Alva Noto: Unitxt

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.

Alva Noto


Label: Raster Norton
US Release Date: 2008-07-22
UK Release Date: 2008-07-07

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.