In conjunction with the Museum’s first major exhibition of sound art, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, MoMA’s PopRally committee is thrilled to present the first U.S. performance by cyclo. (Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda), entitled cyclo.id., on October 6. Since their collaboration began in 1999, cyclo.’s work—live performances, CDs, books, and ongoing research—has focused on their shared interest in the visualization of sound. In anticipation of the performance, Nicolai (whose work is also featured in Soundings) and Ikeda joined us for a rare interview to discuss their process, their love for Lissajous figures, and their thoughts on sound.
When/how did cyclo. form? What initially interested you in the visualization of sound, and how did you come to your current practice?
Ryoji Ikeda: [Carsten and I] met each other for the first time around 1996–97, during a group exhibition in the Netherlands. After the exhibition, we became friends and, in 1999, started working together as cyclo. In 2001, when we were mastering cyclo.’s first album in Berlin, we were totally fascinated with the beauty of the Lissajous figures formed by our music in an oscilloscope. Lissajous figures generated by normal music or our voices usually are quite random, or form uninteresting patterns, but we use a lot of unusual sound waveforms for our music, which makes the figures quite geometric. Through this process, we found a certain mathematical beauty hidden in our music. Later, [Carsten and I] decided to archive the sound waveforms that generate the beautifully geometric figures on the oscilloscope screen in a cyclopedia (“cyclo”-pedia), entitled cyclo. id vol. 01, featuring the figures of the sounds, and the sounds themselves. That’s our central motivation for cyclo.
Mathematics plays a key role in your separate work as artists, as well as cyclo.’s work. Can you talk a little about the process you undertake to analyze each sound?
Carsten Nicolai: The starting point for cyclo. was a musical collaboration, a process focused on micro sounds and their relation to visual analysis. We created a very experimental level not only with sounds, but also with an archive of images created by sound. This was the starting point for looking deeper into analyzing sound and the relation of the image and the audio data. This project has been going on for more than 10 years, and a big part was to understand the correlation between sound and image, and to create a most precise software that helps us to visualize and to document. Of course, in the process of understanding the analysis, mathematics played a major role. The result of this process is two CDs and the previously mentioned book.
How does cyclo.id, the piece that you will be performing for PopRally, relate to your independent work?
RI: Together, we had done sort of R&D for a decade, and as a result we published cyclo. id vol. 01 in 2011. The sounds and visuals in it are open resources for both me and Carsten, but could also be used by anyone, so I occasionally use some sounds for my own solo projects. cyclo.id, the performance, is kind of an application or demonstration of how to use the archive/database of the sounds we have designed or discovered. We now have a great number of sounds that we use as our artistic alphabet, but the musical grammar we decided to take for the performance is more accessibly groovy rather than statically academic. We ourselves just want to experience the wonder of sounds audio-visually through performance shared with the audience directly.
Describe your role in the live performance.
CN: the live performance consists of modular elements that we combine in real-time, arranging, mixing, and layering and creating sound-content that will be visualized by real-time working software that represents the process of our interest in visuals and sound.
In relation to the previous question, how would you define the performance cyclo.id, and what will we see on October 6 at MoMA?
CN: You can see and experience the cyclo. performance from two perspectives. On the first level, you can purely enjoy the sonic content and its translation into images. What is very helpful for the listener is to know that the images are a pure graphical analysis of the sound that is played—that means all the images are created by the sound itself—and to generate a variety of images we will use our archive of sound. On the second level, you can try to read the content of the images, and you can try to understand their correlation to the left and right audio channels, the frequencies and the amplitude. Therefore, the visual image is not only a graphical representation, but delivers you information about the sound data.
Is there a clear line of demarcation between sound and music, and if so, where do you see it?
RI: to me, sound is a property of physics; vibrations of air. Music is, in essence, a property of mathematics; without mathematical structures, sounds are merely sounds.
Carsten, can you talk a little about your record label, Raster-Noton, and how cyclo. is situated among the other artists on your roster?
CI: In 1999 noton. archiv für ton und nichtton merged with rastermusic to form Raster-Noton. With the collaboration of the founders of rastermusic, Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender, a label was set up, on which we are not only releasing our own material, but also inviting international artists working on similar interests in sound aesthetics. In 15 years, we have made more than 150 releases, representing artists like Atom TM, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Emptyset, Kyoka, Robert Lippok, Ryoji Ikeda, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Ryoji, there is a quote about cyclo. on your website that says, “They arrive at a standpoint from which the audio element in the process is subservient to the desire and appetite of the image.” Can you expand on this?
RI: In our research, we discovered a lot of incredibly beautiful Lissajous figures that seemingly had never been found before, but most of these beautiful figures had really horrible sounds (cruelly harsh) that, everyone will agree, cannot be used for any kind of music. Instead of abandoning or ignoring these sounds, we reconsidered using some of them somehow to keep the resulting Lissajous figures beautiful—like we set a rule on how to use them. Eventually we have upgraded a certain aesthetic about sounds. (Not everyone will agree, though—but no one imagined they would love distortion or feedback sounds of electric guitars before Jimi Hendrix.)