s really interesting to see how this music is translated into motion and how this again changes the way you perceive the music. It’s one way to get closer to this music as it doesn’t necessarily ask you to come closer.

Other aspects of “HYbr:ID I” are a little harder to comprehend, and this is where most folks that wrote about this album basically surrendered and copied what the label had given them. Like this thing about searching for a way to bring astrophysical phenomena, fiction and performance movements together conceptually. Oof, I thought, that’s a little vague. Especially the fiction part as it can mean a lot of things and even more as it kind of stands opposite to astrophysics. Science here, fiction there. And no, “Oval” sure wasn’t about Science Fiction.

In a review of the performance of “Oval” in Berlin I read that the writer was wondering about “the hidden storyline” of the piece. In a way, I can relate as the stage design mainly only featured a large digital oval on a screen at the back of the stage, and the dancers were wearing full body suits that made them look like they might be “from another realm” as the reviewer guessed.

Oval. What we do know regarding astrophysical phenomena is that orbits are never perfect circles. It’s always an ellipsis. And if I got my math right, an oval is an ellipsis (not the other way round). And it’s describing movement. The movement of objects in space. All this might need in order to turn into more than just facts is – fiction.

To me, the artwork of the album is providing this element, and it also explains Nicolai’s approach to creating these tracks. For every track on this album there’s an illustration that explains how the respective piece was composed. It’s a plan that was transferred into art, and even though it’s impossible for most of us to decipher these plans and understand how they represent the music behind it these plans add depth and a touch of storytelling – even if only by slightly resembling the illustrations on the aluminum plaques that were sent into space on Pioneer rockets back in the 70s.

I must admit that I really get lost reading other parts of what the label says about “HYbr:ID I” – like the part about the “dilated rhythmic base contributing to the images of gravity and spatiality”. Not that I have problems with the vocabulary – I just find it hard to understand the combination of dilation and rhythm and when I google it I get links about heart disease. What I do relate to easily is the sonic spectrum of the album as it is described, with its deep sub-bass, the gloomy sonics, the spacious sound design, and even the concept of inorganic ambiance is understood.

This is what makes an Alva Noto album special – the distinct sonic spectrum. It’s more than obvious that Carsten Nicolai puts as much thought, work and consideration into selecting each sound as he puts into the art and the conceptual aspects of an album. The spectrum crated for this album may not necessarily transport much warmth (after all, space is cold and empty almost everywhere) – but every single sonic element sounds as if it was carefully created and specifically chosen. They all sound absolutely clear, even pure, as if guided by the fact that this is what space is as well. It’s what it is, what it always was and what it always will be – except for the less than microscopic impurities mankind is adding to it.

Nicolai is an artist that takes the art part of the word very serious. He is into art, and part of his art is sound, and part of his art of sound is music. This sets him apart from most other artists. Like the aforementioned Ed Sheeran. The distance between these two can easily be called an astrophysical phenomenon.

Release for review:
ALVA NOTO – HYBR:ID I – NOTON – N-056

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