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The Wire Magazine, # 292, june 2008,
Ikeda's latest Datamatics release channels raw digital information into eardrum - bursting al By David Stubbs
The New Yorked based Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda has always been concerned with the nature of sound, from its basic constitution to its outer limits, as well as testing the very act of listening itself. On his 1996 album +/- he took music to the threshold of inaudibility, culminating in a high frequency tone which, Ikeda stated in his sleevenotes, "the listener becomes aware of only upon its disappearance". Paradoxically, 'listening' is not exactly what one does to the sound data generated by Ikeda, with all the dumb envelopment that term implies,
This is the second CD release as part of Ikeda's ongoing Datamatics project - the first was Dataplex, also released on Raster-Noton in 2005, Contemporary digital life is buoyed along on a vast, invisible wash and flow of data, in the form of texts, music, photos, films and so on. The idea of Test Patterns is to take extracts of this data and convert it into binary patterns, as demonstrated in the album's barcode cover artwork, and then into digital audio files. To listen to Test Patterns is to listen to the very stuff, the hitherto unheard chatter of the modern world.
All of this is granular grist to Raster-Noton, many of whose releases deal in lower case minimal extremism, raw essences and music as numeracy, The results can be as dry as dead mathematicians' bones. Test Patterns is certainly not that. It is exhilarating, shocking, wholly satisfying. You are warned - a sticker on the album cover advises against high volume listening to Test Patterns, as this may cause damage both to your electronic equipment and your eardrums. There are 16 tracks. From opener "test pattern #0001" through to "test pattern #0000", their titles represent all the possible permutations of a four digit sequence using the numbers one and zero. Attempts to convey imagistically what is going on bounce off these frictionless sound surfaces: the likes of "test pattern 1111" spurt spider's kneecap-sized particles in a fury of straight lines and intricately patterned intervals, black, white, black, black, black, white,
But what is going on, what struggles to go on, is quite astonishing. The rapidfire patter comes at you from an angle, at a pace, with an insistence that begs a new mode of listening. It's as if the very fur of the eardrum is being pricked upright for the very first time. That's down to the sheer velocity of these audio files, which proceed at a rate of some hundreds of frames per second.
By the fourth track, "test pattern #0100", the seemingly irregular but mathematically determined sequences take on remotely funky properties, of riffs and loops. Momentarily, you could be listening to Autechre - the sound matter begins to make sense as music, and as the logical patterns emerge, they excite a cerebral equivalent of the butt twitch, This is at once warmly welcomed and a little disappointing: it's a relief, but you don't want these pieces to settle into precedent grooves, you want its pristine alienness to be preserved. One harbours similarly ambivalent feelings about "test pattern #1010", which threatens to fall into the clavichord funk mode of Steve Wonder's "Superstition". That it doesn't is all the better - one of the great joys of Test Patterns is that of pleasure glimpsed through the bars of digital code, but categorically and altogether denied.
If this is not exactly music, then there are certainly parallels - the way the album accrues momentum as it carries through, culminating in the seismographic fury and granular whirlwind of "test pattern #1001" and the dousing frenzy of "test pattern #0000". But Test Patterns, in its own, scrupulous, methodical way does pose questions about the relationship between the listener and the listened-to. It's to be distinguished from certain extreme noiseniks, or the likes of Mattin, where the music is too often no more than a sado-masochistic test of endurance. Catch Test Patterns in the wrong frame of mind, or with inappropriate expectations, and it will probably seem waspishly, pointlessly dissonant, too intrusive to be Ambient, too lacking in obvious handles for it to serve any other function. This is not an album to be 'used' in that way. Rather, it asks to be contemplated. There are doubts as to what is sound art and what is not - Test Patterns undoubtedly is, and as such, its place (home? Headphones? Visual art gallery?) has not yet quite been found.
But then, what does contemplation of Test Patterns yield? On one level it could be seen as a critique of digital sound. These tracks bring home the fundamental limitations of its binary system one and zero, that's your lot. No nuance, no shades of grey, no waste product, no arcs or bends, none. of the myth of grace or spheres, and, lower case god forbid, no tunes. However, what it does achieve in spite of those limitations is breathtaking. Following exposure to Test Patterns, you feel not only that your capacity to experience contemporary sonic ranges has been enlarged, but also that your capacity to take in sound has been encouraged to a pinpoint sharpness. You come away, immaterially, a little richer and wiser.