Matmos

Interview by Lasse Marhaug September 2021

DD = Drew Daniel

MS = Martin Schmidt

LM: Your piece is called "If All Things Were Turned to Smoke” and told me you’ve based it on the Polish composer Boguslaw Schaeffer’s work. Why did you choose to work from this? What is your connection to this Schaeffer? Have you worked with his ideas before?

DD: We didn’t know about Boguslaw Schaeffer’s music until Michal Mendyk from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute approached us about a commission to possibly make new music out of his music. We listened to his electronic, choral and electroacoustic pieces from the 1960s and 1970s and thought the music was incredible and agreed to create a “sample kit” out of his music for Ableton and also to create an album of new music constructed in response to Schaeffer, which will come out next year on Thrill Jockey. One of his pieces that we really love is called “Heraklitiana” and uses texts by Heraclitus, harp and musique-concrete manipulations of water and the sea. It is a kind of liquid response to the philosophy of Heraclitus, famously known for his metaphysical fragments (cryptic pronouncements filled with implication such as “existence is fire”, “you can never step in the same river twice”, etc.). Our title is taken from one of Heraclitus’ fragments, which reads: “God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savor of each. If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them.” The remark imagines a chaos in which it is hard to know what we are experiencing, but it also wonders about how our senses might orient us even in the middle of confusion. Perhaps that is what will happen for the listener? Our piece heavily transforms and processes elements from Schaeffer’s “Heraklitiana” and combines them with new harp playing by Una Monaghan and electronics by M.C. Schmidt and myself and Jeff Carey. It resembles but also deviates from a stereo composition with the same title that will appear on our next album next year, but this is an expansive re-working that isn’t the same piece. Our work for EKKO is longer and wilder.

LM: I get the impression that a lot of your work has a conceptual framework that you work from. Is this primarily a tool to help get the process going, with an idea that having an extra aspect to the music making will enrich the music, or do you feel that it’s a necessary component for reading or full appreciating the work? How do you pick your subjects/concepts? Is this approach a way of asking something back from the work, so see how it’s perceived?

DD: I guess I see each concept that we use to make music as an anchor; it connects you to the world, gives you a way to orient yourself, to begin and look around from a specific vantage point. You change in your relation to the concept as you keep exploring the space it makes available and kind of mark out the limits and boundaries that a chosen conceptual restriction imposes too. Each record or piece is different because the shape that those limits defines might matter a lot sometimes to the end result, or might wind up not really pushing back all that much. “Make music out of plastic” doesn’t tell you what tempo or genre or density will result, that’s up to you. “Make music at 99 bpm” enforces a tempo but is totally open about what the feeling amounts to for the audience. I think listeners who know the concept get one experience and those who don’t get another. I want both to be worth someone’s time, and I like the re-orientation that learning the concept can provide. Maybe I’m also okay with someone just learning about the concept and imagining the music without hearing it. That’s okay too.

LM: What’s the origin of the photo you sent me? What is it? Where is it from? It looks like some kind of well, or fireplace?

DD: I took the photograph while traveling with my father along the Silk Road in China and Kirgiz Republic and Uzbekistan. That particular photograph is from Turfan in the Xinjiang region of China, the Uighur region that is now the site of terrible political oppression from the PRC (also a site that fans of Morton Feldman will know because of his pieces inspired by the abstract rugs from the region). It’s an outdoor firepit used for cooking, attached to a small family home. The region is very dry and hot and this firepit seemed to me to activate something about the title phrase “If All Things Were Turned to Smoke”. Because of its climate and its context, Turfan seemed like a space in which it might be easier to conjure up the imaginary scenario in which everything burns. It is a physically beautiful place but also forbidding place because it is one possible outcome for what our planet will be like: burning hot and controlled by an authoritarian regime.

LM: I once helped organize a concert for a piano player, and when she came in earlier the week to rehearse in the space I apologized that the piano wasn’t tuned yet. She told me that most piano players are used to playing on untuned pianos at home, because they can’t afford to have piano tuners come in every week. I feel similar when I do my multi-channel pieces. I don’t have eight monitors in my studio, I’m lucky if I can have a set-up of four, and many pieces I’ve figured out on just a stereo pair.

DD: We don’t have an octophonic set-up either!

LM: It feels a bit like a composer writing music on paper, having dealt with recorded sound for so long you kind of know what it will be on a full rig in the bigger space, and one of the aspects of making electronic music is the excitement of how it sounds in different rooms. How do you work on a piece like this? Your basement is now semi-famous in our little world of music, did you work on it there?

DD: Sometimes, Martin sets up a quad set up in the basement at our house, and sometimes he does this in his upstairs studio that we also use. But octophonic is indeed a challenge. For a long time before the pandemic, the Red Room had an octophonic set-up, so that’s the place that we thought we might use to test out ideas for this piece, but it’s been on hold because there haven’t been shows in so long, and I honestly don’t know if it’s still set up there or not. Happily, Jeff Carey has an octophonic set-up at his new house (apparently it’s where the Red Room set-up lives now because that set-up was his to begin with) so that’s the location where we will finalize this piece.

LM: Martin, you also run a festival that you described as multi-channel done punk-rock style? What are your experiences organizing it?

MC: Punk rock style means I don’t have an institution that has the resources and deep pockets that any European arts institution has. On the other hand, I feel like multi-channel electroacoustic music can and should be a populist / popular art form. Just for example, enjoyed by anyone who smokes marijuana. It’s just cool and trippy and does not require education to be enjoyed. I went to a festival a year and a half ago in a nearby university town and they have a purpose built incredible 100 channel set-up and they have a “festival” every year with electroacoustic artists from all over the country and the world, and there were nine people at this festival and I realized that they didn’t put up flyers in the local record store or bar or send out emails to anyone other than academic composers and this to me is a tragedy on so many levels. It’s a tragedy of the university having a lack of faith about the general public’s interest and everything that that implies about the relationship between universities and the general public, academic composers and the general public. And it’s a tragedy that the general public couldn’t come because they didn’t even know about it and this is how we wind up in the horrible position of people who do something assuming that nobody cares, and the general public thinking that the people who make this kind of thing are snobs. There’s just been a breakdown, at least in the United States, of the links between people. And I think both parties unto themselves are interested and excited but they’re not connecting and that’s where my “punk rock electroacoustic festival” comes in. You could also call it “punk rock” because the bands barely get paid.

LM: It seems to me that a lot diffusion / ambisonics is about exercising a high level of control, with meticulous speaker placement, sweet spots etc. I’ve seen chaotic drunk laptop gigs, but it’s often bound to the standard stereo rock set-up, there’s very little out-of-control antics in the surround sound field. Are people too precious about it?

MC: I think one of the big problems is that there are no standards. We all understand stereo and all the gear is built to accommodate the same stereo output. Whereas you can’t assume that a random venue you haven’t arrived at yet has a particular thing that deviates from stereo. The quad or octophonic or ambisonic format: there’s no standard so it’s hard to “get wild” when you don’t even know what the standards could necessarily be. This is one of the big problems with multi-channel set-ups: no two systems are the same. I’m not academically trained, so maybe I’m saying something stupid and there are standards. But if there is, I don’t know about it.

LM: How do you feel about making a piece and having it played without you being there? Has the covid era changed things? In the 60s it was common to send tape pieces around and the artists not be present, perhaps it’s something to pick up on more from now on? Less air travel.

DD: Before the pandemic, we had made some sound and video pieces that were shown remotely for a festival that was trying to draw attention to lowering the carbon footprint- remote collaboration was a way of highlighting that we don’t have to fly around the world on planes in order to connect, share and interact with each other. So we have had a few moments in which the work was our ambassador and does the talking. You do miss the audience / performer connection, but there’s also a long established precedent in the world of tape music for the sound itself to be the focus rather than the body of a performer / diffuser. So in some ways, it’s a “return to the source” to have this kind of separation be a part of the experience. We hope that we emerge from the sounds and that we are virtually felt in Norway. I think from an ecological perspective, bracketing the fact of pandemic, it’s important for artists to be more upfront about the costs/benefits of flying around the world all the time. If you’re touring, you’re playing many shows that are bordered by a flight but you can use trains and have less of a carbon footprint. It is not great for the planet if people fly to Australia to play one concert and then leave. We did that once and we felt very lucky to get to do it and we had a blast but then also afterwards we felt kind of ashamed, like: wait a minute, this is part of the problem. So remote festivals are one solution and I think they might be what the future looks like / sounds like.

Read the other interviews here:
VIVIAN WANG
MARIAM REZAEI

JIM O'ROURKE