Christian Nicolai's conception of electronica as the surest base on which to set the foundations of a non-clichéd romanticism has become more and more pronounced in recent efforts. Here, in dedication to the four hundredth anniversary of Mannheim, Germany, the form is renovated yet again. The newly acquired concentration on string texture, provided by Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt am Main, alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto's piano and Nicolai's digital manipulation, gives rise to a fundamental shift in thinking. The concept in play now puts the musicians in a triangle formation, which effectively reorganizes the channels of communication.
Sakamoto is now largely in the background, still present, but in less of a personal manner. He can be seen as the faceless third in several places over the work, mediating between the taut provocations of the string section and Noto's textural and percussive armory. Only in heightened moments, such as "Grains" and "Broken Line 1", do his notes freeze and tip over, suggesting an antique, fragile prettiness amidst the deep pulses and strings that play like looped, harmonizing voices.
After the opening pair of compositions, the remaining disc consists of four pieces, played twice over, perhaps in adherence to the notion that an event only receives signification upon its repetition. In any case, the compositions are cleverly elliptical, loose, but with a complexity of inter-action that displaces the listener just enough. In fact, this balanced exchange between the air-locked ambience and freshness and seeming spontaneity of the string ensemble is one of the works strongest appeals; if only it had been in the least bit upset now and again, one suspects the results would be stronger still.
When this set of pieces is played over for the second time, on the DVD, the lines undergo a re-harmonization, and the performance peaks with an enervated double-time section. Together with the visuals, this makes for a rich, steadily evolving continuum — Utopia in a surprisingly traditional sense.
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