Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto at Sydney Opera House

  • Two giants of experimental electronics face off.
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  • The path to the Opera House is noisy. Whether arriving by ferry or taxi, train or bus, you're forced to navigate the crowds that converge around the iconic landmark. Last Sunday evening was no exception. Entire families ruled the pedestrian thoroughfare, debating ice cream flavours. By the water's edge, tripod-sporting tourists elbowed each other for the perfect angle. Along the commercial strip, where souvenir shops, indie cinemas and fusion restaurants jostle for neon real estate, couples ate their surf 'n' turfs al fresco while Drake blared from a nearby Baskin-Robbins. When I finally reached the Opera House, where I was scheduled to see Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's new show, Two, silence seemed a distant fancy. Because it was sold out, the concert hall was buzzing with people, although as soon as the lights dimmed, everyone fell into hushed awe—the kind I'd often heard through BBC Radio 3 transmissions, but never experienced. Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai, AKA Alva Noto, occupied one half of the stage each, both angled obliquely towards a hypothetical centre, not facing one another directly. This arrangement seemed illustrative of their relationship: familiar yet fluid, no need for reassurances or second guesses. Having worked together for more than 15 years, they were in sync.
    Nicolai remained stationary during the whole performance, turning occasionally to the jumble of cables and knobs lying next to his MacBook. Sakamoto was more active. He paced around the open-top concert grand, pausing to pluck a string or strike it with what looked like a timpani mallet, eliciting sounds closer in timbre to the death throes of prehistoric megafauna than to piano music. Neither musician stole the show. Both took turns assuming the role of the figure and its shadow. The repertoire was comprehensive. For the most part, they played chronologically through their five collaborative releases, building from a pensive beginning, before fully announcing themselves with the percussive sirens of "Trioon II." From there, they went from strength to strength and even brought back the siren motif, which calls to mind the ghostly image of a shipwrecked sonar, for their last song, "Naono." The moment the pair exited the stage a handful of people leapt for the door. Those who stayed were rewarded with an encore that included a roiling, sensual rendition of "Siisx." On the way out, I heard several people remark that they wished the chosen venue had been more intimate. I agree, although with a performance so sublime, it wasn't difficult to close my eyes and imagine the three of us alone by the harbour, water lapping at the sandstone banks as the pair's synthesised pulses and instrumental manipulations painted an ambient gouache just for me. Photo credit / Prudence Upton