The short ‘Bartók pizzicato‘ string punches from the opening track, Attack, may give the impression that this is gonna be one of those uncomprehensible and almost unlistenable (to my ears, anyway) retro-avant-garde string compositions. But ‘Attack’ is an appropriate title: it brings the listener off-balance and thus make him more perceptible for the well-balanced, ‘Utopian’ music directly following this opening piece.
UTP_ (short for Utopia) was commissioned by the city of Mannheim (Germany) for it’s 400th birthday in 2007. Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten ‘Alva Noto‘ Nicolai (who partnered on Vrioon and Insen before – both highly recommendable albums) team up with Ensemble Modern.
Ensemble Modern is a chamber ensemble specialising in playing modern compositions. They performed work by Frank Zappa, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve reich, Olivier Messiaen, and many more.
The musicians of Ensemble Modern are not afraid of playing ‘difficult’ music. And though UTP_ is not difficult to listen to, I imagine it must be very hard to play. Not only because of the sounds that are generated from the instruments (and the more quiet a piece gets, the more difficult it is to play), but also because of the different approach to creating those sounds: one of the instructions in the score is: “Find a group of grainy noise you like from your instrument and repeat it.” “Can you make a horizontal sound?” Carsten Nicolai asks one of the string players during rehearsals.
In some hands compositions like this tend to get academically intellectual. But not in the hands of Sakamoto and Nicolai. Both have no need to impress anyone (they already did) – their desire is to create a sound that sounds like Utopia. With the delicate balance of electronic and orchestral music, and the carefully structured dynamics in this composition, they succeeded in an impressing way.
The structure of the composition seems to be linked to the street plan of the inner city of Mannheim, which is quite unusual for such an old city because of its grid pattern. Though this pattern is sometimes visible in the video (as seen on the DVD live performance), neither the booklet text by David Toop nor the ‘making of’ documentary on the DVD provides very much details about this exact relation..you’ll have to use your imagination for this.
As always, Raster-Noton has taken great care of the package this project comes in. The CD and DVD come in a punched cover, R-N style, with 2 separate booklets: one with background information and the other with the complete score of the piece – which is very interesting to read while simultaneously watching the live performance on DVD.
The use of only one camera filming full stage give a good impression of the performance: it’s as if you were there (a feeling enhanced by the 5.1 surround sound!). On the downside, it’s hard to see details of the musicians working on the mostly dark stage.
This piece may as well be considered electronic as modern classical music. It brings the best of both worlds together. There are no boundaries – Utopia.