Overlooked Gem Alert


Time to give the proper relevance to a somewhat unsung masterpiece fusing rationality, emotion and adroitness in equal doses. In 2007, for the 400th anniversary of the German city of Mannheim, Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto tackled the difficult task of developing an appropriate audio and visual performance to celebrate the event. Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern – the only orchestral entity to ever satisfy the impossible technical demands of Frank Zappa – added their own brilliance to a concisely profound composition derived from Mannheim’s structural Rasterization, 72 minutes played on diverse levels of dynamic interaction and linear development. The result is presented in a luxury edition comprising a CD and a DVD, the latter featuring the entire live rendition of UTP_ (the name a contraption of “Utopia”) and a short movie documenting the progress of the collaboration. Also included are the graphic score and a booklet.

During the concert, Alva Noto’s imagery – mostly based on conflicting sinewaves in 3D in slowly morphing colors – is reproduced on a long LCD screen. It all starts with stillness just broken by splinters of notes in almost total obscurity, short flashes linked to selected beats of the main pulse. A growing tension is perceived, waiting for a flare-up that never materializes. A minimal melodic figuration introduces a Buddhist temple-like ceremonial atmosphere, blue lights gradually revealing the musicians’ shadow. Small noises, tiny echoes and fluid electronics define a couple of sections characterized by the absence of a real harmonic skeleton. The visuals behave accordingly, vivid points in a virtual plane of computerized calm waters. The intensity grows again, the noise increasing its supremacy. Marvelous clusters define a shift of the lighting to red and purple; there’s inner quietness in between these poignant chords, which represent one of the piece’s highs, a perfect combination of stirring sound and eye-affecting metaphor. Sakamoto’s pitches shine amidst nearly inert marimbas, then everything fades away until a series of solid surges appears in martial succession, the underlying static hiss a necessary balancing element. A solitary tone of looped Tibetan bowl defines another transition, a single red spot underlining the dissolution of this virtual oblivion in a cycle of intangible frequencies. A wonderful part begins at around 54′, trembling strings and marimba fused with an essential beat, sparse touches of pizzicato violin and piano dewdrops materializing in blue and violet shades. The finale is equally impressive, slightly sturdier tones progressively flowing into near-nothingness, the instrumentalists wrapped by a blindingly white light before the inevitable fade to black.

Simply the best that I’ve heard (and seen) from this pair of silent geniuses. And if Sakamoto has always been in my heart since his impersonation of Captain Yonoi in Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence, one also has to love that Lance Henriksen/Michael Schumacher hybrid that results from Nicolai’s cold stare. (Raster-Noton)

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