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Matmos for Dummies 

SF's beloved electronic duo has set up shop at Yerba Buena, comfy chairs and all

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
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If ever you decide to take up composing electronic music, all I can say is: Good luck. Unlike, say, a guitar or piano, the tools for composing electronica are intimidating. There are external and internal sequencers, software synths and hardware synths, samplers, effects, compressors, LFO filters, ribbon controls, patch bays, EQ knobs, oscillators, and a little thing called MIDI, which is the complicated coding language spoken by these machines. Before you can make any music, you've got to figure out the devices, then figure out how to sync them up with one another. Sounds fun, doesn't it? And getting helpful tips out of practicing electronica musicians is, for some reason, impossible.

"'Specifically, what do you do?'" asks Martin Schmidt, echoing the common question asked by novice gearhounds of more experienced ones. Along with Drew Daniels, Schmidt is one-half of the S.F.-based experimental electronica duo Matmos, perhaps best known as the electronic component of Björk's backing band. Both Schmidt and Daniels agree with my frustrated conclusion that one rarely gets a usable answer to that query.

"With electronica musicians," says Schmidt, "there's so much mystery, like, 'Oh yes, I have this special process.'"

"Like Aphex Twin hiding his gear under a blanket at shows," adds Daniels.

"Or [Oval's] Marcus Popp," says Schmidt, "he's the most famous one -- what is he doing behind that screen there? [It is rumored that he's playing the video game Tetris.] And I love both of their music and everything, but I've always felt that that sort of pose is kind of absurd. We could give people the exact recipe, software and everything, for what we do, and it's unlikely that anyone is going to come up with what we do."

Exhibiting that recipe is exactly what Matmos is doing, right now, probably as you read this. The pair's current project started last week and continues through Nov. 23 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, into which the two have moved their entire living room/studio -- comfy chairs and all. There, the musicians will be making music, all day, every day.

"In the morning when they open the doors at 11, we'll be here," explains Daniels. "I'll interview people, make a song for them that day, and burn a CD and give it to them. Afternoons it'll be an improvisation of friends playing with us."

Daniels is explaining this to me in the large, reverberant gallery itself, where, sure enough, he and Schmidt have set up what looks like the disembodied deck of the Starship Enterprise. Two computer monitors sit at the front of a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of tables covered by about a half-dozen synths, a tower of effects boxes, patch bays, compressors, and strange, intriguing instruments of all kinds -- pipes and fifes and things to bang on. At the end of the tables is a grand piano, from which Schmidt affectionately conjures an impromptu tune as we talk. "[This] model seems a little more humane, I think," says Daniels. "We had some strange experiences doing this last Björk tour. We were in her band at big rock festivals, [where] we played for, like, 75,000 people. And I think that's really good for some art forms, but for us, this feels right."

What makes these educational daily demonstrations so cool is that, trust me, such schooling is hard to come by. A few years ago -- inspired, like so many, by Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 -- I embarked on the road of electronica composition myself. First, I took a class at the local community college, which got so deep into the workings of MIDI that we never got to making music. When I tried seeking advice from fellow knob-tweakers, I quickly learned how tight-lipped they are. I don't believe it's because they're pretentious or snobby (although most of them certainly are), but simply because explaining the creative process at work in electronic music (or any music, really) is like trying to explain to someone how to make a pizza: Start with dough; add sauce, cheese, toppings; then bake. Does that explain what makes some pizzas bland and others transcendent? The secret to making great pizza lies in the subtleties of the process -- where your produce comes from, what kind of water is in your pipes -- rather than in the broader concept of 1 + 1 = 2.

So it goes with electronica. There are a million ways to make it, none the "right" way, and ultimately success has a lot more to do with your artistic temperament than what equipment you're using.

"[People say], 'If I have this stuff I'll be able to make good music,'" says Schmidt. "But the fact is you can make just as compelling music with free downloaded software and a tape recorder at home."

The most important lesson a beginner can learn is not to be intimidated by the equipment: Crafting this kind of music is no different than sitting down with a guitar, except there are a helluva lot more knobs and switches. Daniels and Schmidt are making this an easy lesson to learn, but what's more, their efforts are a response to a larger, more embedded consequence of our society's obsession with technology.

Since the dawn of rave culture, the listener has been disassociated from the musician. DJs select the tunes and spin them out to sweaty, heaving masses on the dance floor. In the case of more complex electronic music, like the kind that Matmos makes -- which is more challenging than most DJ fodder, a collage of sampled sounds, faint melodies, and distant rhythms that feels more like abstract expressionist sound-paintings than coherent songs -- what you would normally expect to "experience" during a performance is one or more guys and the backs of their laptops. The members of Kraftwerk popularized electronic music by standing onstage and manipulating an assortment of odd, captivating instruments (both musical and nonmusical), but today most of the genre has been reduced to a DJ spinning a record or a musician positioned at a computer -- hundreds of hours of artistic creation, revision, and refinement boiled down to the push of a button.

This is a perfect metaphor for our ever-accelerating culture. Take the Internet: We use it like it's the reinvented wheel, but do any of us know how it works? Or food: We consume hamburgers, soda, foie gras, but we've come a long way from the garden in the back yard. How many of us know or care about how our food is grown, packaged, and shipped? Or war: "We just fly in this airplane and push this console here and thousands of people die," says Schmidt, commenting on how technology has separated us even from the stark reality of life and death.

Is Matmos doing show-and-tell for 96 hours over two weeks in an art gallery going to make us care more about shrinking the gap between process and product, cultivation and consumption? Perhaps, although I doubt it. What I can tell you is that if you're a gearhound, or even slightly curious about how electronic music gets made, or just itchin' to have your conversation with Drew Daniels transformed into a one-of-a-kind song, then Yerba Buena is the spot to be for the next week. And if you take away some kind of Matrix-esque lesson about man's mercurial relationship to technology, well, I guess that's pretty cool, too, right?

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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