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Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – Summvs/ANBB – Mimikry

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Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s partnership is nearing a decade now, and it’s odd to think that (from what I remember), the pairing of a laptop and an acoustic musician was quite odd at the time – especially given Sakamoto’s history as a ‘proper’ classical musician. It could be philistine-coloured glasses on my part, but my memory of the early ’00s was that digital musicians and non-digital musicians weren’t frequent bedfellows. Laptops were laptops and pianos were pianos, and ne’er the twain shall meet. This might be coloured on my part by playing in a band with a laptop, and nightmareish soundchecks with soundguys who didn’t quite get that the laptop was going to be actually playing as a full member of the band. And seeing Noto/Sakamoto at The Barbican was the first live show I saw where I really felt that ‘live’ instruments were entirely melded to laptops as a complete sound-whole. By this point in the 21st-century, of course, it’s fairly de rigeur to have laptops onstage. It’s even infiltrated the musically stillborn deathnest of indie music. Which is a victory, of sorts.

Anyway. The point with saying that is that Noto and Sakamoto have been working together for a fair while now, and it’s been a very productive partnership. For Summvs, it very much feels that the lines between one instrument and the other are pretty thoroughly elided – the partnership feels like an organic whole, and while each identity is generally clear, there are moments where it’s near-impossible to figure out which sound is who. This is probably most striking on the “Microon” tracks on this (there are three of them). On them, Sakamoto plays a 16th-tone piano – which means that the notes are in tiny microtonal intervals. So you get the effect that Sakamoto’s playing of ever-so-slightly sharper or flatter notes creates an alien-ness to the note which is further accentuated by Noto’s crisp processing. The actual identity of the note is thrown off-balance, and it feels like the piano becomes an entirely alien, electronic presence.

Away from the “Microon” pieces – probably the more striking experiments on this record – both parties are doing some lovely give-and-take with relative identities. Sakamoto will play some odd preparations on the piano while Noto’s playing some relatively straight melodic lines. So there are moments of jagged, awkward what-the-fuck-is-that-sound things and moments of straight, Eno-esque ambient music (most obviously in the two covers of Eno’s own “By This River”).

Something I quite liked about their covering of Eno – it made me think that ‘electronica’ (a term I’ve always hated, but you know what I mean) has got to the point, finally, where it doesn’t have to bog itself down with being a ‘real’ form of music. So Noto and Sakamoto can take on – create, even – the idea of an electronica ‘standard’. I’d like to think that that’s the point of a record like this – there isn’t the fight, in the popular imagination, to legitimise digital instruments are ‘real’ any more. The only people who think like that are… well, I don’t know who they are; I’m pretty sure my Mum’s down with the idea of making music on a laptop.

But if you’re wondering what the record’s like – well, it’s pretty lush, basically. If you know Noto, you’ll know him for having one of the most exquisite capacities for attention-to-sonic-detail, and for intensely-considered rendering of notes. And Sakamoto plays some great, sparse, brittle, complementary tones. Neither fuss themselves too much with playing on-the-beat, and it feels like two people entirely relaxed in each other’s musical company – even if the results run the gamut from tumultuous clusters to more plaintive ambience. Great, great record.

I was a bit scared of listening to Mimikry. It definitely got sidelined a bit. Both artists have such a reputation, and a massive back-catalogue of amazingness, that I kind of worried about how it would fit together. With Sakamoto it’s less of a concern – he’s got a massive resource of ideas and techniques that can usually be relied upon to deliver the goods. With Blixa Bargeld I (stupidly) assumed he’d just be singing or guitaring over this record in a kind of disconnected fashion.

This was wrong. Very, very wrong. This is one of those collaborations that sits together so well you kind of wonder why Bargeld bothered with all that Neubauten/Bad Seeds nonsense. Ok – OBVIOUSLY I don’t want to get rid of Neubauten. That’d be ridiculous. But it’s a hyperbolic device, ok?Really this is a show-stopping record where it’d be criminal if it was just written off as another collaboration between two famous(ish) people.

Opening track “Fall” feels like about a million things at once. Oddly, one of the things that jumps out about it for me is how the internal logic of it reminds me of tone-poems (of the R Strauss variety), almost in spite of the actual music. There’s a moment or two of tone clusters á la whichever 20th-century composer you’d care to name, but otherwise the form feels more like poetry draped in opulent sound. There’s a bit where Bargeld’s doing that recording thing of having the mic so close that you can hear the spittle dripping in the plosive sounds, and Noto uses that to make a tiny section of pricklish rhythmic mess. It’s over in a second or so, but it just floored me. And this record is drenched in the sort of touches that’ll probably be flooring me this time next year.

Elsewhere we’ve got something like a compendium of the last 30+ years or so of music – there’s a fractious rendering of gabber/EBM (“Once again”), something a bit (but not too much) early-80s goth (“Mimikry”), and, in “Wust,” a song that somehow manages to bring to mind IRCAM electronics, torch songs, Kevin Drumm-style bursts of noise, Plunderphonics… and is, in short, the best song I’ve heard all year (besides my infatuation with a couple of country tunes, but that’s by-the-by).

In short, both of these records are well worth your time, but with Christmas coming up you might want to buy several copies of Mimikry because, frankly, your auntie deserves better than your usual ill-thought-out, ‘will this do?’ luxury chocolates.

-Kev Nickells-

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