November 29, 2011

The Sound of Static

To enter Alva Noto’s universe is to be submerged in a sea of static, glitches, and erratic rhythms. The prolific German electronic artist returns to this familiar yet alien world with his latest release Univrs from his own label, Raster-Noton.

Just like many of his previous releases, Univrs is a compendium of works full of irregular beats and glitchy sounds, sounds he returns to regularly in his solo albums. One recent album, Unitxt, was formed around the idea of translating data into music—musical “interpretations” of programs like Microsoft Word were featured alongside additive beat patterns that would have impressed Milton Babbitt.

A cursory listen to Univrs reveals similar soundscapes—static, pulsing but irregular rhythms, occasional silences. But if Alva Noto is staying in this same world, Univrs is on a different side of the planet. Not only does Alva Noto incorporate his own musical language, developed throughout his career, he also seems to borrow the language of other genres and artists. In tracks like “Uni Dia” and “Uni Asymmetric Tone,” shifting, ambient tones bring to mind the works of environmental field recorders like Francisco Lopez. Industrial sounds pop up here and there, as in the track “Uni Deform,” which features what sounds like modified electric guitar, resonating amid rhythmic clicks and shifting clusters of distorted beats.

According to the label’s website, Univrs is based around the concept of a “universal language.” Through his incorporation of multiple influences, Alva Noto is trying to achieve this “universal language” of music. However, the artist also explores this concept within the context of the album itself. In, “Uni Acronym” French “sound-poet” Anne-James Chaton (who also lent his voice to sections of Unitxt) robotically intones random strings of three letters to form what turn out to be familiar words. Cutting through the surrounding pulses and tones, Chaton’s even recitations of “CBS, CIA, CNN” lend an eerie familiarity to the alien electronics. Noto incorporates these fixtures of everyday life in order to comment on the modern universality of media and information—a sometimes-hackneyed theme in art, but here explored with refreshing subtlety and care.

Although Univrs incorporates many of Alva Noto’s previous sounds and musical conventions, the album is able to find an identity of its own. Univrs speaks to a listener confronted everyday with a barrage of sounds, both ambient and musical, by pulling these familiar sounds out of context and arranging them to make a new language of its own. While Alva Noto has not yet found a truly “universal language,” he has managed to explore and synthesize disparate worlds, both foreign and familiar.