Arts & Culture » Theater Critic's Choice

Carsten Nicolai

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In the last few years scores of electronic music artists have explored the tiniest of sounds, breaking down audio signals into abstract tones, hums, and clicks that sound more like the output of a machine than music. German sound artist Carsten Nicolai, who records under the monikers Noto and Alva Noto, isn't the first to use actual machine noises--modem signals, fax transmission tones, telephone clicks--as source material, but few of his peers have created such a sustained and satisfying body of work with them. Nicolai has cited Steve Reich as an influence, and it's easy to hear--Reich's early electronic work explored sets of sound loops going in and out of phase and so does Nicolai's stuff--but Nicolai's loops of pure tones, milky fuzz, frying-pan crackles, woofer-popping bass, and chattery clicks and pops rarely reconcile themselves with tidy Reichian exposition. In fact, he encourages computer malfunctions to alter these patterns over time, which contributes a sense of movement to his work. Sometimes shapeless and sometimes icily funky, it sounds best in tightly enclosed spaces: last weekend I drove around with his music playing at high volume, and after a while I felt like I could reach out and pluck individual sounds from the air. I can think of only a few like-minded artists--including Ryoji Ikeda and Mika Vainio, both of whom Nicolai has collaborated with--who give such minimal sounds so much depth and resonance. For his Chicago debut--presented in conjunction with the "Audible Imagery: Sound and Photography" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which includes some of Nicolai's visual art--he'll present two different programs. On Friday he'll perform Telefunken, a multimedia work where the audio is translated into images on a TV monitor, while on Saturday he'll play music from the superb new Alva Noto album Transform (Mille Plateaux), an excellent example of his microscopic sound sculpting. It ought to sound great on the quadraphonic sound system and big subwoofers the presenter is renting for the occasion. Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, 10 PM, 6Odum, 2116 W. Chicago; 773-227-3617.

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