BY Charlie Fox in Profiles | 12 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 153

21 Years of Wildly Inventive Recordings – and a New Album – by The Baltimore-based Duo Matmos

The uniquely queer history of Matmos is a sprawling carnival with perverse interludes, bizarre objects and guest appearances

BY Charlie Fox in Profiles | 12 MAR 13

Matmos, The Marriage of True Minds, 2013, album cover showing participant in a telepathy experiment, ‘receiving’ the concept of the album

In 1991, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick issued the sounding blast of queer theory. ‘Queerness’, she wrote in her essay ‘Queer And Now’, is that which ‘can’t be made to signify monolithically’. Such a definition – which teases with the possibility that any definition is useless or, at least, too straight – might be the best way to account for Matmos. Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt’s discography constitutes a uniquely queer 21-year body of work, which taunts aesthetic consistency and tends instead towards repeated transformation. Seven albums (an eighth, The Marriage of True Minds, 2013, is just out) comprise a hallucinatory patchwork of recordings, closest – erratically – to a deformed sort of dance music. Exuberantly cerebral, heavily imprinted with conceptual art’s stress on theory and process, and musique concrète’s strategies of audio manipulation, their work is densely allusive, playful stuff; alchemy that dissolves sound art into song. Their mischievous and erudite collaboration continues in both work and life – they are also a couple, who in 2008 moved from San Francisco to Baltimore; they met in 1991 when Daniel was an underage go-go dancer at Club Uranus.

The history of Matmos is a sprawling carnival with perverse interludes, bizarre objects and guest appearances. At first they relied on a sampler favoured by mc Hammer (apparently, this was its selling point) with its limited memory responsible for the spasm­-ing, jagged, Art of Noise-like soundscapes on their early records. They worked as programmers on Björk’s Vespertine (2001), dressing her songs with delicate, wintry sounds. They conjured rhythms by cracking ice into microphones and undertook fieldwork in a (sadly unsuccessful) attempt to capture the sound of pussy-willow buds bursting into flower on tree branches. The same year they released the album A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure – the only instance of Actionist disco (where else would you go to hear the noise of blood, tissue and bone bound to needle-sharp beats?) – and a year later A Viable Alternative to Actual Sexual Contact, a collection of their six porn soundtracks, which, according to Daniel, ‘sound like bad Portishead’. They played in the ensemble for Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic´ (2011) and told Butt magazine (for which they were photographed nude by Ryan McGinley) about a ‘heavy-metal-and-shots blow-out’ one winter night in Iceland with Matthew Barney on the Vespertine tour.

The Marriage of True Minds is constructed from recordings of telepathy experiments carried out in Baltimore and Oxford. Participants lay blinded by ping-pong balls and cocooned in white noise while the concept of the new album was ‘transmitted’ from another room by thought. The result is a deeply unsettling artefact, a feast of distressed noise, all claustrophobic space and convulsive din, often close to the darkest, most wracked transmissions of jungle.

Alighting on seductive details is an inescapable side effect of listening to their work (many Matmos tracks seem to fry with strange sounds and inventive textures), but it’s also a defence against critical bewilderment. Consistency is banished – in other words, thoroughly queered. Some selected noises from the recorded works of Matmos include: the gross slurp of fat sucked from the human body in the breakdown of ‘Lipostudio … And So On’ from A Chance to Cut is a Chance To Cure, an album based around samples of medical technology and surgical procedures gathered through recording expeditions to clinics in California; the jaunty wheeze of a hurdy-gurdy, soon lost in a beehive of static and sledgehammered piano on ‘Regicide’ from The Civil War (2003), which artfully reconstructs and deranges British and American Civil War song forms; and a passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953) read aloud over a sinister drone, rattling teeth and the percussive crunch of rose petals. The latter track, ‘Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein’, appears on The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (2006), an album consisting of aural portraits of queer artists and writers made from material possessing some biographical resonance with their subject. Another track, dedicated to James Bidgood, director of the phantasmagorical erotic film Pink Narcissus (1971), features the sound of sperm hitting miked-up tissue paper; ‘Les Folies Francaises’, from Supreme Balloon (2008), is a stray track from Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) with someone drunk at the modular synthesizer.

The near-anarchic, weirdly festive atmosphere that reigns over these recordings is countervailed by a curatorial exactitude about what they contain. It’s an approach which gives all of their tracks a singular, wunderkammer-like aura: each one an assemblage of sounds dictated by its subject matter. One of the eeriest examples of this process comes on The Marriage of True Minds where the speech of test subjects shapes the songs. ‘There’s like a white triangle,’ a girl murmurs, and – in an uncanny sort of call and response – a triangle chimes, its resonance stretched into a luminous, radiophonic shudder. Past sound sources include VCRS, solid gold coins, balloons, Bible pages turning, cigarettes and skulls.

Casting around for potential fathers to this peculiar music, you might think of John Cage; perhaps ‘Living Room Music’ (1940), an early work which calls for sounds to be made only through the use of objects and surfaces found in a living room, such as window-frames and ‘largish books’. Or his ‘Branches’ from 1976, for its exclusive use of ‘amplified plant materials’ and, more importantly, the presence of a certain hallucinatory textural effect. At one moment in the piece, a leaf is massaged by hand into a microphone so that it obsolesces before your ear. The sound of this disintegration is curiously unnatural, more like the glittering sound of surface noise on a vinyl record than anything plucked from the forest floor. Ear-trickery is a crucial part of Matmos’s activity. Their work is not merely an index of earthly sound. Things don’t ‘signify monolithically’: a rose is not a rose. Sound becomes untethered from its object and instead provides raw material to be endlessly reshaped within the strictures of the song. This is also the transformative effect of technology at its most potent. The distinctions between ‘real’ and unreal noises, acoustic and synthetic sound, become completely disorientated. Daniel has described this process as the aural equivalent of an Archimboldo painting. The ear is tricked into a hallucination, timbre gets twisted and ‘you start hearing human fat and saxophones as versions of each other’. Sound is suddenly other than it should be, its origin unknown.

The microphone is the cause of this trick, allowing them to gather such sounds. On Vespertine, for instance, they used it to surround Björk’s seraphic voice in snowscapes and intimate whispers, and obtain the sound of her lips separating, which they made into snare drums. Its great significance to their work makes the conceit of Supreme Balloon especially startling – the microphone was a forbidden object, meaning samples of strange sounds, the raw material of their music, were missing, too.

They also evince a love of pure spectacle bordering on performance art – I don’t know what else to call the abject but weirdly thrilling sight of someone playing a cow’s reproductive tract. Mute the volume on live footage of Matmos and you’re treated to surreal tableaux halfway between a Fluxus banquet and a particularly bizarre magic act.

Whilst writing this, I repeatedly watched a video of Matmos recording ‘Improvised Audio-Acoustic Magic’ at their former home in San Francisco. It’s living-room music, in a way, but a distinctly 21st-century kind, set in a space full of audio-equipment, glowing monitors, synthesisers and skeins of wire. At its centre stands an empty rat cage like some totemic object in a mourning ritual. (A rat cage is, incidentally, the main instrument on their haunting elegy ‘For Felix [And All the Rats]’, 2007.) A tiny microphone squeezed between its bars, Schmidt proceeds to play the cage by dragging a violin bow across its body, then plucking the frame. What resounds through the room is a silvery howl, as if the cage laments its emptiness each time it’s harrowed by the bow. Daniel reshapes the noise with their equipment so it becomes a drone, suggesting the phantom sound of a mutilated cello, then twists the eerie clangs of its bars into a jittery rhythm. After a while, Schmidt steps away from the cage as it continues to sound. The fascination of this scene is precisely its element of ‘magic’: this alchemical method of making music, objects bewitched into emitting eerie sound through some weird, arcane process, and all performed without a word between them, as if in mute (indeed, telepathic) communication, everything plucked out of thin air.

Magic, or the transformation of sound, might be the real cause of Matmos. Long before Club Uranus, everything started with a distorted microphone which took Daniel’s pre-teen voice down a black hole and spat it back deformed. ‘My normal child speaking voice’, he would later tell The Wire, ‘sounded like some weird monster.’ Perhaps Matmos unspooled from this uncanny encounter with an acoustic sound utterly deranged by technology (after all, this is the substance of nearly all their work) but the riddle of definition remains. Check the name, that unbeatable monolithic signifier. ‘Mat-mos’: two syllables welded together – one hard, the other soft – in a sonically rich piece of nonsense.

In Roger Vadim’s kitsch sci-fi film Barbarella (1968), ‘The Matmos’ is a malevolent, psychedelic ooze that seethes underground. The intergalactic heroine (a permanently startled Jane Fonda) discovers it glowing with nuclear nastiness and gasps, astonished, ‘What’s that?’ And herein lies the vertiginous thrill of Daniel and Schmidt’s work: its unnamable strangeness and perplexity, the manic flux and disorientation that together form a glorious ‘weird monster’ of their own making.

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.