Primarily recording under the name Alva Noto, German audio-visual artist Carsten Nicolai is one of glitch music's most innovative and respected figures.
Known for his visual works and installations as well as his audio releases and multimedia performances, his work explores a minimalist aesthetic, focusing on basic sine waves or light patterns that are often arranged into intensely complex sequences. As Alva Noto, Nicolai has collaborated with a wide range of other musicians, including Scanner, Iggy Pop, Mika Vainio, and most notably, Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom he has released several albums, including the acclaimed soundtrack to the 2015 film The Revenant. Nicolai is the founder of the Noton label, which merged with Olaf Bender's Rastermusic to form Raster-Noton for two decades before the labels split in 2017.
Born in the East German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1965, Nicolai first studied architecture and landscape design before pursuing an interest in the theoretical properties of sound and space. Resettling in Berlin in the early '90s, Nicolai founded the experimental music label Noton.Archiv Fuer Ton Und Nichtton as a platform for his conceptual and experimental musical concerns. After debuting with a 1995 LP released as a private press for one of his own exhibitions, Nicolai adopted the Noto pseudonym in 1996, releasing several CDs and vinyl EPs of sparse, hypnotic clicks and cuts. Some of these recordings were split releases with Rastermusic, leading to the formation of Raster-Noton in 1999. During that year, the label released 20' to 2000, a monthly series of 20-minute CDs intended to interpret the final 20 minutes of the 20th century.
With that conceptual masterwork out of the way, Nicolai expanded his moniker to Alva Noto for 2000's Prototypes (Mille Plateaux), a 50-minute album of untitled sound collages constructed from the actual sound of electrical hums and clicks, amplified and arranged into a series of discrete movements that move beyond mere ambient music into a new realm of environmental music. Transform followed in 2001, adding a more rhythmic base to Nicolai's sonic experiments. Other releases during the year included an album with Ryoji Ikeda under the name Cyclo, the more atmospheric Opto Files (with Opiate), and Uniform, a collaboration with Scanner that was composed for an exhibit opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 2002, Alva Noto released the first of several collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Vrioon featured soothing piano melodies from Sakamoto atop relatively subdued and accessible glitch arrangements from Nicolai. The album was a critical success and led to several further recordings and performances between the two artists. In 2004, a second collaboration with Opiate was released, and Alva Noto released a trio of particularly bracing EPs: Transrapid, Transvision, and Transspray. Insen, a second collaboration with Sakamoto, appeared in 2005, followed by Rev EP and the Insen Live DVD in 2006. Also that year, the solo release For was issued by Richard Chartier's Line imprint, consisting of previously unreleased pieces dedicated to different individuals. Xerrox, Vol. 1, an album of frayed ambient pieces, appeared in 2007, as did a self-titled album under the one-off pseudonym Aleph-1.
Alva Noto's fourth full-length with Sakamoto, Summvs, appeared in 2011; the duo's entire audio output to date was also compiled as a limited five-CD box set. Nicolai's aggressive, complex solo album Univrs was also issued during the year. Décade, a collaboration with Chaton and the Ex's Andy Moor, appeared in 2012. The same year also saw the debut of Diamond Version, a collaboration with Bender that presented a more accessible, even danceable iteration of the Raster-Noton aesthetic. Signed to Mute, the duo released five EPs during 2012-2013, followed by the 2014 full-length CI, which included guest vocals from Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, Kyoka, and Leslie Winer.
Nicolai returned to solo work as Alva Noto with 2015's Xerrox, Vol. 3. Along with Sakamoto and Bryce Dessner, he composed music for the hit film The Revenant; the score was eventually nominated for Best Original Score at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards and Best Film Music at the 2016 British Academy Film Awards. Leaves of Grass, an EP featuring spoken word pieces by Iggy Pop and additional music by Tarwater, was released by Morr Music in early 2016.
Raster-Noton dissolved in May of 2017, with Bender running the Raster label (and handling the R-N back catalog) and Nicolai maintaining his own back catalog, in addition to releasing new releases, as Noton. Three Alva Noto releases appeared on the label near the beginning of 2018: Live 2002 (with Vainio and Ikeda), Glass (with Sakamoto), and the solo album Unieqav. 2020's Two: Live at the Sydney Opera House chronicled a 2018 performance with Ryuichi Sakamoto. ~ Stewart Mason & Paul Simpson, Rovi