[7 January 2009]
The first half of Alva Noto’s Unitxt is some of the most engaging music of German sound artist Carsten Nicolai’s career. Despite a complete lack of traditional melodies and instrumentation, it is a consistently involving and thoroughly rewarding album, even infectious at time.
The latter 14 tracks of the album, which in and of themselves comprise only about eight minutes or so of space, are mostly bits and bytes of harsh noise, composed through the conversion of hard data like executable programs into AIFF sound files. Though they fit neatly into the general schema of Nicolai’s interdisciplinary studies of sound phenomena, the tracks themselves are useful mostly as curiosities and act as a bitter aftertaste to the thoughtful examinations of discarded data that precede them.
The breadth of Nicolai’s work is concerned with nontraditional applications of sound. As a visual artist, he produces pieces using cymatics, a methodology championed by Alvin Lucier and others to create aesthetically unique compositional patterns through vibrations and sound waves. As Alva Noto, he has consistently sought the margins of recorded sonance for his pieces, from the most banal blurts of industrial transfer (fax machines, telephones) to the most dissonant and undesirable of digital malfunction (glitches, feedback, static). His more melodious work, such as the albums he released with legendary electronic composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, exposes the beauty within these minutiae. As an artist, Alva Noto showcases how music can be decomposed into raw data and how sterile information can be sublimated into something riveting or moving.
Unitxt continues the excavation process, the most notably innovative contributions being the aforementioned data transmutations and the two vocal tracks featuring speech by French poet Anne-James Chaton. On opener “U_07”, Chaton’s recitation of Nicolai’s wallet contents is a direct inverse to the anthropomorphism of Nicolai’s rhythmic shuffle of incidental sound. It dehumanizes the human subject to mere institutional data, numbers and markings, while the broad art of unintentional scratch marks and white hot error noise pushed beyond its peak waveform capacities is animated as the track’s dominant lifeform. This juxtaposition has the effect of writing Unitxt as a postmodern story of man vs. technology. Its arc differs from traditional narratives of this sort by its perspective, that of technology, the undeniable hero of Unitxt.
The other nine tracks on Unitxt’s first half are stochastic victory dances of this battle. They’re far too odd to compel human listeners to get out of their seats, but together they comprise a propulsive and intense minimalism that incorporates many of the best aspects of clicks n’ cuts style glitch, IDM, and even Basic Channel microhouse. The depth of the sonic terrain capable in the dark treble embers of tracks like the sinister “U_09-0” is at times staggering. Nicolai’s imposed limitations are never a hindrance. In fact, they only strengthen the consistency of the album’s first half. Within this framework, Alva Noto often ignites our fear of omnipresent technology, largely accomplishing this by highlighting ways in which we’ve undermined the complexity of our chronic interface with machinery.
Besides Chaton’s contributions, there are only the rarest moments of contact with non- machinal sounds on Unitxt. On “U_08”, minute patches of synth act as atmosphere and a sample of what sounds like air traffic control plays like sonic interference. These fragments of extramechanical resonance are barely enough to pierce through the slivers of rhythmic bleeping that carry the song, mathematically panning back and forth between the speakers like a hypnotic pendulum.
When listening to Unitxt, I prefer to think of the second portion of the album (the patchwork of brief cacophonous digital piffle labeled “Unitxt Code (Data to Aiff)”) as an afterthought, perhaps like a series of hidden tracks. Sadly, this was not the author’s intentions with them. Their inclusion is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the album because they render in the simplest terms what the rest of the album caters to with the most exacting of detail. Perhaps, we can view these tracks as a complete surrender to machinery, the art of process stripped of human engagement. The dehumanization of “U_07” carried through to a final, efficient solution. But it’s Nicolai’s role as decision-maker, the reanimator of cultural deitrus, that make Alva Noto such a consistently enthralling artist. The humanity of his machines and the machinery of his humanity are the greatest aspects of his work.