In a 2011 interview, Pieter Nooten declared his love for medieval and baroque music. ‘Nothing inspires me more than wonderful music,’ he insisted, ‘but I am afraid it’s mainly music written centuries ago.’ So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that his last three records have been recorded using the most modern technology available, with only the rarest glimpse of anything like a traditional instrument.
Music generated solely on computers can run the risk of lifelessness, particularly when it has neo-classical aspirations, so it’s with no small amount of trepidation that Spindle embarked on the two-hour journey that is Pieter’s new album.
He recorded the whole record on his nice shiny Mac. We expected tininess, we expected inoffensive glitches and dry crackles now and then, we expected, at best, to come away from the experience feeling like we’ve just had our ears nibbled by those foot-exfoliating fish.
But the power of Nooten’s machine is not to be underestimated, and neither should his talent as a composer. As head honcho with 80s Dutch electronic pioneers Clan of Xymox he made some of the most successful music to come out of the burgeoning dark-wave scene, before discovering dance, ‘doing an Eno’ and embracing the ambient – he’s no mere bedroom knob-twiddler.
On Haven, Nooten’s aesthetic is rooted loosely in a minimalistic compositional technique, but the detailed production and unexpected musical depth envelope the melancholia in a comforting shroud. The opener Here Is Light I masks its electronic twinkle in lush chords, while Slowed I sets its repeated phrases against a slowly changing sonic backdrop, like Steve Reich in a bubble bath. Overflight builds into a gently euphoric coda of phased synth sounds.
Nooten’s computer evokes swathes of cello which when stretched out, form blankets over the compositions, and are laid down like strata with the synths, creating a unified but constantly shifting soundscape on which icy piano figures bubble up like springs. On the tripartite Paik Theme, an album highlight, Nooten employs a guitarist – the only non-Mac sound on the record. It says something about the quality of the Mac that the real instrument is a barely noticeable intrusion, merely adding further interest to the already intriguing quality of the musical landscape where nothing is overlooked or overused. One of the benefits of this way of recording is that the quality control is entirely down to the user, and when the user is an experienced perfectionist, we shouldn’t really be surprised that the quality is high.
Despite its creator’s professed predilection for antiquated musical forms, Haven is the kind of record that gives modern composition a good name. It will also give countless budding musicians the belief that they can create a valid piece of work with nothing but a laptop. This may not be a bad thing, but it will be a while before anything in the genre matches the maturity, warmth and technical ability displayed by Nooten.
Words: Thomas Blake