By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 3, 2008
Matmos' Schmidt (l) and Daniel Photo: Lissa Ivy Tiegelt’s a packed night at the Red Room, the tiny, no-frills performance space in Baltimore where you go if you’re hunting for the music of the future. There’s barely room to move, but people keep squeezing in, navigating the tangle of wires that spreads across the floor, finding a seat wherever they can. A couple of guitars are tilted against the wall, and there’s a small arsenal of synthesizers, amplifiers, mixing boards, and MacBooks at one end of the room. But in a dim corner, two musicians are intently miking something that seems almost comically out of place: four bouquets of roses.
Suddenly the lights dim, and two other musicians pick up the roses and start beating out a rhythm. Petals fly through the air, and soon other noises join the fray: squawking geese, the clatter of human teeth, phrases from a tract by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The sounds are all recognizable, but they’ve been electronically twisted into strange, wild new versions of themselves. The sounds devolve into beats, then form into rhythms and build into a huge, driving torrent of music. And when the flowers are finally beaten to shreds, their rustling whispers reduced to a dry rattle of stems, the song quietly ends – leaving only the heady scent of roses in its wake.
The crowd roars – for this is Matmos, one of the most inventive, uninhibited and engaging electronic music groups on the planet. Made up of Drew Daniel, 36, and Martin Schmidt, 43, the duo has spent the last decade creating smart and oddly beguiling music from a range of improbable sources – liposuction surgery, slowed-down kisses, the uterus of a cow. They’ve stuck their microphones into crayfish nerve tissue, recorded the sound of burning flesh, even worked with an Enigma code-breaking machine, sampling the sounds and building them into everything from surf rock party music to civil war ballads. It’s vivid, witty and intensely physical music, and it’s giving the abstract and bloodless world of electronic music something it’s needed for a long time – a living pulse.
“The world of electronic music is sort of po-faced and self-serious,” says Daniel, “where people are prone to believing they’re exploring ‘form qua form’ and rehashing a lot of abstract gestures from the 1950’s. But our songs are about something. They’re about rhinoplasty, or the shape of a hurdy-gurdy – they’re about material things in the world.”
Matmos’ approach is quickly pushing them to the center of the experimental music world. Straddling pop and “serious” electronica, they’ve toured and recorded with pop icon Bjork, performed in Lincoln Center and the Whitney Museum of Art, given seminars at Harvard and worked with some of the top musicians in the classical world. They’re collaborating with the Kronos Quartet and composer Terry Riley, the city of Verona commissioned a re-think of Verdi’s “Aida” from them last summer, and they’re now readying a new work for the prestigious Group de Recherches Musicales in Paris.
The performance in Paris will be especially significant, since it’s the “spiritual home,” as Daniel puts it, of 'musique concrète': music made from recorded sounds. Noise music dates back almost a hundred years -- – the futurist Luigi Russolo issued a manifesto called “The Art of Noises” in 1913 -- and in the 1950’s French composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered the use of tape recorders in music. While ‘concrète’ thrived in the laboratory, though, it didn’t last long in the real world; abstracted and theorized to death, it left most listeners cold. But by grounding their music firmly in the everyday world, and using sound in ways as theatrical as they are musical, Matmos may be breathing fresh life into the genre.
“It’s fascinating, what they’re doing,” says David Harrington, founder and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, who commissioned a piece from Matmos after hearing one of their early recordings. “They invent these incredibly beautiful, thought-provoking sounds, and bring them together in ways that seem totally unique and natural. And there’s nothing precious about it; there’s a kind of openness about their music that attracted me immediately.”
Now based in Baltimore (where Daniel is an assistant professor of Renaissance literature at Johns Hopkins University), Matmos got its start in 1989 an unlikely place: a gay bar in San Francisco called Club Uranus. Daniel was a go-go dancer there, and an admiring Schmidt (then playing in a cult industrial band) offered to show him how to edit sound on a computer. “Amazingly enough, I wasn’t met with total rejection,” laughs Schmidt. “Our musical and romantic tracks sort of dovetailed,” adds Daniel. “We’ve always been a couple making music together.”
Neither had much formal musical training. Growing up in Kentucky, Daniel played in punk bands and sang in a gospel choir (“I was the only chorister with green hair,” he says), while Schmidt took piano lessons to the ripe age of twelve. But by the 1990’s, advances in technology had put sophisticated and powerful electronic music tools in the hands of anyone with a laptop, and the field was open. Noise music, industrial culture and techno were all starting to converge, and audiences were looking for something more sophisticated. “People were asking: ‘What is there that doesn’t just go boom, boom, boom?’” says Schmidt.
The two began hunting for new sounds, applying microphones to balloons, latex fetish clothing and whatever else wandered into earshot. Playing techno in clubs and scoring porn films and pinball machines to make money, in 1998 they released they released their first discs, ‘Matmos’ and ‘Quasi Objects.’ Only a thousand copies of each were made, and they prepared to watch them sink into obscurity. “I had come happily to the conclusion,” says Schmidt, “that no one would ever care.”
But by luck or fate, a copy of ‘Quasi Objects’ ended up in the hands of the Icelandic superstar Bjork, who’d been manning the bleeding edge of pop experimentation for years. Impressed, she enlisted them to tour with her in 2001 and to record on her albums ‘Vespertine’ and ‘Medulla,” rocketing them into the pop stratosphere virtually overnight. But it wasn’t an easy ride.
“Bjork likes the idea of ‘concrete’ sources for pop rhythms,” says Daniel, “and she liked the slapstick quality of what we do. But we really had no familiarity with pop song form. We weren’t used to structures that had choruses. Matmos songs are a kind of free-associative list -- one damn thing after another. But our music changed after working with Bjork. It became more traditionally musical.”
It also became more daring. In 2001 they put out “A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure,” from sounds they’d recorded during surgery, including breaking bones and fat being suctioned out of the body. The result, strangely, is light, almost lyrical techno-pop that evokes a visceral response. “The body is such a rich source of sound,” says Daniel. “And electronic music is usually taken as disembodied and abstract, so this seemed like a good way to bridge that gap -- by making electronic music entirely out of the body.”
But it was 2006’s “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast,” that may be Matmos’ most accomplished work to date. It’s a series of portraits of ten gay icons they admired, from King Ludwig II of Bavaria to the punk rocker Darby Crash, built from sounds from objects associated with each of them. A tour de force of esoterica -- snails are used at one point to manipulate a Theremin – it’s also moving and whimsical, and tied together with organic musical logic. Critics complained that it was unintelligible unless you studied the background materials, but Daniel insists that it’s only music itself that matters.
“Some people think it’s all about the liner notes for us, but that’s not true – the music really has to be compelling in the moment of performance,” he says. “The discourse can’t rescue boring sounds.”
Matmos have just finished recording their latest disc, an entirely synthesized recording that uses no real-life sounds at all. “We wanted to tie our hands behind our back,” says Daniel, “and be forced to think about the basics of what electronic music is.” But their most intriguing project may be yet to come: music written for the profoundly deaf, who can only hear with cochlear implants that stimulate the auditory nerve and create a simulacrum of sound.
“I’m fascinated with what people with cochlear implants ‘hear,’ since what they’re hearing is purely technological,” says Schmidt. “We want to make a piece that’s played directly into the brain.”
“But we’ll never know what they hear,” says Daniel.
“No,” says Schmidt. “But it could be amazing.”
Matmos will be performing at the Transmodern Fundraiser at Floristree in Baltimore on February 9 at 9 pm. $10.