Imagine for a moment living out the rest of your days inside a glass house. I do not mean a metaphorical glass house — wherein one should refrain from casting stones — but a dwelling, a domicile, made entirely of glass. How does that make you feel? Now imagine that feeling converted into sound and you might begin to understand the experience of sitting with Ryuichi Sakamoto & Carsten Nicolai’s (aka Alva Noto) latest release. Let’s discuss some simple properties of glass. For starters, it is a transparent solid. It can protect from the elements but not from light or peering eyes. When one walks into a heavily glassed-in building they find that not all connection with the outside world is lost, compared to that of buildings made primarily of concrete or wood. The inside of a glass house does not feel closed off, but open and free. However, with openness and freedom comes exposure and vulnerability.
Many of these same properties and feelings surface in the album, whose 36-minute span is a tension wire held taught between the two performers. Like glass itself, the listener often has to explore closely to figure out the shape of these sounds. Behind every sound, however, is the corresponding artist’s full intention, as is evident from the beautiful video footage of the improvised performance. The duo take their time building the piece, its opening minutes a whisper of singing bowl vibrations and bowed crotales. These gentle acoustic elements simmer as a primordial sonic soup. The music learns to walk when Sakamoto himself walks to the amplified glass walls of the Philip Johnson house and gracefully drags his mallets across their surface. The walls are sensitive, amplifying much sound from little movement, so Sakamoto is careful not to lead the piece into a hailstorm of noise.
These two musicians have played with and improvised together for years, with their roles within any previous collaboration clearly defined. Glass is a new approach — perhaps hinted at on the Revenant soundtrack they did together — where the Venn diagram representing the duo’s respective roles almost becomes a circle. Working in cross-platform harmony, two performers fuse into one. By using the house as an instrument this fusion is taken even further. The music becomes a unified whole, a breathing entity stripped of musician credits and traceable provenance. Other writers have found a simple comparison between glass and ice to help describe this music. And although the piece has a crystalline sharpness, its mood is not necessarily cold. It is not so much a freeze, but a thaw, revealing a warmth and life buried within a frigid exterior. This is powerful music from two humans inside a glass box.