Review: Mika Vainio, Ryoji Ikeda & Alva Noto – Live 2002

Collaboration is never easy, especially between established artists with their own distinctive musical personalities. The process often yields mixed results; the fusion of disparate perspectives can be too obvious, the seams that join the separate fabrics too visible. ‘Live 2002’, a recording of an improvisatory, collaborative performance between three such artists, doesn’t fall into this trap. The artists involved – Ryoji Ikeda, Alva Noto, and the late Mika Vainio – are all renowned within their fields and have their own idiosyncratic styles, but have enough in common to create a seamless performance that has consistency and coherence. Responding to those you’re playing alongside, rather than enforcing your own ideas upon them, is a skill in itself, and you can hear it here.

The concert, the only recorded instance of this trio playing together, took place at Sheffield’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and serves as a tribute to Mika Vainio, a pioneering experimentalist who died early last year. Live 2002 doesn’t feel quite like a performance – there’s nothing performative about it, no expressive gestures. There’s not much for a listener to hang on to, let alone to feel. This is computer music at it’s most lifeless and cold. Perhaps this isn’t music to expect an emotional response from, or perhaps the expressive capacity of electronic music has been pushed so much further (see: Burial, Arca) in recent years that what once seemed novel now sounds vacant and more than a little empty. Either way, it’s not your usual live album, and could easily pass as a studio recording if not for the reminder in the title.

The sonic palette the trio make use of is minimal, monochromatic and overwhelmingly inorganic. Pops, clicks, crackles and hisses form a digital skeleton fleshed out with sine tones and thick sub-bass. They deal with fundamentals, reducing sound to its bare essentials and presenting these in a subtle, restrained fashion. Operating at the outer limits of the frequency spectrum, the music is made up of deep lows and extreme highs. This leads to a feeling of hollowness, a sense that something’s missing – at times it feels as if it’s all ones and zeroes, with nothing in between.

Despite this, there is something admirable about the commitment of these artists to work with only the most basic and essential elements of sound, the purest materials, in order to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. There are moments in the performance where they succeed, and others where they fall short – the first half of the record is sterile and barren, fashioning static crunch and distorted crackle into ignorable rhythms that fail to progress or develop. Towards the end of the record, though, the sound begins to develop a life of its own. ‘Movement 7’ is a rare moment of warmth, a gorgeously cinematic drone piece that exercises serious restraint until the cavernous reverb multiplies to reach a deafening crescendo.

This burst of noise seems to inject some adrenaline into the performance; the final three tracks seem propelled by a sense of motion and vitality that was previously absent, the sound progressing towards a climactic, chaotic blast of caustic noise in ‘Movement 11’. Somewhere towards the end, it seems as if the feedback knob was turned up and the distortion pedal turned on. As the sounds become more textured, the structures more nuanced and a growing sense of musicality becomes apparent, you can almost begin to sense the players behind the music – maybe there is a ghost in the machine after all.

Live 2002 is out now on Noton. Buy it here.

Words: Matt Mullen

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