There is a simple method for observing the mathematical underpinnings of music. Place an acoustic guitar flat on its back. Sprinkle salt on its body. Now pluck a note. The salt crystals snap into sharp geometries: snowflakes, perfect circles, striated waveforms, registering the frequency of the note. Mathematicians, acoustic scientists and philosophers since the ancient days of Pythagoras have been fascinated with desmonstrating the invisible number-magic of sound. Berlin based artist and Raster-Noton label co-founder Carsten Nicolai performs similar experiments with sonic imaging, only in place of the salt and guitar he uses speakers to play back ultra-high or low frequency compositions, and laboratory equipment such as oscilloscopes, wave tanks, chemical flasks, particle cloud chambers and electron diffraction tubes. His sound installations such as Atem and Milch have created incredibly finely-tuned geometric waves and disturbance patterns in liquids, controlled via pieces of abstract music involving ultra-low frequencies played back through speakers. He has even created a CD, Telefunken, specifically designed to be played in a CD player hooked up to the video inputs of a television set. The noise on the CD 'composes' the movements and patterns of lines of interference appearing on the screen, and the TV is diverted from its intended role - dispensing a preset schedule of programmes and entertainment - into an artistic canvas.
Nicolai, born in 1965, has been using a powerful alchemy of electricity and sonics in his wide ranging practice, which straddles the separate worlds of visual art and music. In Nicolai's work neither music nor visual art are by-products of one another - the one calls the other into being. It connects with a long but poorly chronicled chain of synaesthetic research that has continued in parallel to radical developments in 20th century art and music. Since Vassily Kandinsky's famous theories concerning the emotional dimension of colour, projects to equate visual form with sound and total sensory experience moved from static colour experiments into time based artforms. Oskar Fischinger's animated accompaniments to classical music (famously showcased in Walt Disney's Fantasia) were picked up by later avant garde film makers such as Norman McLaren, John & James Whitney, and Harry Smith - all dedicating painstaking hours creating abstract forms that precisely mimicked the ebb and swell of recorded music. But Nicolai's work is a closer cousin of Nam June Paik, who began working with live video and TV sets at the beginning of the 1960s. Live video allows sound and vision to affect each other in real time, and therefore may be configured to react to the viewer's choices or unwitting actions.
Raster-Noton is the product of a merger in 1999 between Rastermusic, run by his brother Olaf since the early 90s, and Noton, the 'archive for sound and not-sound' which served as the outlet for Nicolai's solo work, which he releases under the (lower case) names noto and alva noto (Alva being the middle name of phonographic pioneer Thomas Edison). Nicolai's activities in audio and visual media have provided the focal point for this network, but his colleagues and collaborators, principally fellow Germans Olaf Nicolai (aka Byetone) and Frank Bretschneider, Japan's's Ryoji Ikeda and pianist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Russia's Ivan Pavlov aka CoH, have given his aesthetics a solid infrastructure.
Nicolai has increasingly come to explore issues of binaries and opposed polarities - pure black and white hues, protons and electrons, noise and silence, order and chaos. He also sets up systems to generate form out of chaotic structures or processes. As someone who originally trained as a landscape gardener, he has a peculiar eye for methods of shaping nature's untamed forces, which he now applies to the supple realms of electricity, vibrational frequency and light, instead of leaf and turf.
Signal, the trio of Nicolai, Bender and Bretschneider, perform their music to a backdrop of graphical information that is shaped and determined by real-time sound analysis. They exploit standard imaging software for system errors which the trio have discovered through repeated use, and generate patterns and three-dimensional forms that floresce and mutate, revealing the complex geometry of the sounds in play while remaining locked to the spectral components of those same sounds. In composing tracks for their live set, most of the source sounds are taken from a huge memory bank of music that's resulted from long jamming sessions back in the early days of Rastermusic. These are processed and folded into a taut and energetic web of electrostatic click- and pulse-rhythms.
The pieces are titled in homage to the vanished communist geography of the former Karl-Marx-Stadt, the industrial city in the heart of the former East Germany where they grew up, whose original name - Chemnitz - was restored in 1989. The next Signal album, to be released later in 2005, will be called Robotron, a reference, reveals Nicolai, to the cityscape's most prominent landmark. Robotron was the DDR's equivalent of IBM, producing microchips and components during the 1970s, and its factory was the biggest building in Karl-Marx-Stadt, crowned with an enormous neon sign blinking with a code-like logo of dots. It's not hard to imagine how the image has inveigled its way into the Raster aesthetic.
Raster-Noton's materials can appear forbiddingly abstract at first encounter, but their intention is not to create an alien, dehumanised vision. For Nicolai, the materials used are crucial, and he has shied away fro the immaterialities offered by 21st century technologies and reproduction: raw data in the form of downloads and CD-Roms are less trusted than objects that have an appealing texture and weight. The latest alva noto release, Transall, is a set of three CDs with a 3" disc embedded at the centre of a transparent circle, and these are encased in an elaborate monochrome envelope patterned with a complex geometric design loosely based around distorted octagons. Several of the shapes formed have been blacked in in configurations that make smaller cellular forms. Nicolai has taken this idea and planted it in the exhibition that accompanies Cut & Splice in London, where he'll be showing a geometric wallpaper of his own design, inviting spectators to place black stickers on it wherever they choose. In previous similar works it's fascinating to observe the gradual, communal pattern-building and the unpredictable distribution of stickers. In practice, it never appears entirely random: the first-placed stickers tend to act as magnets around which the subsequent ones cluster or depart. It's as if, instead of using the raw energy of electricity to shape the work, he's tapping into the enormous flux of energy that is the people's collective consciousness. It's not only about the machine, but about error, contingency and choice: the qualities that make us human.
Rob Young is Editor-at-Large of The Wire magazine, and a writer and broadcaster who contributes to The Guardian, Uncut, Frieze and Resonance FM. He is the Editor of Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring Of Modern Music (Continuum Books 2002) and is currently working on an illustrated 'biography' of Warp Records.