30 October 2006


MIAF 2006
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto
Melbourne International Arts Festival
14 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall

The combination of electronic and acoustic in insen is like chilli and chocolate; it should be so very wrong, but is irresistible, addictive and perfect after the first tentative bite.

This is also another Melbourne Festival production provoking extreme reactions. People walked out during the performance I saw and I’ve read some very negative opinions. However I thought it was one of the most beautiful and emotive works of live music I have seen, and am flabbergasted that others didn’t get it.

insen is a live collaboration between electronic composer/visual artist Carsten Nicolai (performing as Alva Noto) and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto is a Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar winning producer and composer, best known for his film scores including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor. Alva Noto is a multimedia artist using sound, image, sculpture and the computer as his tools.

Sakamoto’s minimalist composition is filled with subtle tension and unexpected resolution. The synergy created by the piano and the precision of the manipulated electronic sounds is surprising and astonishing.

The performance continually juxtaposes the natural and the unnatural. The severe lines of Noto's desk sit next to the classic and natural curves of Sakamoto’s piano. The austere concentration of the electronic artist contrasts to the emotional playing of the pianist. The freedom of the piano music compares to the controlled pulsation of the electronic sounds.

The dominating element of this work is the visual. An elongated LCD screen sits behind the musicians. The screen, controlled by Noto, is a visual representation of the music. The images are all electronically-generated, symmetrical patterns created from the pixels of the screen. Please do not think this is anything like the patterns on a Windows music player. It would be like comparing a smiley face emoticon to the Mona Lisa. This isn’t just representation; this is art. Hypnotic, intriguing and layered with intelligence and understanding.

This might be what master musicians see in their heads. Noto’s electronic visuals perfectly demonstrate the complex structure, patterns and order of music. Sometimes it is representational, such as keys on a keyboard, or notes on a stave. Other times it is more the allusional, like the chaotic noise of hundreds of crossing white lines.

Rippling circles show the impact of a single note resonating throughout the whole piece. Bright, pulsating colours reflect the nuance of the slightest change in musical light or shade. Fading rectangles prove how the end of one note is the beginning of the next. Counterbalance becomes so clear when a strangely shaped chord sits above and within the straight pulsating bass lines.

I never knew that electronic could be so emotive and so human. It is strange, but fascinating, to see that music, our most instinctive art form, is based on pattern and order that can be recreated by a computer. It is like looking at the fractals in a mandelbrot set. There is recurring pattern and order in everything. Through knowledge of this order, the most original and creative understandings of our world emerge.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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