SAN FRANCISCO, CA — With one clap it became clear just how in control they were of the sounds that filled the room. The San Francisco-based electronic-music duo named Matmos played an early evening concert on Thursday, November 6, at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The night’s first piece slowly grew in volume and density, starting with a Celtic-tinged drone, courtesy of Matmos member M.C. Schmidt’s hurdy gurdy, an elegant wooden box with an organ-grinder-like rotating arm.
The sound built to a low, syncopated rumble, while the other half of Matmos, Drew Daniel, bounced between laptops and played penny whistle. Two guests on bassoon and tuba reinforced a curt melody. The music accrued more layers as it proceeded, pastoral in texture but as metrically regimented as a hip-hop hit — techno as re-imagined by the Chieftains, or perhaps the other way around. As the sound thickened further, one imagined it might even escape the musicians’ control, like the apocryphal “gray goo” plague that haunts the dreams of nanotech researchers.
But then, all of a sudden, there was silence — a vacuum really, emphasized by the gallery’s not insignificant echo — and right on cue Schmidt, his hands raised, clapped once, bisecting the performance and making it clear that Matmos had the sound at its command. And then, as quickly as it had ceased, the music continued.
The Yerba Buena show doubled as the opening night of Matmos’ half-month residency at the museum, titled Work Work Work. Through November 23, Daniel and Schmidt will be at the Yerba Buena during its regular hours. They’ll be making music and interacting with visitors, reportedly interviewing them and spinning the interviews into song. Matmos will also host guest performances, featuring Thomas DiMuzio, Jim Haynes, Kid 606, Blevin Blectum, J Lesser, and many others. The scenario is a characteristic turnaround for the conceptually minded duo: the curated manage to turn themselves into curators.
In preparation for this half-month art sublet, Matmos set up camp in one of the Yerba Buena’s two-story galleries, transporting much of their home studio, including a ragged oriental carpet. Like pioneers having circled their wagons, the pair stood at the center of the gallery inside a ring consisting of tables, a grand piano and easy chairs. The tables were lined with instruments and other noisemakers: a world receiver radio, its antenna extended like that of a Theremin; many guitars; multiple laptops; enough toy woodwinds to fill an elementary school music room, and much more. Thursday night’s audience, which was already quite sizable at 6:00pm, had long since filled the room when the concert began promptly at 7:00 with an introduction by one of the Yerba Buena curators, René de Guzman.
Matmos’ concert and residency are part of a 10th anniversary celebration for the Yerba Buena Center, which is located just south of Market Street, across from the SF MOMA. The Yerba Buena is multi-disciplinary by nature, often given over to the art of identity politics, to street art, and to art with a technological focus. Some Yerba Buena events are downright goofy. The night of the concert, the museum’s steps were blocked by a tipped over automobile spewing smoke — not the result of road rage, but an art installation. Some of its events over the years have simply been underripe, but such is the risk of exhibiting new artists. The center has shown work by many talented up’n’comers, from the Bay area and beyond, especially those affiliated with the city’s diverse cultural communities, such as gay/lesbian/bi/transgender, Korean, African-American, Latin American and Japanese.
The Matmos concert was also something of a homecoming for the group, who have been on tour of late with Björk, the Icelandic pop sensation. Three months earlier, on August 8, they performed with her at one of the San Francisco area’s largest outdoor arenas. The crowd at Yerba Buena didn’t differ much from that at a Björk show. It was young, even by Yerba Buena standards — a mix of crunchies and college students, music fans just getting off work, fellow musicians, a nursing mother, a guy in a top hat. The audience sat on the floor throughout, as if at summer camp or perhaps a Fluxus art happening, even during the band’s most upbeat and danceable piece.
The music Matmos played Thursday was derived from its recent album, The Civil War (Matador), the core of which is folksy instrumentation, such as Schmidt’s hurdy gurdy, tools that resonate with sounds of the American South, including banjo, dobro and the pedal steel guitar. The least rural music of the evening occurred during the second piece, for which Schmidt moved to the piano. He rarely touched its keys, instead focusing on its interior mechanism. He smacked at its strings, massaged its hammers, and otherwise mucked with the piano’s internal organs, all with a resolute attention to rhythm. Again, Daniel alternated between a mixing board and laptop, filling the gallery with a steady, rich ambience.
The concert’s third and fourth pieces were the third and fourth tracks from the Civil War album. “Reconstruction” started with a fife-less drum corps cadence and closed with an extended requiem, reminiscent of the Zen folk meditations of guitarist John Fahey.
“Y.T.T.E.,” the fourth and final performance of the 45-minute set, began with Schmidt striking a palm-sized metal chime. He raised the instrument with one hand, perhaps to milk the room’s echo, perhaps to display his simple wares to the crowd. The track is by far the most uptempo on Civil War. It resembles some of Brian Eno’s pop music of the 1970s, tunes that threaded a groovy beat through murky studio experimentation. Guest Mark Lightcap, formerly of the band Acetone, performed a raging guitar solo, whose rich bluster and occasional ferocity sounded like something by Robert Fripp, Eno’s frequent collaborator. (Lightcap also performed the solo on the recorded version of the song.)
Throughout the concert, images were projected on one of the gallery’s four walls. For the first song, it was just a blue field some 15 feet by 20 feet in size. At the image’s center was a low-resolution icon for a tape cassette, the default screen for a video projector.
For “Reconstruction,” antique images of war shuffled by, a sepia-toned montage of marching troops and grave diggers. For the “Y.T.T.E.,” the screen turned black. Occasionally a split-second flash bulb illuminated what appeared to be a concert audience. This may very well have been footage that Daniel and Schmidt taped from the stage while on tour with Björk.
The most memorable video of the evening accompanied the second piece, for which the initial blue screen was replaced with a magnified shot of the insides of a piano. The initial shot was so out of scale that it was almost unrecognizable. While Schmidt played the piano, the instrument’s intricate mechanisms were constantly on display from various perspectives. The piano’s hammers looked more like a row of lockers, its wooden cavity like a warehouse wall. The strings looked like giant electrical cables, at least until a hand the size of a small car came into view. What had members of the audience wondering was whether the footage was being projected live. It seemed more credible that a pre-existing reel had been sequenced to run along with the performance, in part because the video edits seemed too graceful to have been done on the fly.
What Matmos achieved by displaying the visual of the piano as it was being manhandled was to give the resulting music, which is often harsh, a physical presence, to lend form to the exotic sounds. The plucked piano is a staple of avant-garde contemporary music, classical and otherwise, and it’s closely associated with iconoclast composer John Cage. There’s something about a pianist standing up and reaching inside the piano that serves as a kind of dividing line; for some concert-goers, it’s the last straw, a signal that the tonal barbarians have crashed the gates.
Matmos figured out how to demystify a controversial, if time-honored, performance technique — even to make it visually compelling. (The projected piano also brought to mind turntable DJs such as Kid Koala and Coldcut, who have been known to display live tonearm-eye’s-view video while they perform.)
The video of the piano served as a model for Matmos’ two-week Yerba Buena residency. By casually engaging their audience in the light of day, and by displaying their home studio, they’ll go a long way — by the group’s estimate, some 96 hours in all — toward showing just how their adventurous electronic music is homebrewed.
Related websites: Matmos (brainwashed.com/matmos), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (yerbabuenaarts.org)