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For several years now Carsten Nicolai has experimented with sound under the pseudonym Noto to create his own code of signs, acoustic and visual symbols. As Alva Noto he leads those experiments further into the field of electronic music.

Among others, Nicolai has performed as Alva Noto at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at Centre Pompidou in Paris, at Kunsthaus Graz and at Tate Modern in London. Additionally he has projects with diverse artists such as Ryoji Ikeda (cyclo), Mika Vainio or Thomas Knak (opto); recently he toured with Ryuichi Sakamoto through Europe, Australia and Asia.


Can you tell a bit about yourself, how and why you got into music, a bit about your history and how you became successful ?

I started as a landscape architect, but early in the 90's I began to get interested in sound, the physics of sound and experimentation with very high and very low frequencies, which I still use in my installation work for instance. I realised then that I wanted to integrate sound as a sculptural element in my work, but at the same time, I was also drawn to the musical approach of sound. I still make this distinction today in my work, the distinction between physics-oriented and musically-oriented material. I then met with a group that would later become the Raster-Noton label, which was quite a happy situation, we were all doing electronic music and had a kind of group identity. I also began collaborating with many interesting people like Mika Vainio from Pan Sonic for instance. Another important collaboration for me was with Ryuichi Sakamoto. He came to one of the first shows I did in Japan (Tokyo). We were introduced through a common friend of ours, then after this meeting our collaboration grew through the years. We did our first live performance together in 2007 at the San-Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We then planned to rehearse for a recording together.

How did you discover Jazzmutant's controllers?

It came about during my first collaboration with Ryuichi.He wanted to bring Insen on stage to tour it, and it became obvious that in this situation I would need an interface. The Lemur was in its very early days then, and could only communicate in OSC. It was a little bit too early for me to integrate it in my live setup because I didn't want to use it just to control a few applications, I wanted to control everything with it. One of the main applications that I was running was Ableton Live, and it was a bit tricky to control it with a Lemur at the time. I investigated the Lemur very carefully, because I was then considering designing my own touchscreen controller. But then because of timing and because the Lemur wasn't quite ready to be used in my setup, I chose a different hardware controller, but kept the idea in mind. The time came though, where the Lemur became more mature. I was ready to give it another try and I bought one. Since then it's been growing slowly with my live set and I now really enjoy using it live because it has this great flexibility. The fact, for instance, that you can control multiple applications with a single screen is fantastic, I like that a lot !

How are you using it live or in the studio?

I don't use it much in the studio actually, as for me it turns out that I really need physical knobs and tactile feedback. But live, I use it to fully control Ableton Live, in such a way that I don't even need my computer anymore. I can now perform without looking at a computer screen. I've reached a kind of comfort now in my setup that I didn't know would be possible. I see the Lemur as some kind of instrument. You have to learn how to use it, and the moment you find out how you want to use it, you don't need to think so much about the technical side and that you're using a controller. You can just think about the music and be in the moment. It took a while but that's possible for me now...

It did save my life at some point actually. I was performing in Italy in beautiful outdoor place, but the electrical installation was kind of "funky" there if you see what I mean. While doing the sound check, I had the feeling that electricity was leaking everywhere: on my board, on the computer, everywhere...They told me "don't worry, this is because the band before you is playing with phantom power going on their mics, but the problem will be solved when your turn comes". It turned out the problem wasn't really solved when my turn came and I got about a dozen really strong electricity hits. I couldn't touch my mixing board anymore, or my laptop, even my mouse..everything was giving me a shock. Luckily I had the Lemur; it was the only piece of gear that wouldn't give me a shock. People thought I was joking. My performance looked like a James Brown show because of all these hits...funny situation. The Lemur saved my life !

Why did you choose to use the Lemur rather than other products on the market?

Flexibility is the first thing that comes to mind. I'm quite keen on the visual aspect and I love its futuristic design. I also like the fact that you can design your own surface. It's optimising my setup and I don't need to carry several controllers with me. If you're on the road a lot, it's important that your gear brings you a lot of flexibility. I don't need too many cables either, which is important too. Otherwise I have to say that it's a very stable machine, which is essential for playing live.

Has the Lemur changed the way you work ?

In a way I can now integrate more instruments in my performances. I'm triggering sounds with it, modulating, panning...I have a matrix for producing feedback for instance, which is quite nice (and a little tricky too). There's enough features to keep myself busy enough in my live set.

What do you find the most useful in terms of features?

Most useful to me is the multitouch capability of the machine. The physics is great too: acceleration, friction etc..., which a normal hardware controller cannot offer you. Another thing is visual feedback, for myself and for the audience. I'm mostly performing in dark rooms, so I think the audience can see I'm working with a touchscreen and get an idea of what's going on. (It's a nice light source too, which can be handy.)

Everyone uses the Lemur differently, that's another thing I like about it. Basically, you buy it and you turn it into yours.

What would you like to see in future updates

I hope the hardware gets slightly thinner. It'd be nice if it were the exact same size as a laptop for instance, for easy of carrying around. Tactile feedback would be nice too, so you have the possibility of not looking at the screen.

What's your overall philosophy when it comes to music?

I always try to push the aesthetics of sound. I'm trying to have a very clean sound, and I find myself more and more, in terms of production style, in a Kraftwerk situation, when you carefully choose every sound. I'm not a big "processing" guy, but I'm more into aiming at a refined, clean and recognizable aesthetic. At the same time I try to integrate the fun and the emotional aspect of the music into it. Especially when I play live, it's becoming more and more playful, more enjoyable for myself and for the audience. I also try to make my music not too "minimal" or "stripped down" by looking for a certain complexity.

In that respect the Xerrox project is a little different, more "ambient" oriented. I borrowed some samples from people I know and used recognizable melodies and turning them into ambient noise. I like it when people qualify my music as futuristic since I like to look into the future.

http://www.alvanoto.com/
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