“People were more interested back then than today in this serious electronic music” comments former Kraftwerk member Klaus Röder in an interview for the recent documentary film Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution. “Yes, people today are interested in techno and so on, but I’ve had the feeling…that no one knows that it exists, the serious or so-called serious electronic music.” He may have a point – I’m guessing that most of the crowds at Germany’s famous “Love Parade” were not thinking “Ah, Stockhausen!” when they geared up to party. But the opposition of “techno” and “serious” is a little too easy. Alva Noto (the main recording alias of German electronic artist Carsten Nicolai) is one of the more significant reasons why.
Noto/Nicolai has just released a new album, Univrs (raster-noton, 2011), offering the latest (and arguably best) installment of his immediately recognizable brand of jagged, minimalist, surgically precise techno music. It’s serious stuff, in several senses of the word. It’s terribly earnest – “playful” is hardly an adjective that comes to mind in connection with an Alva Noto disc. His work carries the palpable sense of each sine wave and particle having been painstakingly and dispassionately fixed in place. It demands focused attention, working not with hooks but with complexity and crystalline structure. It’s highbrow – Nicolai references particle physics as an inspiration and reviewers are impelled to wax lyrical on the generative role of data in a technological society. The kind of serious that interests me here though, has to do with whether Nicolai’s work is saying something worth attending to. And to get at that, I suggest looking back a couple of years before the present release to a 2009 short film that Nicolai made to accompany a track from Univrs’s predecessor, Unitxt (raster-noton, 2008).
The plot is simple: a man approaches a vending machine in Tokyo and tries to buy a drink. The machine is at first unresponsive, then takes on a mind of its own and plays harsh minimalist techno at him for a while as lights flash and a voice recites (in French!) the string of numbers that appear on the machine and in various parts of the surroundings. Eventually it grinds to a halt in a squall of static, he is rewarded with his bottle of whatever, and he drives off. Like the music, the film is a precise arrangement of a small number of simple elements. In combination, however, they begin to suggest wider connections.
An obvious connection is with Kraftwerk, the godfathers of electronic pop music in Germany and beyond. Their 1981 album Computerwelt (Computer World) included the track Nummern (Numbers), which consisted of electronically manipulated voices reciting sequences of numbers in various languages (including French) over a strident digital beat. The larger context on that album was commentary on the rise of computers and their increasing societal influence (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard/Business, Numbers, Money, People/Computer World”). Kraftwerk didn’t sound overly worried about the trend – they knew that computers could be fun – but the serene humor was married to a serious theme: the relationship between computers, numbers, and people. Carsten Nicolai’s film updates the theme in a perturbing way. The human protagonist stands mute and agape, his eyes twitching in time to the digital rhythms spat at him not by some massive mainframe at Interpol or some more recent high-tech CIA surveillance system, but by a vending machine in a side street. The machine makes the rhythms, the human just reacts, and what it takes to elicit Pavlovian obedience is not some vast international conspiracy, just the bright colors, flashing lights, and synthetic tastes of everyday consumption. Our hero seems to lack any curiosity about why the vending machine might have come to life and played him music and numbers; when it stops, he gets his bottle of colored water, and that seems to be enough for him to walk dumbly away and head for home. Nicolai presents his film as having arisen from his interest in “automation” – watching it, one wonders which party to the exchange is the more automated.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, generally and justly regarded as Germany’s most important living poet, also comes to mind. He published a poem in 1980 titled Automat – in English, Vending Machine. It pictures a man feeding coins into a vending machine and pulling out cigarettes, cancer, apartheid. The action is repeated, compulsive, he keeps coming for more as he consumes what he’s purchased – the promised contentment keeps disappearing and he has to return. “He looks at the vending machine,” Enzensberger writes, “he sees himself/for a moment/he looks like a human being/then he disappears again.” A man looking at his image in the glass of a vending machine. His behavior is mechanical, choreographed by the machine’s designer and the product’s makers and marketers. Like the products, he too is there for a moment and disappears. The grass withers and the flowers fade. In the mean time, which is directing the show, man or machine? Has the man become a consumable, entirely replaceable when he “lies buried” under what he has consumed?
It might seem as if we’re drifting away from the music here, but not necessarily, for the music itself hints at similar themes. Carsten Nicolai has described the music on Unitxt and Univrs as “experimental club music”, and Unitxt stuck close to standard dance tempos. The dominant sounds on Unitxt were built from manipulated recordings of machine noises – fax machines, modems, telephones. The grotesque image floats into view of crowds of people, looking like human beings, dancing rhythmically, mechanically to the insistent beat of their office machinery. One track has poet Anne-James Chaton (the voice behind the numbers) recite the contents of Nicolai’s wallet in a monotone as the beat pounds forward – is this tantamount to displaying his identity? The 2009 film shows us a man’s eyes twitching in mute, rhythmic response to a vending machine that seems to have gained the upper hand in the encounter. The film’s title, future past perfect, like much of Kraftwerk’s work, leaves us poised delicately between futurism and nostalgia. This techno, it turns out, may have something to say. Wir sind die Roboter indeed.
So has Nicolai reduced electronic dance music to a cold commentary on the programmability of people, a dispassionate dissection of the subjection of the listening self and its illusions of personhood to the laws of physics? He’s certainly deeply interested in the physics of perception and the effects of sounds on human listeners; but perhaps there are other ways to listen. On Univrs, the new album, the beats are more diverse (with characteristically gratuitous precision he notes that one of the tracks runs at 133.333 bpm) and the textures a shade warmer here and there (a little less screeching, a little more low-end rumble). I can’t say how it works on the dance floor, but on headphones it seems to me less a stupefying than an absorbing listen as he builds complex edifices of precisely contrasted sounds and prods them into stuttering motion. Techno this may be, but it is not music that dulls reflection. Perhaps instead it can invite the kind of wonder evoked by crystals and rock formations – impersonal, yes, but also small revelations of the potential intricacy of the world of sound, itself one more part of the wonders of creation. There is even a nod to individual creativity – the new album offers a fresh example of Chaton’s minimalist recitations, this time a string of acronyms. Nicolai has commented that since few will recognize all of them, each listener will connect the ones they recognize in different patterns, creating different implied narratives. To a greater degree than Unitxt, the music of Univrs seems to invite not so much involuntary twitching as a more human kind of involvement – attentiveness, appreciation for what has been so carefully and exactingly wrought, and creative appropriation. It’s still all data, yes, but it’s data that exhibits a kind of beauty. And ironically, of the various albums that I’ve spent time with in the last couple of months, it’s this dose of minimalist techno that has most caused me to think. Serious music indeed.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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