Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto first collaborated on the 2002 record Vrioon, a subdued collection of minimalist electronic vignettes built around Sakamoto’s elegant piano playing. The unique template they mapped out on that album is one they’ve maintained throughout a series of five collaborative projects, culminating in 2018’s Glass. Their latest album was conceived following an improvised site-specific performance at famed architect Philip Johnson’s ‘Glass House’, a modernist architectural marvel set in the leafy surroundings of Connecticut. With it’s clean lines, distinctive structure and minimalist aesthetic, it acted as a perfect analogue to their music, built upon an austere elegance that’s as experimental as it is beautiful.
The pair premiered a new performance at the Barbican last week based around material from that record. A fascinating exhibition of the truly unique sound the duo have developed over the last decade, it captured the magic that occurs when two distinct musical identities are brought together to create something entirely singular. Both as producers and performers, they each bring opposing moods and tones to the table: Nicolai conjures starkly minimal soundscapes built from sound’s bare essentials, weaving together ghostly sine waves, processed static, subterranean hums and digitised noise. These parts sometimes coalesce into recognizably percussive patterns, but often stand alone, forming abstract textures that are powerfully atmospheric. Sakamoto injects melody and harmony into these transparent sonic environments, treating them like glass houses to be filled with human warmth: using his piano and various synthesizers, he brings just the right amount of emotion and colour to music that might otherwise feel too cold and abstract.
Divided into two sides, their stage setup holds an impressive array of instrumentation: Sakamoto sits behind a grand piano, opened at the top and adorned with four microphones angled to capture his prepared piano techniques, while Nicolai operates a mixer, laptop and an array of electronic equipment from behind a white plinth. Sakamoto began by leaning over the piano and using drumsticks to produce subtle knocks and scrapes from its insides, while Nicolai conjured eerie siren-like tones from a set of crotales (tuned metal disks), playing them gently with a violin’s bow. Later on, Sakamoto produced a bright red guitar, run through some untold combination of pedals and effects that rendered the tone into an unearthly howl. There may be laptops on stage, but this is far from your average live electronic performance. The show oscillated between subdued improvisatory passages that felt wholly experimental (at one point, Sakamoto was scrunching plastic bags under the microphone) and more composed sections in which Sakamoto built emotive chord progressions around Nicolai’s glitched-out beat experiments. Though their bold experimentation is laudable and fascinating to observe, the more obviously rehearsed sections, structured in tandem with isomorphic patterns on the screen behind, felt fuller and far more memorable.
The show itself was simply titled “Two”, a nod to the significance of duality in their creative relationship. Though performing as one, they each manage to preserve their own distinctive musical identities, neither compromising for the sake of the other. The name acknowledges the multiple oppositions that exist within their music: the distance between the electronic and the acoustic, the digital coldness and human warmth, the exploratory abstraction of Alva Noto’s highly processed electronics and the simple and emotive force of Ryuichi’s piano playing. In the program, Sakamoto notes how “disparate elements create something unique, perhaps more than the sum of the parts”. Though built upon contrasts and distinctions, their music nonetheless feels like a bold and singular vision.
Words: Matt Mullen