Mute / Raster-Noton
Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender have much experience performing electronic music together, either alongside Frank Bretschneider as their supergroup Signal, the original pairing of the Noton and Rastermusic labels, or at semi-spontaneous encores during concerts where they’re on the same bill. But after over two decades of knowing each other and working together, and after Nicolai’s countless collaborations with artists and musicians the world over, there was still no document of a Nicolai / Bender collab. Diamond Version is the result of this combination, and charts a significant conceptual detour from their previous work on Raster-Noton.
Although Nicolai is perhaps now best known as an electronic musician under his Alva Noto moniker, for him music was almost a by-product of other artistic endeavours, or rather a medium within which visual stimulants could be better understood. For Nicolai the musician, sculptural form remains as important in his compositions as the sounds emanating from and reinforcing these forms, and Diamond Version furthers this obsession both sonically and nominally.
For now leaving behind projects heavily exploiting the aesthetic qualities of errors in digital data transfer (some of his most stunning visual and sonic work, like Unitxt and Unidisplay), it appears that Nicolai has turned to exploring whether a sort of perfection can be attained using methods, like computer software and digital projection systems, which are inherently limited. The eponymous Diamond evokes this precise notion: the process of cleaving and cutting a diamond is much like refining a mechanism or purifying a sound. I suppose the idea of inherent limits can be applied to much artistic work, but here one finds a conscious exploration of this limit: a central tenet of the project is its relative spontaneity, with the EPs appearing as and when completed, thereby adding bounds of a human sort.
3 EPs have so far been released. Hard beats of the cleanest variety alongside the signature sounds of data-error or altered field recordings in Technology at the Speed of Life are organised to provide electronic iterations at a tempo reminiscent of 1994 jungle. And while on releases by other duos one may oft find it difficult to distinguish which elements are provided by which performer, I see part of the success of this collaboration lying in the fact that Nicolai’s and Bender’s actually rather distinct sounds can be told apart: Treading the fine line between Minimalist and Maximalist, by doing as much as possible with strictly-defined media, Bender has talked about reducing ideas to their bare origins and his constant, forceful, but patient vertebrae provide a structure within which Nicolai can insert a cord of hissing detail and align the precise muscular composition of the rest of the songs. Such synthesis is most-present on EP1’s Empowering Change but it is in fact the VIP edit of this track that is the highlight of the EP, and unfortunately only holds a mere 3 mins of the flip. It rolls and cuts in all the ways that we have come to expect from The Old Masters, but with an aggression we are not accustomed to.
Although the release of the Diamond Version tracks across five 12” records, over a period of almost a year is a conscious move away from more academically-oriented releases into the realm of the club, something doesn’t sit well here. Although the 12” format could be labelled as a considered experiment into the (aforementioned) limits of modern technology, the “proposal for pop music” ethic put forward by Nicolai rules this out. Rather, the size of the record becomes restrictive, and sees tracks like EP2’s (1min 20sec) Shift the Future, originally composed for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s controversial anti-Nuclear Power campaign (and a Japanese bow to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity), added almost as afterthoughts. So although being constrained by format and media is a theme successfully utilised by several other R-N releases, in this case I don’t believe it works to the release’s advantage. The arguably purist nature of this music attracts listeners of a dedicated persuasion, used to fully-formed albums and meticulously-designed projects, and feeding them slices of what is by definition a complete whole can lead to frustration. Nevertheless, the music itself is often brilliant, and can make sense as individual collections, with each EP opening like a velvet-lined mahogany box containing 3 co-ordinate precious stones. EP 3, for example, stands alone as a collection of underground dance-floor-centred hard-hitters.
Being located away from their Raster-Noton home, on Mute, appears to allow for more overt political comment – the naming of all Diamond Version tracks after corporate slogans furthers a message which, until the encompassing Univrs DVD, was only implicit in Raster-Noton’s output. This idea is further developed on EP2’s highlight Science for a Better Life, within which the hardly affectionate questioning often found in pharmaceutical advertising (“Do you suffer from pain?”) is ridiculed through subversion into lists of imperatives (“You suffer from pain. Try for free”). This track, as well as the breath- and roar-like sonics on Forever New Frontiers recall the hugely successful vocal samples occasionally found on several past Raster-Noton releases, and continues to add to the human dimension of the Diamond Version.
As a fan of, I think, all of Nicolai’s (and Bender’s) output to date I would prefer not to have to say that these EPs, far from being masterpieces, feel like tasters for the non-initiands. One should not, however, let this suggestion detract from the fact that Raster-Noton has arguably released the best electronic albums of my generation. What this project does, however, have over other Raster-Noton releases is a built-in progression: the sporadic nature of the releases allows the project to evolve – for example EP2’s development of the human dimension can be seen as a stepping away from EP1. As such, each EP should perhaps be consumed as a part of a larger audio-visual history, with an awareness that we are only experiencing a single snapshot. One can but hope that carbon perfection is attained on collation of the subsequent EPs.
By Andrew Spyrou