Magazine article Artforum International

Band Apart: Jan Tumlir on Matmos

Magazine article Artforum International

Band Apart: Jan Tumlir on Matmos

Article excerpt

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.

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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 Bjork, 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 concrete 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.

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"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. …

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