PRINT March 2004


Jan Tumlir on Matmos

WERE IT NOT FOR the sleeper success of their previous album, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001), Matmos would no doubt have remained stuck in the sort of respectable semi-obscurity that swallows most contemporary electronic outfits or, for that matter, “electroacoustic” ones, to grant the duo a somewhat more appropriate historical pedigree. This acutely “oedipal” work, as core members M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel describe it, samples the sounds of cosmetic surgery as its subject matter. “It’s like playing dress-up, trying to be like dad,” says Schmidt, alluding to the fact that both their fathers are medical doctors. Matmos’s Freudian gloss on their self-described “science of the concrete” is especially apt considering that their musical forefathers also once wielded the scalpel. If any one composition sets the precedent for their practice, it would have to be John Cage’s Williams Mix from 1952–53, a chaotic accumulation of tape-recorded sounds, evenly distributed between the artificial and the organic and spliced together by hand.

In the intervening years, the technology of the studio, just like that of the operating theater, has become much more hands-off—a development that Matmos acknowledge thematically and exploit with remarkably consistency. Even as their gear alternates between analog and digital, its objective character, its “thingness,” is always what matters most. Accordingly, A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure proposes itself as a sort of allegory for the practice of audio bricolage or montage in an age of miniaturization and infinite memory, and it does so precisely by taking a step back, technologically speaking, for every step forward. The increasingly disembodied implements of state-of-the-art surgery are miked and then bluntly sounded out in the course of routine operation. They are tapped, stroked, and rubbed together, as though by a more primitive race of beings intent on liberating their “inner spirits.” For Cage, this is precisely the condition of sound released from the constraints of a classical musical repertoire: It becomes explicitly materialistic while at the same time, by its very nature, transcending matter. Matmos likewise believe that the causal connection of sound to its material source can—and, to an extent, should—be severed, but not in the interest of a kind of “pure” sonic abstraction. For them, this disconnect is a semiotic rather than formalist priority. And it’s a way to make what are basically experimental pop songs.

Matmos excel at conveying difficult ideas in a concise and literally graspable manner, always stressing the profound physicality and direct impact of sonic information. No doubt, this talent caught the attention of Björk, who enlisted them to join her 2001 Vespertine tour. This turn of events increased their general visibility and their financial reserves, two factors enabling the greatly expanded scope and ambition of their latest long-player, The Civil War. Whereas A Chance to Cut applied the by now traditional methods of musique concrète to much more technologically advanced, present-day subject matter, the new album partly reverses the equation by returning to the historical epic. As Schmidt tells it, “The ball got rolling when we accompanied some friends to an auction at Sotheby’s of antique instruments, which is where we contracted that weird sort of collection fever.” The pair “sprung for the irresistibly named ‘fairy bells,’ which are actually psalteries,” rudimentary instruments consisting of strings tied to a box, and this in turn led them to “this folky nook in San Francisco called Lark in the Morning.” There they acquired a pristine remake of a medieval hurdy-gurdy, which was followed by an Autoharp.

“We aren’t antiques queens,” Daniel is quick to point out, being much more interested in actually “playing with these older objects and the sort of force they wind up exerting on you” than their trophylike display. Increasingly Matmos have come to refer to their musical process as a form of “curating,” but one that is entirely related to use: The initial choice and arrangement of objects to be sounded determine every practical decision that follows. Daniel comments, “We propose a concept, and that guides our actions, and we’ll execute the work according to what that concept dictates. You could draw an analogy with traditional Conceptual-art practices in the spirit of, say, that Sol LeWitt quote about the idea being a machine that generates the work.” Yet according to Daniel, Matmos’s process is far from entirely predetermined: “Some of our projects work that way, but we also work in a kind of free-associative drift manner, and then the curating only shows up retroactively. That’s certainly the case with The Civil War. There was a long period of drifting and plucking and twanging without a clear conceptual imperative to justify this activity; it was simply pleasurable. And after a while, we saw that something was starting to emerge from this drift, and that’s when you start to claim that all along you meant to do it that way.”

Undergirding the new album is an urgent concern for historical knowledge, which makes perfect sense in these increasingly amnesiac times. To what extent does this knowledge reside within historical artifacts, in things as opposed to dematerialized information? Can it be accessed “firsthand,” as it were, or must one always fall prey to the distortions of our political system and its monopolized media? By treating their archaic instruments as they would any other objects—that is, by not playing them “properly”—Matmos submit them to a kind of inquiry as political as it is aesthetic. More than ever before, their strategic instrumental ineptitude opens up a distinctly Foucauldian dimension. Bypassing the official, foregrounded musical texts in favor of those traditionally supporting and background, they begin to expose a context, a whole musical epistemology.

The psalteries that initiated The Civil War project date back to the time of the American Civil War, while the hurdy-gurdy is more tied to a spirit of pastoral British medievalism. As Daniel explained to David Toop in a recent issue of The Wire, “The [album] title is meant to suture the English Civil War of 1640 with the American Civil War of 1865 with the domestic civil war between us as boyfriends and bandmates with the current civil war in America between those who support Bush and those who despise him as the spineless usurper that he is.” The American instruments pull the album in one direction, the English ones in another, and then there is the play between diverse popular idioms that the band “curated” via a whole retinue of guest musicians. For instance, Mark Lightcap, formerly of Acetone, does his patented ambient-country guitar twang, while Jim Putnam of Radar Brothers puts in his best West Coast effort to resurrect the spirit of UK Canterbury psychedelic folk-pop. These various elements are forced together as though in a great musical summit meeting, underscored by a consistent electronic presence that has itself been greatly expanded for the occasion. Thanks to a recent visiting-artist stint at Harvard, Matmos had access to the university’s Studio for Electroacoustic Composition, where they were able to experiment with such “classical” pieces of equipment as the Buchla Box and the Serge synthesizers, all of which find their way onto this record as well.

The provocatively titled “Regicide” starts things off on a tone of cautious celebration, introducing the medieval round-dance motif that will be carried through to the end. Soon enough it is assailed by a skittering junglelike beat, the looping structure of contemporary electronica synching up seamlessly with the distant sound of the country festival and goading it toward a swirling, buzzing crescendo that undergoes one last breakdown on the way out. The point of it all is neither exactly to synthesize these parts nor, conversely, to separate and categorize them. Matmos’s compositions drift along, drawing us through one sound-space after another, disassembling and reassembling. They do not pursue any sort of resolution, any sort of ultimately disinterested knowledge of history “as such,” since at any given moment several distinct time frames are being anachronistically juggled and/or overlaid. Nevertheless, the band always remains attentive to the particular demands of the present, even if this present itself is becoming ever more temporally skewed. “You’re always playing with time,” claims Daniel. “You’re always implying a kind of immediate collision, like a hand fingering a human skull or someone reaching for the scalpel in the operating room, but then you’re also sort of imaging the, let’s say, on-screen time in which that moment can get played over and over and over again, becoming mutated and ossified in the studio.”

As makers of a primarily technological music, Schmidt and Daniel remain obstinately ambivalent. After all, this “on-screen time” of instant and continual replay is both what they work with and what they work against. Yet as much as they may deplore the knee-jerk posture of historical positivism implied by so much current techno, their principal target here is the sort of techno-nostalgia presently holding sway over popular music production in general. “At this moment,” notes Daniel, “there’s such a tidal wave of uncritical weirdness and patriotism. And also in the microcontext of music, there’s so much wallowing in nostalgia: It’s music as a way to kind of collate warm, fuzzy childhood moments, like in the current consumption of the ’80s. So I think we wanted to make a project that was quite retro, but not like a reactionary retro form of music.” In this sense, the album’s “warmer” analog elements are not meant to provide any sort of consolation or corrective to its digital “coldness.” What becomes apparent, rather, is a series of striking formal analogies across and between these discrete systems. Maintaining those links, Schmidt suggests, is “a real formal challenge with respect to how we work. Because we tend to foreground editing so much, every event gets chopped up. You know, hurdy-gurdies and synthesizers are capable of producing such luxurious, extended drone works, it encourages you to think about time differently.” He continues, “I guess our more recent work involves a sort of struggle between those two impulses. To keep something going proposes a model, and maybe that’s why so much recent drone-based sound work has this quasi-spiritual ambition or dimension to it. And next to that I think there’s something implicitly comical about the cut, you know, how it implies some sort of critical remove. You’re not lost in this amniotic drone-womb any longer. You’re necessarily stepping back and making a decision.”

Jan Tumlir teaches art and film theory in Los Angeles.