Sonic Vision: Alva Noto

Carsten Nicolai, widely known as Alva Noto, has been producing music, visual art, and installations that combine the two ever since, while also overseeing a multitude of musical output on his Noton label since its inception in 1996. These releases include work from artists like Robert Lippok, Ryoji Ikeda, and William Basinski, and typically contain strong visual and thematic components. 

Over the course of a string of solo albums and collaborations, Nicolai’s work as Alva Noto has occupied an area between music, art and science, and often blurs and overlaps the lines between the senses. Often, this will involve hearing light, seeing sound, and experiencing scientific phenomena on a more representational plane than an intellectual one. Nicolai has worked with a number of artists, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom he scored the music for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film, The Revenant. In 2018, he created the sound design for Iñárritu’s virtual reality project, Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand). 

His latest release as Alva Noto is HYbr:ID Vol. 1, which, in his own words, was “inspired by cinematic visual techniques and static images portraying scientific events” (and also inspired the compositions’ titles). We spoke to him about the album, the power of radio waves, and his ongoing interest in exploring audio formats new and old.


You’ve said that the process of creating HYbr:ID Vol. 1 was “defined by the search for a form to bind astrophysics phenomena, fiction, and performance movements.” Can you speak more about this idea, and how you conceive of the final album? In your mind, what is the album’s overall shape, form, texture, timbre?

The process of composing HYbr:ID Vol. 1 was triggered by a request to compose music for a ballet performance. I started writing the music before the choreographic work was developed. I asked the choreographer (Richard Siegal) to provide me with images that were relevant to his creation. 

He gave me three photographs: one picturing black holes, a second one picturing quantum physics phenomena, and a third image portraying a Russian folk dance. These visual inputs defined the inspirational setting from which I started composing the music for the album. I developed a sonic narrative and set the atmosphere for the compositions.

You mention that the narrative of the album is inspired by cinematic visual techniques as well—can you speak about some of these techniques, and how you implemented them?

The album was written to be listened to in one take, similarly to a movie score. Like the scenes of a film, each track was conceived to sonically describe a particular event, action, or to convey an emotion.

In looking through the liner notes, they show what appear to be graphic scores for the album. Are these a way of illustrating some of the processes that generated the sounds and rhythms on the record? If so, are these images abstracted, or actually quite literal representations of these processes?

To me, these drawings are notations in a traditional sense. Writing electronic music is impossible with the classical notation system, so you’re left to create your acoustic code. Some graphic scores describe the general development of the compositions; in others, I emphasize their dynamics and sequence. These notations also helped me to keep track of changes.

You mentioned your interest in the relationship between audio formats and audio quality. Can you expand on this?

Vinyl remained the preferred medium among audiophile listeners. There is this idea of vinyl conveying the highest-fidelity listening experience. Still, we should be aware that not all the frequencies and phase shifts of an original recording can be reproduced on vinyl: this format requires a re-interpretation of the original sonic material. As a musician, I find the best audio quality in high-resolution digital formats, including the CD. 


Due to the material and the technology bottlenecks of vinyl production, the audio quality of a recording is rather difficult to control. I understand the attractiveness of the vinyl format, but I would like to emphasize that the CD is still the best commercially available, physical format to secure the audio quality and listening experience of a recording. 

We should also ask ourselves to which extent vinyl production is sustainable—the electroplating and the use of PVC don’t quite match the willingness to act responsibly towards the environment. The permanent availability of digital streams, NFTs, and cloud services don’t seem to be a sustainable, future-oriented solution either. What I feel is missing is an open discussion among creators and audiences on these topics. I think we are in a time in which we should collectively start positioning ourselves around these themes.


I’m very interested in your point about the ecological factors involved in the various musical formats, including analog, digital and streaming. Are there any viable alternatives to the existing options that you’ve heard about, or even just imagined?

For Noton, at this stage, we are pursuing the idea that a release will be pressed in a limited physical format and digitally. We are trying to make the quality of these releases as high as possible, so that they become collectors’ items and different from purely digital releases. For the future, I am thinking about new formats that should be CO2 neutral. Cold data storage like laser-etched glass, tape, or paper seem to be good alternatives.


Shortwave radio is of course “complicated” when it comes to audio quality, but very sustainable. I wonder if there are some opportunities using other kinds of more reliable/higher quality radio signals that are being missed?

I love radio and think it’s a shame that this option has been pushed so far into the background. I hope that more people will devote themselves to this format again. College and local community radios should get more attention, and we should be careful that this technology is not shut down.

Do you see this conversation happening in earnest anywhere, and if so, where?

At the university in Dresden, where I teach, we are currently working to introduce a local university radio station. Susan Phillipsz, who has been teaching at our university for two years, is very interested in the idea. Since we have different locations in Dresden, it would be possible to connect all the departments.

Along similar lines—for Noton, as a label, what are the most popular formats? Is it CD sales?

We sell CDs and vinyl, almost in equal amounts. There’s a growing interest in vinyl, but CD has always been a big domain of Noton.


Finally, are these kinds of ecological/material questions ones that you’re trying to address within your work itself? If so, how?

Yes. We pay for recycling every product and package we produce. We pay attention to renewable raw materials, and only print on ecologically certified paper. We no longer offer permanent download options for promo, unless someone requests it. We produce with local suppliers to reduce shipping distances. All small things add up and make a difference. The higher cost is not passed to the customer—I rather accept a lower margin to cover the costs and support new projects. Since Noton is a small company and works closely with the artists, such ideas can be communicated and easily implemented.