Ladies In The Lake, or, Matmos @ The Stone

Music Review: Matmos @ The Stone

I remember the first time I watched electronic performance. It was at The Knitting Factory in 2000. A friend of mine had brought me. And I was amazed that a crowd of people had turned up to watch two guys…DJ. Well, they weren’t just playing one club song after the other, rather, they were live-mixing, a performance practice found commonly today, particularly in New York’s more avant-scene. This kind of performance–and yes, it is performance–requires some adjustment from the audience because of the way the materiality of music is mediated. When the source of the music is digital, and nested somewhere within the hard shell of a Mac laptop, the movements of the performers do not necessarily sync up with what you hear, which really goes against millions of years of our historical relationship with sound and movement. In live-mixing, you can hear sudden jolts of cacophony that may sound as if a building has just been destroyed by a ton of plasticine explosives, but all you see is a person hunched over a mixer, turning a single knob with two fingers. Likewise, the subtlest shift in musical texture may require a performer to leap several feet to one side in order to turn down a level on a different machine that is in operation (usually, there are several). Visually, performances like these are always super informal affairs, and the stage generally looks like some kind of audio mission control, with tens of chords tangling about two or three tables, connecting machines to instruments to microphones via some emphatic necessity to capture sound, manipulate it, and amp it back out into the free air.

Such was the scene on Saturday night, when the digital duo, Matmos, gave two coveted performances at The Stone, John Zorn’s successful and intimate new music venue in the East Village. C.C. was there for the ten o’clock show, where we crowded into the corner building (that may only seat forty or fifty people) along with a mix of phone-heads (you know, those anime-inspired worshipers of electronic music that never take off their headphones) and some civilian admirers.

Matmos, aka Dr. Drew Daniels and Martin Schmidt, is held in high regard in certain musical circles. They are mainly known for their adventurous sound sampling (which ranges from manipulating conventional musical instruments to the gory sound affects of plastic surgery) and for their collaborations with Bjork on perhaps her two best albums, Vestperine and Medula, where they sampled household objects to create delicate, intricate beats, evoking the at one simplistic and complex realities of domesticity.

But their performance at The Stone was of a more playful tone. Well in command of their tools (three laptops, a keyboard, a couple mixers, a couple guitars, some cymbals, a kazoo, a balloon, and a pair of white galoshes), Daniels and Schmidt, and a guest performer whose name I do not know, so I’ll just call him Chill Dude In A Beanie, seemed at home and at ease. Even their entrance was casual. Schmidt and Chill Dude In A Beanie came up out of the basement tapping metal cymbals they carried with them. Then Daniels got the electronics going. And for a while, they continued this way–randomly improvising live and acoustic sound–until a steady bass beat came in to ground the whole thing.

Schmidt, the more Cage-minded of the duo, dressed in a jacket and tie, took charge of the live materials. He picked up one of the white boots and rubbed its material against itself, creating a squishy friction. Then he held the boot up to his face, breathed into it, and began saying, “Todd? Todd? Honey?” as if you were hearing a nagging mother’s voice get muffled through the locked bedroom door of an angsty teen. A balloon was used to nice effect as Schmidt spoke into it while letting the air eek out of the pinched hole. This all in the first number.

The second piece was more sultry. The tonal content, as best I could gather, sounded Dorian, that mysterious mix of a minor root with a heavenly, whole tone ascent in the middle of the scale: very Satie. But also very “Hidden Place,” which is the first track on Vespertine. In fact, it might have even been the same key (anyone?). Behind them swirled a projection of striated circular patterns.

Next up, some scratchy “low definition” and digitally mixed vintage porn was screened. I don’t think it’s my fault that I can’t remember what the music sounded like. Um…ok, there was an electric guitar. How’s that?

Indicative of the eclectic interests of most contemporary composers, Matmos has taken to interpreting the works of other artists, both popular and classical. Reportedly, it was their remix of Bjork’s “Alarm Call” that got her attention. But minimalist composer Terry Reilly served as inspiration for the fourth piece, which they called a “synth chop up” of one of his works.

The music was built on the ghostly skeleton of a major chord with chromatic variations on the third and fifth degrees. A major/minor third oscillated in the bass. Schmidt bowed an acoustic guitar while Chill Dude In A Beanie busted out an electric guitar. Red concentric circles were projected onto the wall, then dissolving into the image of a hand. The piece ended with Schmidt bowing the drone pitch (it’s difficult to justify calling it the “tonic”) on the guitar.

Chill Dude In A Beanie took a seat to let Daniels and Schmidt finish out the set with a rendition of a work by another classical composer, Robert Ashley, who was in attendance. The pair performed the final scene from Ashley’s opera “Perfect Lives.” There was no singing, however, instead, Schmidt spoke his way through the poetic text while occasionally strumming a plagal neighbor chord on the guitar, while Daniel’s computer music set an open fifth in the background. The piece had a sort of Caribbean flair, mixed in with some intricate, flickering rhythms. But the music felt idly grounded. Perhaps this was intentional in order to evoke a kind of meditative state, which wouldn’t be a new goal for electronic music, or for minimalism-oriented composers.

But this piece embodies the more frustrating aspect of live-mixed, electronic performance (and electronic avant garde music in general), which is not the material matters–as a culture, we have digested the benefits of electronic sounds–but, rather, the fixedness of the fundamental tonal material.

Like every piece on this program, the overall arc or architecture of the music is fastened to a bass note, or figure. I would call this by the classical term, “ground bass,” except for the fact that a ground bass at least moves through a series of different notes before it comes back around to repeat itself. The groundedness is most electronic composition would more accurately be described as pedal tone, where a bass note holds beneath a progression of chords that may or may not share that tone. This effect is generally used—in classical music—to signal the end of a piece of music. By this association, one might be able to say that most contemporary electronic repertoire is derived from a compositional sense of culmination, or termination, or arrival. But once we have arrived—in electronic music of this variety—where, indeed, are we?

I’m not going to make a guess here. All I know is that, with this method, electronic music is able to cover a vast territory of sounds, from blips, blurps, sqwrks, and tics, to more conventional musical tones, chords, and harmonic and melodic figures, without veering too far from an essentially tonal basis: after all, tonality is built from the bottom up. So the musical adventurousness at play in this music is all spatially “above” the fixed and essentially tonal grounding of a repeated bass note or figure.

I can’t help but feel that there is something a little too resigned in this process: Resignation to repetition.

Furthermore, and probably what irritates me the most, is that repetition used this way establishes tonal gravity, and makes even this, the avant garde, essentially resistant to traditional ideas of atonality. The exact same thing can be said of the majority of minimalist music. Because the point of traditional atonality was to unfix the moors of tonal gravity, which is what takes you into that interstitial territory that is genuinely “alternative.” And where traditional tonality established this gravity by an opposing relationship (tonic to dominant) and a subsequent series of hierarchical progressions, minimalism establishes gravity by way of sheer repetition, fixing a tonal point of reference above which a surface of aesthetic freedom passes freely.

It should be noted that early electronic music wasn’t written this way. Composers like Berio and Cage, feeling truly liberated from the necessities of tonal gravity, offered more noise-based palates of sound, constructed by hand with scissors and tape, that to this day sound more adventurous than much of what went down at The Stone with Matmos. Maybe we can chalk this up to a general change of taste within the avant garde, or a natural move back toward the tonal security that composers, for the good part of the last hundred years, fought so hard to shed. I don’t mean to promote retrogression. I just have the feeling that Matmos, and artists like them, are being prudishly selective in which of their resources they’re really willing to exploit. That is, they’ll sample to sound of fat being sucked out of a person’s abdomen, but they won’t program their computer to loosen its grip on steady repetition.

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