A largely electronic composer whose work leaps across genres, movements and decades, Japanese actor/musician Ryuichi Sakamoto’s most visible success has been scoring and co-starring in films that focus on a forced meeting of dissimilar cultures. Movies such as the obscure World War II prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence, in which Sakamoto appeared opposite David Bowie, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s bloated but memorable epic The Last Emperor (co-scored by Talking Head David Byrne) have been buoyed by Sakamoto’s orchestration, which sometimes verges on the saccharine but works to guide the investment of emotion required by such large-scale dramas.
In his popular recording career, Sakamoto has veered from the disco-bound Kraftwerk synth-pop of his late-’70s group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, to solo albums reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or “Let’s Dance”-era Bowie. His most recent incarnation has been that of keyboard accompanist to wistful bossa novas by Vinicius Cantuaria and Jacques Morelenbaum. Like others in the very limited field of creative icons whose influence is still relevant after thirty years at work, his talent has often been best observed through his choice of collaborators, and his voice works well in the role of director/organizer rather than featured performer.
Sakamoto forgoes top billing on Insen. It’s his second album with Berlin-based electronic artist Carsten Nicolai, a molder of seductive audio-visual arrangements under the name Alva Noto. Though his ivory dribblings form the album’s foundation and his name appears on its spine, Sakamoto is clearly not the driving force behind this contemporary riff on the well-tested model of keyboards and underlying atmospherics that was laid out in the early ’80s by forefathers such as Cluster, Vangelis, Harold Budd and, inevitably, Brian Eno. I tread here on well-worn ground after exhausting more than my share of Eno references to describe instrumental electronics, but the opening piano coda of “Aurora” sounds dangerously similar to comparable segments of genre touchstones such as1981’s Budd/Eno album The Plateaux of Mirror. Its saving grace is the expanding digital pointillism that follows the first phrase, adding a much needed volume to Sakamoto’s wandering filler track.
Nicolai surrounds this series of baby steps up the board of a grand piano with stuttering remnants of the original melody while forming an insistent rhythm pattern from the percussive clicks of unidentified digital devices. Many of these samples do not have a noticeable tone, and they sound closer to the pops that can be heard when unplugging an active microphone than the beats of any drum machine. The delays in tempo form a shifting swarm of electronic activity beneath the notes of each track, and though his arrangement does not always transcend the limits of its steady repetition, Nicolai’s equation works well on tracks such as “Logic Moon,” shaping Sakamoto’s two minor chords to the point where the actual physical performance is only a small part of the end composition.
Though the chords are recognizable, Nicolai’s electronics bubble up in time and add counter-melodies to some of the hanging notes. By isolating and rearranging Sakamoto’s spare phrases, Nicolai demonstrates one of the necessary components of successful electronic minimalism: hammering a simple theme into place and veering into a slight variation just before the listener’s patience expires.
For those with only a passing interest in subdued ambience, Insen will move through the background undetected like so many disposable works before it. However, listeners willing to dig beneath Sakamoto’s pretty but vacant piano performance will find a compelling work of pure texture by audio expert Alva Noto, whose future projects should be of particular interest to fans of experimental electronics.
‘Insen’ Web site, including MP3s: http://www.raster-noton.de/catalog/cdr065.html
Alva Noto Web site: http://www.alvanoto.com/