Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto performed their masterful and engaging duo set at Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Wednesday night, with the glamor and poise that such a venue implies. The show was entitled s (an abbreviation of “summvs”, which is a portmanteau of “summa” and “versus” meant to speak to the transcendent musical possibilities of electronic media), and perhaps this absurdly simplified word indicates the process-based, ongoing nature of the project as a whole.

© Ryuichi Sakamoto
© Ryuichi Sakamoto

As a part of the Red Bull Music Academy series that has been covering the city this last month, the event was more complicated than usual. Lines for tickets that the organization had bought up made the concert seem almost like a dance club, with all the spurious prestige and posturing that that entails. While on one hand this was an annoying distraction and led to some slight breaches in standard concert etiquette, I had an undeniable rush of pleasure upon seeing excited crowds waiting to sit in a darkened concert hall.

The opening act was Argentina-based Melmann, and during his set any seats that remained empty were filled by the lines pumped up by the corporate sponsorship. Melmann’s music resembled nothing so much as musique concrète-lite, with very tonal passages played on ukulele and melodica interspersed with recorded loops of flowing water, wildlife, along with less identifiable sound objects. Passages of poetic recitations (one was a fragment of a Shakespeare sonnet) divided the set into manageable subsections, but the real interest of the set lay in the complexity of its texture. Often in this concert format the music’s large-scale momentum gets lost in excessively contemplative silences, but this performer was able to maintain forward motion while maintaining the sense that every textural layer was deliberate. The proliferation of delay lines might have given the impression of a meter, but this effect was replicated many times with different sound sources and at different rates, resulting in a diffuse drive that avoided a unifying pulse.

The first element of the main performance to catch the audience’s attention was surely the visual format, which the two musicians have been perfecting for years. It consists of an oblong video screen with dynamic visualizations that take primary cues from the piano and electronic input signals. Noto seemed to direct the beautiful, abstract images in real time, modifying the way that sonic input was translated into video output. Because of Sakamoto’s sparse and highly gestural playing, it was fairly easy to pinpoint the visual parameters under his control. At one point, a backwards-scrolling marquee used the pitch classes played by Sakamoto to position led-style lights over a flickering black-and-white pattern, which seemed to be a nod (or even a pander) to the more musically literate members of the audience.

Overall, it was difficult to evaluate the role of the display in the performance. It was occasionally distracting, as I found myself hearing the music only as an accompaniment to the visuals which were often commanding. There were also moments when the display was literally painful to look at – in the general darkness of the auditorium, sudden flashes of bright sine-wave lines or musical staves brought tears to my eyes that were not tears of joy. However, there were other moments where the display added greatly to the general effect of the “piece”, to call it that. At the peak of the concert (roughly two-thirds of the way through the set), for example, concentric circles far exceeding the bounds of the screen gave a powerful life to the overfull electronic sound of full, winds-heavy orchestra hits, paired with the sound of Sakamoto tossing claves onto the soundboard. In fact, in moments such as those one can catch a glimpse of what the act aims for in their “new collaborative whole”. Neither “contemporary art” for MoCA nor the standard black-clad “new music”, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto continue to define themselves and their work outside of any aesthetic prescriptions.

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