Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
May 22, 2004

The news that in the course of their soon-to-follow Italian tour (when they would perform their most recent work, The Civil War) Matmos, the duo from California, would play a date in my town caught me by surprise. The concert was to be held in the usual venue nearby my home, alas!, in the usual conditions, i.e. starting time well after half-past midnight, the audience standing up. After consulting with my orthopedist, I decided to run the risk: their recent collaboration with Björk (one album and one tour) having multiplied their already stratospheric "trendy appeal", the duo was said to offer the "state of the art" in multilayered electronic music (I mean, that's what I've read in a few fairly enthusiastic cover stories) where the subtext of the sampled materials enriches the musical construction (such is said to be the case with A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, from 2001), while a postmodern kind of polystylism is at the basis of The Civil War.

While waiting for the day to come, totally by chance - i.e., the unavoidable "spring cleaning" - I took off the shelves some old issue of Keyboard magazine which I hadn't read in a while. The issue dated November 1983 featured a beautiful interview with Otto Luening ("Founding Father Of Electronic Music") by John Diliberto. So I read again about his studies with Ferruccio Busoni (and about the latter's essay called A New Aesthetic Of Music) and about his founding - together with Vladimir Ussachevsky and Milton Babbitt - of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, in 1959.

This brings me to some unpleasant considerations about the current meaning(s) of "electronic music". It's obvious that the aforementioned names had a very clear idea of the complex rules of the classical music of their day - and the wide horizons they entailed (the same being obviously true of Cage). But what about the criteria used by those who ignore even the past existence of those rules? (It's really funny that in these times that are said to be so post-modern, academia is called to give "added value" to the most disparate materials.) All this, in an age when, if one assumes certain technical coordinates as valid, even an album by Avril Lavigne can be defined as being "electronic". And what about those for whom the word "electronic" equals "danceable"? All this stuff can give one a giant headache. Which is exactly what (almost) happened for real as soon as I saw the cover of another issue of Keyboard (dated March 1993), where the cover story was a long interview with Keith Jarrett by Robert L. Doerschuck: in fact, the cover showed a title that read "Reflections On The Death Of Excellence". I know that somebody will reply along the lines of "What is dead is the idea of excellence as defined by Keith Jarrett, not any idea of excellence". Right. But are we really sure that we still possess an idea of what excellence means, besides the one from the book of "light pedagogy" that reads "the child is really trying, so... what more do you want?".

The concert starts with three musicians respectively playing keyboard/acoustic guitar/drums, electric guitar/tuba, electric bass (two of them will reappear on stage along with Martin C. Smith and Drew Daniel, the two Matmos). I have to admit that their performance left me quite puzzled: taken as a whole, their music had not much coherence, their playing skills were extremely poor, not even adequate to do justice to their quite simple music. The first piece was maybe intended to be "slowly developing", but it was just static; then, a true "mission impossible", a simplified idea of a Fripp/Belew composition, with slow, overlapping arpeggios; then, what (to me, at least) sounded like the progression of The Beatles' Dear Prudence (with no vocals, nor melody); here, an audience that up to this moment had looked as being on the verge of falling asleep starts to wake up, all cheers and smiling faces; so the three musicians go on - same taste, a bit more allegro con brio. The drummer is the guy who impressed me the most, his timbre more similar to what a child could get from a toy instrument than to real drums. The "dance electro-glamour" called Soft Pink Truth, a project by Drew Daniel, was now due to appear. Instead, for reasons unknown to this writer, we get Matmos.

Though the ads talked about a program based on The Civil War, the sight of straw and water takes us straight to Lipostudio (And So On...), the opening track of A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure. The same mood is maintained during the following track, where a video of what I believe to be a gastroscopy acts as backdrop to the music. What is apparent is the fact that the group resolves all potential asymmetries into actual 4/4, while the videos' main function seems to be that of diverting one's attention from the fact that the music itself is actually quite mundane. This is really apparent during the piece where a hand strikes what look like metal springs (no, it's not the "waltz from Vienna" of For Felix (And All The Rats)). During this set, it's apparent that the drummer's timbre and parts are more banal and impersonal than those played by the group's laptop, which seem to play most of the music (the real function of the drummer seems to be that of "making the eye deceive the ear"). The second half of the group's performance offers pieces off The Civil War, with some electronic-popular air. Some acoustic instruments are played (strictly as an added colour) by Martin C. Smith, and they add a bit of variety. Here it becomes apparent that it's the compositional element that's seriously lacking, the whole being somewhat similar to some exotic soundtrack of a documentary film. At this point I think about the different - and quite superior - degree of maturity demonstrated by a group like Biota (not to mention their timbral resources) in an album like Tumble (1989). But nobody is more deaf than those who don't want to listen.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | June 4, 2004