Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - "Microon I" (Summvs)
Carsten Nicolai triggered one of the premier music labels of the past decade when he merged his own Not On line with Olaf Bender’s Rastermusik in 1999. Raster-Noton quickly became a powerhouse of sound, art and design, issuing minimal music that pushed buzzes and clicks beyond museum installations and into the realm of pop. Since then Raster-Noton has flourished, and Nicolai has managed to produce an immense backlog of albums as Alva Noto, and as part of many fruitful collaborations.
Nicolai’s most successful partnership is his decade-spanning work with Ryuichi Sakamoto, the award-winning and highly revered musician and film composer. The man’s accolades are too long to list here, but they include the pioneering electronic band YMO, his Oscar win for the score of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and his formation of the “eco-friendly” Commmons label in 2006.
Summvs, the title of this duo’s fifth and purportedly final album, couldn’t be more fitting. The name is a mash-up of the Latin words “summa” and “versus,” meaning “sum” and “towards” — a metaphor for the artists’ attempt at achieving collaborative holism. What would be disparate in lesser hands sounds cut from the same cloth when these two get together. Sakamoto brings his classical music expertise and lets piano notes patiently ring-out with pure elegance, while Nicolai cloaks the movements with a slightly suppressed adaptation of his signature sinewave electro-ambience. The duo form a strange but alluring blend of modern classical and post-techno minimalism.
Summvs does have its more rhythmic moments, but the goal here was to create an atmosphere rather than a groove. Even in the two versions of “By This River” (written by Brian Eno, Dieter Moebius, and Hans-Joachim Roedelius), Nicolai and Sakamoto could have easily fallen into something overly pop focused. Instead, these rivers add a temporary warmth to the starkness that is the album’s mainstay.
Grasping an artistic whole through a mutually shared experience is central to the very idea of collaborating, and in taking into account the traditionally opposing elements that Nicolai and Sakamoto effortlessly combine on Summvs, this idea seems even more imperative. The ongoing challenge to keep that whole as minimal as possible made each additional collaboration that much more interesting. It’s been well worth it, as Summvs is their best album to date, and doesn’t feel close to exhausting the ethos they’ve so brilliantly come to realize.