Encounters: Matmos & Alvin Curran
Experimental music composer Alvin Curran is best known for his work as part of Musica Elettronica Viva, a live improvisational group which was formed in Rome in 1966 and shook up the music composition world with their radical take on sound – tinkering with synthesizers, using non-musical objects as instruments and mining the various talents of its rotating cast to challenge notions of form and performance. Outside the group, Curran’s collaborative work has seen him compose for radio, dance and theatre, as well as large-scale chamber and orchestral groups, choirs and sound installations.
Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt are Matmos, a duo who formed in San Francisco in the mid-’90s and quickly cultivated a heady sound all of their own. Merging IDM, skittering electronica and off-kilter pop, their surgical-operation-sampling album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, garnered them praise for their slavish attention to detail and playful concepts. As well as continuing to release albums for labels such as Matador and Thrill Jockey, Matmos have worked closely with Icelandic genius Björk on two of her own albums and subsequent world tours.
In this excerpt from a recent episode of Red Bull Radio’s Encounters series, the three come together with Frosty to talk about their journey into sound – and how it has evolved over the years.
When did you guys discover that music didn’t need to be made with an instrument?
My first memories of childhood go back to lying in bed in Providence, Rhode Island, and hearing ship horns in the harbor, and trains being coupled nearby on the Providence Boston line. These sounds are actually fundamental to my music today. I’ve spent my life chasing fog horns, ship horns and anything that makes sound along any coast, or any sea or lake, or any body of water around the world, as well as all kinds of other sounds, just as Matmos have gone to even further degrees in picking up on anything from electronic surgery to washing machines to buckets of gruel, which really impressed me, actually. The bucket of gruel was something really, really, really out there. We hear music in everything, at least I do, and I know they do too. The various magnetic forces of people like John Cage, Varese, Luc Ferrari, David Tudor, were absolute confirmations that anything that I might have thought instinctively, I should go about doing.
Yeah, that confirmation is super important for me. I started using non-musical instruments because I didn’t know how to play a musical instrument, and then what Alvin terms confirmation, it was more of excuse. Oh, look these other people did this and they’re respected, so it must be a respectful thing. I came from a sort of weird guilt angle. I grew up next to an airport, and my father was an amateur carpenter. Every Sunday morning I would wake up to the sound of jet planes landing, a circular saw, an opera turned up loud enough to hear over the circular saw. It’s an amazing mélange.
I grew up in Kentucky, and our home was right next door to a funeral home. On the other side of the funeral home were train tracks. I think I share that sense that hearing the musicality and movement through space of sound was just a given before I knew anything about the origin story of musique concrete itself, and the French tradition, of recording trains in the Batinole train station.
There’s a funny way in which the practice preceded the theory. Like Martin, I don’t have training on an instrument, so in a way sound was primary because I didn’t have an instrument that I could articulate a musical idea with, aside from the act of recording itself. When I was a kid I had a tape recorder, and there was something broken in the microphone, and when I would record my voice speaking, it would sound super distorted and harsh and sort of monstrous. I found this very exciting. I think it was because I was a child, and when you’re powerless you want power, or you want some version of yourself that’s more powerful. That feeling of hearing myself made monstrous was really thrilling because it was false. There’s a funny tension between when sound is about the real thing versus when sound is about a false thing.
Sound is such a harsh mistress.
You’ve innately found musicality in the world in certain things. What about also the act of removing it from its native context, and what does that give or take away from’ it?
It’s something I’ve been struggling with all my life. Am I making sonic movies that have narrative, plot, meaning, necessary clues to give the listener a knowledge of where they are, where that sound is coming from and why? Or, are those sounds just another form of pure vibration, pure sonic events in time and have no other meaning other than themselves? You know what? I don’t care anymore about it, because it’s both. If those sounds can take you, give you a free pass to some place you’ve never been, all the better.
That’s an interesting place to reach at the end of a lifetime of creating, to let go of the need to resolve the conflict. I feel that same conflict very deeply. The question of whether you’re working with a sound because it’s compelling, or whether it’s attached to meaning and referentiality and place, and whether you’re trying to leverage that, and whether you can twist the listener’s ear to feel what you feel about that sound is something we face a lot when we work with an object.
Sound is such a harsh mistress in some ways because it brings so much with it, but it also lets go of so much. When you perceive that loss, it’s hard. I had a question for you, Alvin: is it the sound or is it the meaning? I listened to “Light Flowers Dark Flowers” a few days ago with my cat, and I heard this sound at the beginning of the record that [sounded like a] cat purring. The cat really liked it, and sat on my chest, and we listened to the record together. Is that a purring cat?
Absolutely. Her name was Karma. She belonged to a dear old friend of mine that I was momentarily in love with at the moment that I recorded.
It’s a beautiful sound, and it’s interesting to me that it has this personal resonance for you because it’s attached to the person whose cat it was, and you know the name. For me as a listener, maybe I have the baggage of like, “Oh, cat as audio,” and what can be done, but my cat doesn’t have that agenda. My cat is a cat. The cat really, really liked that record.
Here’s a perfect case of my being able to identify when, with whom, and how all this came about, but the truth of the matter is the purring of a cat is a sound among other natural animal sounds. I love tigers and bear and bison. I’ve recorded all of them right up close, in the midst of these animals all around the world, which in and of themselves are so amazingly symphonic because they belong to this natural environmental symphony which is going on all the time.
To me, just listening to a cat purring could be like hearing some viola part in a Beethoven late string quartet or something. In the same way, the purring of a cat is just a phenomenon. It’s just a wonder. It’s a wonder that keeps me attracted and alive and searching, ever more for something, for that kind of natural poetry in our lives.
Objects have their resonant frequencies, but maybe moments do as well. How attached are the sounds that you cull for compositions to specific moments for you, and is that totally personal, or do you try to translate that to the listener?
Some do, some don’t. There are hours I’ve spent in the studio rubbing a plastic cup up against a microphone that has very little personal resonance for me, and yet other things are moments that I’ll remember forever when I hear that sound in no matter what context.
The other day we recorded five high school drum line players, and they were so fun. They took our complicated Matmos idea, and were like, “Oh, okay, sick,” and just launched right into it, understanding it completely. I was like, “Can you just make something up?” The kid was like, “So, you just want funky patterns?” and I was like, “Yes. Yes, Ethan, I want funky patterns.” They were very fun.
One of the hardest things I think is how to judge turning improvisation and being in the moment into a recording that will become portable. There’s so much desire to make the moment repeatable, but you’ve got to have this shadow of self-criticism of like, “Is this portable?”
Alvin, I’ve been curious about how you moved out of the early MEV era of long form improvisation into making these solo records because it seems like it was a redress for what the other wasn’t giving you. What does that say about community versus being the composer?
It’s a terrific question, Drew, and I could spend the entire day answering you because it’s really the story of my life. Again, another conflict, the conflict of collective artwork which is made with other people who are making music in real time, and at the same time imagining that they’re changing the world. They think they’re revolutionaries. That was the essence of the late ’60s. Then this step into my solo work where there’s nobody but me doing it.
The time you’re referring to, I was using a VCS 3 synthesizer and playing a flugelhorn using my voice, using various suspended percussion instruments and so on, glass chimes, metal chimes and the like. There was this whole music theater that I created around myself. The thing is, how do I come from this world of absolute accident and chaos, purposeful accident and chaos, into lyrical, melodic, very even, very, very long simple drones, and into this world of quasi-meditational music at times? The answer is it was really very easy. It was just waiting to happen.
As individuals in a group, each individual also carries their own music with them, they put it into the group’s work as both of you do. Even in contentious moments, moments of disagreement, the disagreement has positive potential to it. But stepping outside of that, it was also life circumstances. The group did not dissolve, but physically, it was no longer present in Rome, and I remained there. I said, “So how am I going to carry my music on? I’m just going to do it myself. It’s going to be improvised, it’s going to use all natural recordings I have been making until now,” and that was that. From there grew a lifetime of making music by myself, but always going back to the MEV experience for that other hit of making a completely hideous, chaotic, fucked up situation of wonderful collective unknowing. It’s like really setting the clock back to some early primeval time each time we play because we don’t know what we’re going to do.
From my point of view the role of the experimental musician is not always reproducible, and so be it.
There’s an interesting book by David Grubbs called Records Ruin the Landscape, and it looks at this idea that some people in the avant-garde had that recording limits the freedom of the moment, that it freezes it and holds it. Did people feel that way in the MEV circle about the dissemination of recordings, or did you always know that you wanted documentation of what you’re doing?
No, no, we never had enough documentation. In these last 15, 20 years when there has been considerable amount of focus first on improvisation in general, and more radical forms of improvisation such as MEV, the group has never had this problem about freezing sound in time and making it a recording. On the other hand, since we don’t have any real commercial glam, our sights are always set on giving CDs to your uncle, to the kids. We had no commercial view, and still don’t. We enjoy the memory of the work that we did, and on some occasions, on a few recordings which we’ve made quite recently, we enjoy all the more to listen to the stuff, and still wonder how the hell we did it.
Your memory will probably start to play tricks on you, and re-mix it. The first time I heard AMM I really thought they were pushing chairs and tables around in a room, and then I saw Eddie Prevost play drums, and realized, “Oh, okay, there’s a sense of how to do it.”
From my point of view the role of the experimental musician is not always reproducible, and so be it. That is largely what we do. There can be indeed ways of doing the same piece, the same module, the same whatever, over and over again. We are working on the margins of the large machine-produced musical world that includes symphonic world above all. We are still outclassed and outplayed by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, every single night, 365 days of the year anywhere in the world. We are still competing with these people from 300, 200, and 150 years ago, who by dint of the recording possibilities of our own time, are more prominent than we are.
We have a tough task, but our general task from my point of view, and I’m now spouting the ideas of someone who spent 50 plus years of their life thinking about this all the time, isn’t trying to figure out what I’m doing, but my relationship to what I’m doing and what my listeners are doing and hearing, this is a very special thing.
What you are saying makes me think about the role of the artist, and the question of what the artist incarnates to the listener and to the room. I’m suspicious of invoking a word like freedom because it’s so abused now, maybe a word that’s right next to freedom but isn’t the same is contingency; that the contingent, the unexpected, emerges when a group of people are together that can’t be scripted in advance. That’s not the same as the slogan or the score or even the data on the screen.
The performance might be valuable now more than ever because it’s a place for the emergence of contingency, even if contingency is often what you get when it’s not what you want. We live in such a controlled world that maybe performance has to manifest contingency, and that that still matters, or maybe it matters more than ever.
I don’t know how to respond to that, and I’ll tell you why, because I was going to a softer place. Our role is very simple. We are craftsman. We bring our goods into the world, and I can quote Cornelius Cardew here: when asked about why he makes the music he makes, he says, “Because it makes me happy, brings me pleasure.” I think this idea, especially in times like this when there are great tensions around the roles of so-called progressive, thinking people, and people who will want to conserve the past, and older ways of behavior. These are coming into very clear and defined conflict now. They always have been, but now there’s reason. These kinds of things are becoming issues of potential violent encounters, violent in the hypothetical way, and this doesn’t stop what we do. We continue doing what we do. We’re all entertainers. We entertain because we ask for people’s time to join us, to allow them to enter into the world of our own sonic offerings. That’s what we do, we give this stuff out.
It’s funny to hear you invoke Cardew in the register of happiness and joy because the caricature is this dour, doctrinal Marxist who shuts down certain possibilities on behalf of a more engaged form of art making. I get very attached to that Spinoza register of, like, joy increases your capacity to act. That positive affect gives you power, and that negative affect, sadness, decreases your ability to act. I’m obsessed with the melancholy. I spent 12 years writing a book on melancholy in my other life as an academic, so I definitely don’t want to knock negativity, but it’s true that maybe we underestimate the power of that capacity in joy when it’s experienced collectively, and that that is going to get us closer to out of the mess that we’re in than the recirculation of negative affect.
On the other hand, maybe negative emotions, if you experience them in an intense collective way, can also give you a sense that we’ve gone this deeply downwards, and we need to turn it around and to redress. There are certain kinds of a cry or a scream or the power of noise that I think is liberating and ecstatic, and maybe not just a tantrum, or not just a trauma, but actually energizes. We were driving down and listening to Matana Roberts, to her record COIN COIN, and there are these incredible tearing screams that erupt, but they don’t feel to me like a child’s tantrum. They feel like something breaking open, or something bursting open.
I think when you play with synthesis, you can get to that same place where you find this sound that’s so strong but so sharp and so hard, and it feels not like a cruel thing, but like an empowering thing of look what we found. There’s this whole other little rip in sound that we can pull open.
I recently came across some samples of mine that were made in the latter days of The Living Theatre when they were doing these events based on screams. They would get the entire public to start screaming. That was with Julian Beck and Judith Molina, and I recorded one of these, it must have been 10, 15 years ago. I hadn’t used the sound. It’s now in my set. What you’re saying about this, some natural sounds, it could be even animal sound or the sound of 80,000 people in a stadium, but you don’t know why they’re screaming. You don’t know the circumstances. Whether something terrifying just happened, or it’s staged. It doesn’t matter, but it’s that human energy, that sound.
Here again is that fine line between the reality behind that sound, and the immense power that that sound has on its own without knowing what it is or why it is, just that it is. This pure abstract magnet, which draws you into its own. We’re drawn to these magical natural wonders, which occur all the time everywhere. Even the most insignificant things.
There’s some unnamable, and indescribable power in almost any sound we hear.
Yeah, I got arrested just the other day, not literally physically arrested, but stopped by a doorway. It was winter, and there was a pressure system where the antechamber into the library was acting like a weird bellows where as the door would shut, and the chamber would become airtight, it was playing this beautiful pitch that would rise up and then stop in silence. I had to go find this book, I was looking for The Nuremberg Chronicle, but I couldn’t get out of this antechamber, the sound was literally so arresting. It was something so simple, and a beautiful display of the air as a material force. It wasn’t anything to look at, but to listen to was incredible.
You were standing in the middle of a natural musical instrument that was playing for you. That was it. I go back to my own sentimental romantic way of thinking about these things, but I do know that there’s some unnamable, and indescribable power in almost any sound we hear. This explains to me now that I’m standing here, and holding forth, this explains to me why we’re living now in such a sound obsessed world. It is absolutely amazing.
You guys all obviously are entranced by sound. For so much of the world, it’s a thing that for people, because it’s invisible, is not highlighted as much. Is part of the role of being a creative musician to highlight that and expose others to it?
People spend their lives playing the violin, and studying the piano, the bassoon, what have you, and why do they do that?
I’m with Alvin. The idea of the incredibly lopsided attention paid to a very narrow slice of the possible audio experience. I seek to redress this balance.
We have this Lebanese restaurant that we love to go to, but there’s also this bread oven that makes this insanely piercing, ultra high-pitched noise. We asked the servers and waiters, “How does it feel to work with that?” They’re like, “With what?” We’re like, “With that, listen. Do you hear it?” They’re like, “No, I don’t hear it.” I’m like, “No, listen. It’s very high. Do you hear it?” They’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the bread oven. Yeah, we don’t ...”
They’ve learned to smother it because it’s oppressive. I think that’s the way that citizenship in the modern world is. You maximize your efficiency, your utility, your need to work, and part of that is blinkering, and focusing and filtering out as much as possible. It may be that sound art that wants to go to the extremes of low and high is also about re-prioritizing, and that might mean de-prioritizing the voice, or de-prioritizing that sweet spot of warm melodic mid-range that is pleasurable. There’s no denying it, but there’s so much more that can be heard too.
This is our classic couple dynamic, I’m bass and he’s treble.
I was recently finishing a piece which was based on two years of sound recording in Myanmar. I originally wanted to record every bell, and every Buddhist temple. I don’t know the number of temples, I didn’t even google it because it was just out of the question, but the thing is anyone can walk into a Buddhist temple, there’s a big stick with a thing on it, and you hit the bells. People will do this after individual praying, they’ll get up and hit the bell three times. That doesn’t prevent anyone from just standing there all day long and hitting them, these amazing bells and gongs.
I originally wanted to make a piece with thousands and thousands of these bells, which I never got around to, and have the piece end with the cicada, and then go into a mode of a pure tone where it just sits on this tone. It just sounds like a sine tone, with thousands of cicadas that all kick in at a certain time every day, as the sun is going down. This is a high frequency which is so out of this world, so old, and you can’t believe that little creatures like that are making this stuff. It’s so loud, and so pure, and so simply amazing that to me it’s like I almost didn’t know what to do with it.
Your cicadas seem like a political parable that a lot of tiny beings doing small movements can, if aggregated, lead to something more powerful than any individual one. If you think about the morphology of what makes an insect make that sound, isn’t it like little striations on their legs, slight patterns of difference just rubbing. The force of friction.
You’re talking about broad range, but what about the flip side? You guys have done a lot of work of maybe squeezing as much potential out of one specific piece. Can you talk about that practice?
I think it’s in a way our response to the horror of the blank page, or the rhetoric of the infinite possibilities that gear gives you. If your collage principle means that you can put anything with anything, that becomes suffocating in its own way because it’s overwhelming in the infinitude. Maybe it’s better, or for us it’s been more generative to pick something, often something initially not terribly promising, and try to work with that. It’s about being hyper local in some ways, working with just what is in our room, or what’s in our apartment, and trying to get as much as we can out of things that maybe aren’t terribly promising.
Sometimes you do hit a wall, and you just aren’t able to get anything that really speaks to you from an object. We’ve been incredibly surprised with the resources. Right now we’re working with plastic. It could go in so many directions, but the challenge for me is how are we going to get a lot of satisfying low-end out of plastic.
That’s weird because I’m concerned about getting satisfying high-end out of plastic.
This is our classic couple dynamic, I’m bass and he’s treble. I found if you have a very thin panel of Styrofoam and you strike it with a mallet extremely close to a high-powered microphone, you can get these incredible chest rattling sub bass sounds. When I think of bass, I think of resonant spaces of a large instrument, and it needs a resonant body. What’s fascinating about even things that are seemingly so drab as Styrofoam is that there’s actually this sonic world inside of it.
Are you homebodies in that sense? Like, “I’m going to record my washing machine.”
Drew is. I would personally rather be out in Myanmar, but for some reason we’re at home scraping on plastic cups.
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