Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of Japan’s greatest living treasures. If you haven’t heard of him, chances are you’ve heard his music. His discography is astoundingly long. Amongst soundtracks, compilations, live albums, and imports, an exact count is difficult, but it’s safe to say that Sakamoto has been significantly involved in over 60 albums. Since the late ‘70s, the composer has worked in, and excelled at, nearly every musical genre: rock, pop, jazz, modern classical, bossa nova, hip hop, and electronic music. He’s written music for television (Wild Palms), film (The Last Emperor, Little Buddha, The Sheltering Sky), video games (Lack of Love), the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, and even ringtones for Nokia’s 8800 cell phone.
Sakamoto is best known for his “Neo Geo” fusion of Western and Eastern music; his list of collaborators includes David Sylvian, Towa Tei, Youssou N’Dour, Andy Partridge, Arto Lindsay, and DJ Spooky, to name but a few. The 2003 compilation Moto.Tronic is a good introduction to Sakamoto; its last track is a remix by Alva Noto exemplary of their collaboration.
Alva Noto is an alias of German sound artist Carsten Nicolai. For Nicolai, sound is both king and slave; to him, all audio, from music to mechanical noises, is simply fodder for micro-level editing. Established in the late ‘90s, his Raster-Noton label is widely respected in avant-garde circles. Nicolai’s work is cold but compelling. It’s rife with clicks, buzzes, and pops, yet is somehow both minimal and spacious. While on tour in Japan, Nicolai met Sakamoto, and the two began a musical dialogue.
After a few initial remixes, Nicolai and Sakamoto produced a full-length album, vrioon, in 2002. The album became a minimal classic, winning a record of the year award from The Wire magazine. insen continues this collaboration with strict methodology: Sakamoto on piano and Nicolai on “additional sound and production”. In other words, Sakamoto recorded bits of piano and sent them to Nicolai for processing. Sakamoto himself is no stranger to sound design, as his 2004 album Chasm is full of heavily processed acoustics. However, he is a composer first and foremost; he comes from an age when music was notes. Sakamoto’s signature is gorgeous, memorable melodies, which begs the question: why send such lovely stuff into the forest of digital plug-ins?
Nicolai’s treatments of Sakamoto’s piano are much more three-dimensional than a straight acoustic recording. Sure, a Sakamoto solo piano recital would be nice to hear. But a recording of it would simply be an artifact of the performance. Nicolai takes this performance and plays with it, stretching, cutting, and creasing it into palpable shapes.
Album opener “Aurora” wastes no time with plug-ins, taking a four-chord pattern and stretching the last chord into a crescendo that dissolves into digital ripples. As the track slowly unfurls in four-chord segments, Nicolai takes the ends of notes and copies them into pulsing backdrops, folding the track over itself. People have overdubbed sound for years, but the degree of detail and the mileage attained with such minimal material is impressive. Simple piano figures likewise begin “Iano”, but by the end of the track, they have stretched into gauzy, sustained atmospherics worthy of a cathedral.
Interestingly, insen sounds great at both low and high volumes. At low volumes, Sakamoto’s piano takes precedence. It’s graceful, unhurried, an antidote to daily stress. However, at high volumes, Nicolai’s processing moves to the fore. Crackles come to life, glitches zip here and there, and tracks rumble with surprisingly deep sub-bass. For what is seemingly a minimal album, the material is actually quite full-bodied. In minimal music, discussion of process is inevitable, but even without knowledge of its processes, insen engages on many levels.