Thumbnail Music Redux: Part Three - Carsten Nicolai
This interview, originally published on Urbansounds.com in October, 1999, is part of a series of reprints I'm publishing here, intended as a look back at the rise and fall of minimalism over the past decade.
Carsten Nicolai, known for years in Germany as a visual and installation artist, records as Noto for Rastermusic and Noton, labels marked by their austere design and releases that tread the line between conceptual art and techno. (Rastermusic's mission is to release "entertainment music excluding decorative elements.") Noton, Nicolai's own imprint, is subtitled archiv fuer ton und nichtton ("archive for tone and no tone"), but it's not so much a label as a platform for experiments in sonic, spatial, and visual arts. Noton projects include Mikro Makro, an installation produced by Nicolai and Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio, and Infinity, a public-space sound project produced for Documenta X. Noton's most recent project is 20' to 2000, a monthly audio magazine featuring contributions from the likes of Komet, Ryoji Ikeda, Thomas Brinkmann, Wolfgang Voigt, Ivan Pavlov, Senking, and Scanner. Housed in distinctive clam-shell packaging, the 20-minute CDs are as interesting to look at as they are to listen to, their 3-inch playing surfaces bounded by an inch of clear plastic around the perimeter, the music displayed in a kind of hyper-balanced material statis. Curated by Nicolai, the series offers a set of snapshots of pre-millennial thought. Richie Hawtin, in his Urban Sounds interview, wondered whether "we're training our ears for the next form of minimalism." 20' to 2000 is one such primer. I spoke to Nicolai late in 1998, just before the launch of the project.
Is there any affiliation between your work and what artists such as Thomas Brinkmann are doing?
The Ester Brinkmann releases are related to my stuff -- this repetitive idea, in his case with voice, in my case with loop structures, repetitive elements getting more and more abstract as you repeat them. In Ester Brinkmann, there are sentences inside with a lot of meaning, and if you repeat them, they just become [pure] sound. There's an early piece by Steve Reich -- I'm quite impressed by these early Steve Reich pieces -- that's probably a kind of connection point.
How do you use repetition? And what's the relationship between form and content in your work?
For a long time I did visual art. Four or five years ago I started painting diptychs, double images, positive-negative images. From this, inside of these paintings, I started to make what's been described as a kind of loop structure of thinking. There were two paintings that looked the same, and you started to relate to both, so that what was happening was a kind of thinking-loop inside of the paintings. Then I stopped doing paintings, and I started to make records. That was more experimental, but still related to this kind of painting I'd been doing. So this loop idea is actually coming from painting. It was like a story. Then I started getting more and more into sound. I worked quite early with a lot of really basic things like loops, tape loops. I still do in a way, the music I make now is still based on loops. I never use sequencing programs. This loop idea is like a model of my work. There are three stages: One stage is the nucleus, the kerne -- like the grain, a total starting point. That's one of my keywords. There's another one -- pol, polarity, and that's inside of this diptych idea. And there's a third word, like spin, rotation, loop, and that's what is more and more sound-related. I choose for every keyword or image that I'm working on a kind of media. And the spin, or idea of rotation, and time -- it's more inside of sound for me than sculpture or painting.
That, really, is the model of how I create my own world.
I'm trying to relate that to your Infinity Loops, for instance.
Infinity Loops is a good example, because all these things are translated into simple locked grooves. It's a good way to see how I work. It's a piece with four turntables, with overlapping loops. It's like an instrument for me. You can use a lot of other records, or make your own locked-groove records. How I construct my sounds is exactly like that piece. The Infinity CD was a project for Documenta. It consisted of a number of really short tracks, 72 short tracks. It began as a kind of sound graffiti in the town of Kassel. They broadcast it in radio stations and shopping malls, from time to time and by chance. And out of this I took the sound sources and made the records. The records are really interesting for me, too. They're probably a little bit old-fashioned as a medium. But for mixing, and for working on sound, records are really perfect. So what I made was more like a working tool. It's not so much just for listening; you can work with these records. For me it's the perfect idea about how I react to this kind of short sound graffiti in the town. This kind of record can produce for DJs other contexts for mixing tools. That was the perfect translation for me. I made 72 tracks, like jingles, and then I gave them to different places in town. The most important places were radio stations -- they broadcast them all the time, during programs, all the time, these short things.
What was behind the project?
First, to lose this white-cube idea of exhibiting art. I wanted to react on everyday life. And I didn't want to just show my work to the typical art-related crowd. I really wanted to do a piece that belonged to Kassel, or to other people who might not even know about Documenta. These really strange sounds -- if you're in a town and you hear sound like this by chance, at first you'll probably think there's something wrong with an amplifier or something. But if it happens to you again, you'll listen more carefully. You're getting attuned to the sound of the town, you're getting more sensitive. You look around, maybe you'll hear it again -- some people actually looked for the source of the sound, but there was nothing to see. Only this kind of logo, but the sound couldn't be seen. So they waited sometimes for the sound to come -- that means they were really carefully listening to all these kinds of sounds that we were producing, or that already existed. It's quite interesting for me, because there are already a lot of really good sounds in nature.
What sort of response did you get from the public?
Some of them got really confused. Like one older lady called the radio station up -- because of the sounds, she brought her radio transmitter in for repair. And then finally they decided everything was fine, and she realized that the radio station was doing this, not her radio. That was one of the reactions -- probably the funniest, but a good example. There were things I heard from other people who were really into the art scene who wanted to find my piece, but it was hard for them to figure out, because it was never "completed" -- you can never hear the whole thing. Unless you stand in one spot for a week, maybe, it's impossible to listen to all the sounds. So the reaction was that they looked carefully around the town, and looked inside of the town for sound.
It's interesting, too, because it brings up the relationship of music to space, and to a particular location as opposed to just a record that you take home and listen to any time. You've done a number of site-specific works, right?
Yes, there was an early installation of Mikro Makro, a collaboration with Mika Vainio -- that was one of the first releases on the label [Noton]. The installation was really simple. Mikro Makro was related to this idea of microcosm; if you go really deep inside yourself you have the same possibility to lose or to find yourself as if you went outside yourself. Like micro- and macro-structural ideas. There were two major sound sources for the piece. For one, I went to a university in Germany and they scanned my brain. During this I did a recording of the scanning machine. This was one of the examples of the micro. I had like 10 scans done, to get different sounds. It was quite hard to record, because the scans are done in a really strong magnetic field, and you have to be careful that you can still record, that you don't erase your tape. So this was one sound source, belonging to the inside. But it was the other sound source that I was really interested in, coming from pulsars -- rotating suns that are losing their energy and giving out rhythms of light. There are some 80,000 of them now. And every star has a different rotation speed. There are recordings of this kind of electro-magnetic energy, from a radio-telescope. So based on these two sound sources, Mika and I did the two pieces at the same time. If you listen to the record, the first sound on Mika's piece is the sound of the CAT scanner. It's funny, because we didn't speak about it. We said OK, we'll do two pieces, and I'll send you a cassette tape of examples and the explanation of what kind of sound it is, and then we started working. It's funny, he really took after the inside sounds, and I related much more to the pulsar sounds. They fit together really well, but we never talked about it.
The idea of the micro and the macro -- these two extremes -- are you interested in expression, or is there an emotional content or component to your work?
Yes. All of my works, even if they sound really electronic -- like they're not related to being human or whatever -- are concerned with identity. That's probably the difference between this kind of minimalism and that from the '60s. They tried as much as possible to be without meaning, or to only react structurally. That's the difference in my work -- sometimes it seems similar, but it is in this respect not so minimal. Mikro Makro is based on philosophical questions of identity.
How did you get interested in lock grooves? Is that coming from a dance music background?
No. It was one of my earliest inspirations. Record players make a kind of sound at the end of the record [in the run-out groove]. Sometimes it's not only crackling, sometimes it's more bassy. I had a record player like this, and I liked those tones. I got two big inspirations from this in my childhood: One was this kind of technical tape and record player, which was not only the easiest way to listen to music, but also to make music -- like by playing a record at a really high speed, or a slow speed, or backwards. And I learned to tape things, to manipulate tape, to cut, splice, whatever. So that was an early influence, along with shortwave radio. I grew up in Eastern Germany, and the radio stations that broadcast on FM were generally just from your neighborhood, or from nearby in the GDR. So if you wanted to listen to radio from outside, you had to use a shortwave. So often I'd listen to shortwave radio. And shortwave changes sometimes, you lose the signal -- it's up to the weather. Sometimes you'd hear coded military broadcasts. And sometimes [the government would] try to distort what they thought were "bad influences" from the U.S., so they'd overlap really strong military signals, speaking only in numbers. This was an ongoing thing, all the time -- they were just reading numbers in Russian, all the time.
It's funny, because thinking about the broadcasting of the Infinity Loops, I was thinking of the numbers stations -- the idea of hearing something unexpected, out of nowhere. Was that partly what was behind your releasing W. Basinski's shortwavemusic on Noton?
In a way. As I was listening to that piece, it reminded me of that shortwave radio [growing up]. And it's surprising that those pieces are so fresh -- he'd done them in '82. A funny time, because one year later Brian Eno released the first of the Ambient series. So by then, I was already listening to that kind of music. And it hasn't lost its power, 16 or 17 years later. He did a lot of other pieces as well, shortwave pieces, a little bit different. If you listen to them, sometimes they're really close to Oval.
How do you think they differ from the shortwave and radio pieces that Cage was doing?
I don't know so much about those, I've never listened to them. The only thing that I have to say about Cage is that he is more like a picture for me, an image, because I never heard "real" John Cage pieces. I think he opened up a field where you can do something that's possibly not really music any more. Where even the instructions on how to do something -- like 4'33", that's more like a description of the piece. That's a nice example for me; he broke with the idea that music had to be fixed in sound. But in the beginning, Cage was not important for me, I'd have to say. Probably I didn't know so much about him then. I was influenced more by Steve Reich, because his records were available in East Germany. One Hungarian band --- Group 180 -- played Steve Reich.
I wonder with so many people doing "new minimalism," whether there is in fact any connection to '60s minimalism, because it's such a different kind of music now.
If you're looking for sounds -- like sounds as pure sound-tones -- the French musique concrète guys are really great in that sense. But sometimes that gets too arty for me. If you have a mixture between the kind of rhythmic ideas of Steve Reich -- if you connect both, you get closer to what is happening now. I think of Pierre Henri. The first time I listened to one of his records, I was really surprised by the fantastic sounds. And Steve Reich, for me, was more of a rhythmic, repetitive, manic idea about getting into structure. I really, really like his stuff. Now, here in New York, I try to buy everything I can get my hands on. He did some pieces that you could release on a new electronic label in Germany, and there would be no difference.
Have you heard the remix album?
No. Who did the remixes?
[I read the tracklisting.]
Oh, I see. So I'm not jealous about it [laughs]. It's a different kind of context, I think -- a dance context. It would be really interesting to put together Oval, Panasonic, and other people around our label to put together a Steve Reich remix. That would be a little bit more interesting for me.
I'm interested in the whole idea of modes of listening, and here we're making a very easy distinction, assuming that there's something fundamentally different between these artists making a dance album, and an artist like Pan Sonic or yourself and what you'd do with the same sound sources. Do you think that there are different modes of listening required, between the kind of work you're doing and pop or dance music?
I think all these modes are really related to the person who is listening. For myself, if it's really good pop music, it touches me the same way as if it's really good experimental music. I don't want to say that pop music is in itself not good or anything like that. I mean, there are really good pop songs. But sometimes you have to be in different kinds of situations to listen to them. Pop songs, you can listen to them while driving in a car, they have a melody and so forth. While some other pieces are not even audible. If you think of, at one extreme, Bernhard Gunter, if you listen to him in a car, the engine would drown him out!
Actually, that's interesting. I know that Oval, for instance, doesn't care at all what kind of speaker system you have. Gunter, on the other hand, requires that you have the best speakers, amplifier, and so forth. For me, neither of these extremes is so interesting. I want to test the range of what is possible, hearable, from the low to the high. And yet, at the same time, it still has to be listenable for other people. I think that's quite important. Some of my pieces are perhaps not listenable on cheap, portable players. Sometimes I don't care so much, and sometimes -- at the moment -- I care a little bit more. It's a simple question -- it's about compressing sound. If you're really compressing things, like popular music is doing all the time -- in mastering, compressing things to get more into the range of stereos, radio, so that you can listen to it on even the cheapest stereo without missing out on anything. This music scene is not so interested in these kinds of things, because they always try to figure out extreme points -- what isn't hearable anymore, what you can only feel, especially if you're using really high frequencies or really low tones.
Tell me about the 20' to 2000 series.
At first the idea was not in relation to the millennium, but to bring out a magazine, once a month. And 20 minutes is like the length of a piece, not like a full-length album. I think it's a good measure, half an LP, and it's a good format. Then I worked on putting people together, and I realized, OK, if you do this it will happen in 1999, so I related it to the idea of the millennium, about cutting edges. In fact, it's not so much about 1999/2000, it's more about the phrase "cutting edge" -- like a turning point. I think what's happening right now in music is really interesting. There are a lot of people doing good work in electronic music.