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Alva Noto - For 2

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Artist: Alva Noto

Album: For 2

Label: Line

Review date: Apr. 19, 2010

Brian Eno once famously tried and failed to get "non-musician" listed as his occupation in his passport. For 2, the latest release from Carsten Nicolai, a.k.a. Alva Noto, suggests that the Raster-Norton label founder might successfully lobby for that same recognition. Reviews of his work typically include the adjective "funky" about as frequently as "austere." It’s a combination that probably belongs to him alone, but these descriptions never include "sensuous." Nicolai blows out everyday data into uneasily calming clouds of sound or arranges them into studies of rhythm. The bitstorm never assumes anything like human form, though. There’s reassurance in the idea that Nicolai is making audible the intricate, repetitive tasks our computers do for us — that, under the surface, there is a sea of orderly flux. Still, it would be giving him both too much and not enough credit to claim he’s offering a transparent window onto high-level number-crunching. John Cage is still the "composer" of his I Ching compositions in the same way that Noto is still the composer of pieces he might generate with a shell script.

While the processes he uses to denature raw data are foregrounded in his Xerrox series, For 2 is his second album of homages to "creative figures," ranging from Andrei Tarkovsky to Braun’s iconic industrial designer Dieter Rams. Noto isn’t the first avant-garde electronic musician to make a tribute record: Ekkehard Ehlers worked the same field with his 2002 album Plays. Unlike that record, which features moments of heart-stopping perception like "Plays John Cassavetes, Part 2," the music on For 2 is too uneventful to refer to biographical details, to establish what the artist might mean to the musician or to the listener. It unfolds at a remove from its subject matter, creating textures and background instead of manifesting: it’s not the first-hand encounter we get, but a many-times-removed impression.

This kind of halo around the object works well for Tarkovsky — "Stalker"‘s bed of surging oscillators references the movie’s eerie serenity well enough that an audio grab from the movie (the Tyutchev poem "The Dull Flame of Desire") seems overly literal at first. Eduard Artemiev’s soundtrack music for the film mixed the roles of foley artist and composer, and the trance-like flow of image and sound looks in retrospect like a starting point for Alva Noto, whose music also takes place at the edge of perception.

The experience of listening to the disc as a whole doesn’t offer other such personal moments. While For 2 is a high-minded project within a high-minded corner of electronic music, it’s an undemanding listen, less structured and strict than last year’s Xerrox 2. What Otis Hart describes as channeling rather than mimicking influence in the Ehlers review linked above takes place on some level here, but it’s less interesting to try to pin this grainy phantom down to biographical details than to let it cruise at its own measured pace.

By Brandon Bussolini

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