A couple of weeks ago, German multi-disciplinary artist and Raster-Noton co-founder Carsten Nicolai played a mesmerizing audio-visual set at Semibreve Festival in Braga. I caught up with him just after soundcheck and we sat down for 20 minutes to talk about his latest album 'univrs', his work with visuals and a few other things...
You said that ‘unitxt’ was connected to club music. What about ‘univrs’?
When I talk about club music, it’s always club music how I imagine club music. For many years now, things have been very static in a way, and there’s very little headroom at the moment for, let’s say, normal club situations. Only a few clubs try to have a unique sound or try something to be a little bit more outside of ‘normal’ club music. I think it’s not so new actually that Olaf Bender, Frank Bretschneider and myself have always been interested in this kind of crossover between sound design and very careful constructed pieces. At the same time we want to give the music a little bit more of a social context and we want to play it in clubs where people can dance to the music. I think we’ve always done that in a way and for a very long time, it’s not so new for us. But of course when you tour and you play in this kind of situation, those things leave traces and the pieces on ‘univrs’ are mainly developed out of the ‘unitxt’ album that I have played live. And it’s a kind of progression out of that, a logical development from that starting point.
The track ‘uni acronym’, featuring french voice-artist Anne-James Chaton, is a kind of continuation of what you did on ‘unitxt’ . How did this collaboration happen?
I met Anne-James a very long time ago when we were both performing at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam and by chance I saw his performance. I was really interested in what he was doing: I like the words, I like the way he presented things, and how it sounded. After we met, we exchanged some emails and then we had this idea to do something together. Anne-James recorded a piece based on notes I had, like an autobiography, something like a poem and he sent me the recording of that. I had this recording on my computer for many years, but I never did anything with it as I felt it wasn’t the right moment. When I worked on ‘unitxt’ though, I thought the moment had come to finally work with Anne-James’ voice, and I made those two songs ‘u_07’ and ‘u_08-1’. For the new album ‘univrs’ I wanted a little bit of a continuation, so I made ‘uni acronym’. By aligning all those three-letter acronyms, a random narrative was created and I was wondering about a political dimension that could potentially emerge from such a narrative. It becomes very political sometimes but it’s really by chance. Because many of those three-letter acronym are quite political or political organisations, so of course when you put them in a row a strange context can emerge.
But there’s also an emphasis on corporations.
Yes, and it?s become a very political message. There is one moment when ‘CNN’ comes after ‘CIA’ for instance, but it’s really alphabetical and it wasn’t intentional. I really tried to not be intentional, and to just use the alphabet. It’s really the alphabetical order that creates some narrative. For me of course the narrative is much more complex because I know the meaning of all the acronyms. There are 208 acronyms and a lot of them are local things like some East-German companies, things related to the airport, the public transports in Berlin or local banks. So most people don’t know them and if they know only half of the acronyms then they create a different narrative and the track has an altogether different meaning.
‘univrs’, like most of your musical work, is very connected to visuals.
I use a lot of graphical representations of sound, so visuals are very driven by sound analysers. The nature of the sounds I work with or specific events I trigger in my music are often reflected inside the visuals. For ‘univrs’, there is also a visual version of the album called ‘uniscope’ that forms the basis of my live show, where you can see several ways of graphically represented sound. And there’s not only a coding and programming part to generate visuals but also an analogue hacking part where we hack the signal of the video itself by soundwave sounds. Depending on the situation, when I play I can control how the visuals are generated using controllers, so I can build and customise the visual aspect of my live show as I choose. But for me the visuals are not just a way of representing the musical pieces: I’ve always been surrounded by visuals since I started performing and probably because of the lack of performative moves intrinsic to electronic music, I thought that if I can’t really perform then I’ll let the visuals perform for me. So I can kind of step back and have more freedom when I play, so I don’t have to act and perform. With electronic music, you prepare a lot, you build your instrument, you have to learn it, and to control it. But all the complexity, what is behind, is not visible for the audience, how you play it and how you do everything. There are a lot of things happening inside the computer that have no visual expression. So for me it was very interesting to see that people have a really clear idea that image and sound are really connected and that the image performs rather than me as a person.
You published the books ‘grid index’ and ‘moiré index’ and I was wondering how they are connected to this audio-visual framework.
All those books (grid, moiré and the new one called cyclo.id with Ryoji Ikeda) are quite different. They are like my visual archives and I published them so everybody can use them. It’s a kind of dictionary to make visual structures. Sometimes I use them for the live visuals and sometimes I incorporate some concepts. For instance, parts of the moiré book are used a lot for the show with Ryuichi Sakamoto, same with the grid book. I see those books as fundamental sources rather than finished works.
I feel for example that this work with ‘grid index’ and ‘moiré index’ is somehow connected to your album ‘aleph-1’.
I agree, this album has a little bit of moiré sonically, rhythmically and maybe melodically. There’s also phasing but not like in Steve Reich phase music. All the grids meet at some point and then go away. But in the end all the patterns share the same fundamental speed and it’s only when some of them are three times faster, for instance, that it creates a very strange timing effect.
How did you approach sound design for ‘univrs’ ?
The main work, while making those tracks, was really about choosing the sounds and sculpting them. I mainly work with editing softwares and I look at every single waveform. I don’t use synthesisers or drummachines as I really prefer to edit every waveform by hand. Sometimes I draw waveforms but mostly I generate simple sounds and I cut little parts that I paste into other waveforms, or I layer the low end of a sound with another sound, so I really sculpt the waveform. I work off-line and I look at a waveform until I feel I’m finished with the editing. This process takes a lot of time as I don’t use a sampler that would be much faster I think. Then I put one track after another into what I call a matrix, all sitting into a big file. So basically I make a grid and I delete out of the grid and then it becomes a rhythm. I think it’s a very difficult way of producing, but for some reasons I really like editing softwares. Being completely self-taught, in the beginning I didn’t know that drum machines existed. But later when I used a drum-machine I felt it wasn’t really me creating the sounds but more the machine doing it. I wanted to have this feeling of difficulty to feel it was really me creating the sounds.
Changing subject, I’d like to know how the ‘xerrox’ project has evolved between vol.1 and vol.2 and how you see it shaping in the future?
When I started with the ‘xerrox’ project it was a very rough idea in the beginning: it was really just a few loops that I liked. So I thought I should really explore this roughness. And later I made those other tracks that had a more cinematic approach. But for the second CD, I couldn’t repeat the same things as the first one and in a way there is a kind of travel behind, a kind of idea of progression inside that. I hope I can record five albums in total but it takes so much time always. For the second one I wasn’t so strict following those conceptual rules I had in the first one. I was a little bit more seeing it as a soundtrack for something else, like a road trip or something like that. I have this subtitle inside the booklets. ‘xerrox vol.1’ is called ‘Old World’ and ‘xerrox vol.2’ is ‘Towards the New World’ and the next one will be called ‘Leave the World’ so we’ll go outside the world and we’ll see.
In a recent interview microsound composer Curtis Roads said that one of his main sources of inspiration for music was a landscape gardening book. I was wondering how your own background in landscape design has influenced the way you approach your music.
I studied architecture and landscape design and those disciplines are of course about the aspect of space and how things are in space. I’ve always been a big fan of Japanese gardens. I’m really interested in them, every detail, how they’re constructed, what stones are used, what plants are used. And even though I cannot exactly explain how, for me there is a very strong connection between making a sound and landscape gardening. Maybe it’s about the contrasts.