Over the course of seven full-length studio albums, Matmos have created atmospheric, experimental electronica with such unusual “instruments” as life-support systems, a bowed five-string banjo, cars starting, water dripping, whoopee cushions, aspirin tablets thrown at a drum kit, rhinestones on a dinner plate and dogs barking. The duo, which is made up of Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel (who are also an offstage couple), is equally comfortable with the digitized set up of samplers, sequencers and synthesizers that are the more traditional realm of electronic musicians. Last week Matmos packed up their whole assortment of sound wizardry and headed to campus from their hometown of Baltimore for a John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center-sponsored residency that included an artist talk, a seminar with students and a concert.
Though they have a pretty cerebral approach to the creation of their music—an approach that can, perhaps, be explained by their “day jobs” as faculty at Johns Hopkins University (Daniel) and Maryland Institute College of Art (Schmidt)—their music can be playful. How else to describe a noir-ish song written to honor the mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith that owes its jazzy percussion to the sound of drum brushes dragged over the covers of Highsmith’s books? And, as Daniel reminded the audience during the group’s talk, “We’re not conceptual artists, we’re pop artists.” “We have a merch table,” Schmidt added for additional proof.
Each of the duo’s albums has, however, been highly conceptual. 2001’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure is made up of sounds culled from recording different surgical procedures, including the noises of liposuction and the feedback caused by electrical interference from laser eye surgery. 2003’s The Civil War began as an experiment in an “all-piano” record, and became a string instrument collection of banjos and fiddles constructed around both the American Civil War and the 17th century British Civil War. And 2006’s The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, the focal point of the duo’s recent talk, features aural portraits of 10 different prominent gays and lesbians who inspired them (including the aforementioned track about Patricia Highsmith, “Snails and Lasers”). The tracklisting is a remarkable collection of “cultural capital,” in Daniel’s words, encompassing writer William S. Burroughs, Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and pornographer Boyd McDonald. And the ensuing ambitious tracks spin stories out of field recordings of the buzz of hair clippers, human yelps and even a light-sensitive Theremin “played” by invertebrates.
It makes sense, then, that the abstract group would then be moved to create an album whose concept is concepts. For the past four years, Matmos have been working on an album, helmed by Daniel (each member of the duo takes turns being in charge of the record; it’s his turn), called The Marriage of True Minds (Daniel also happens to be a Shakespeare scholar). “The concept in my mind is the origin for the record, but it can only be expressed by the record,” said Daniel, laughingly admitting that he expected it to be “the most navel-gazing record ever.”
But as a way to express this inexpressible concept, Matmos has been re-enacting telepathy experiments from the 1950s. Subjects (including some Haverford students) were asked to sit alone in a room with headphones and eye masks (to block out external stimulus), while Daniel attempted to transmit the album’s concept to the subject via telepathy. Matmos then recorded what the subjects saw and felt. Those field recordings are now becoming the basis for The Marriage of True Minds. In some cases, the recordings that they collected from those sessions are being sampled directly in their compositions, and in others, like the choral piece that Matmos premiered Saturday night, their words serve as a text for others to perform.
The performance portion of their residency not only included the world premiere of this chorale (which featured 10 students singers, as well as Associate Professor of English Gus Stadler and me), but also a video piece by Schmidt that was filmed at Haverford and showed students undergoing the telepathy experiments. They also played an older piece from 2008’s Supreme Balloon, and, in the evening’s show-stopping moment, performed with Associate Professor of Physics (and jazz saxophonist) Stephon Alexander ’93. Video and photos from the concert are below.
Photos by Natasha Cohen-Carroll.
The chorale was almost 14-minutes long, but here is a snippet of some Fords (onscreen and off) helping bring the themes of The Marriage of True Minds to life:
Though the video is dark and it’s hard to see him, you can definitely hear the sax contributions of Associate Professor of Physics Stephon Alexander here: