Last night’s Matmos performance at the Floristree was mixed, but to be fair to Matmos it wasn’t their fault. The performers and the audience were not on the same page. The audience was younger, hipper, and more attractive than me, but then again I was there for the music, not to get drunk and bolster my social status. Matmos’s music does take a little bit more effort to digest.
Still, Matmos is really enjoyable to watch live, as you can see the esoteric and often witty processes involved in producing some of the sounds. But, when two of the tracks performed have recited text from the likes of Wittgenstein and Robert Ashley, you know it’s not the most approperate time to get wasted and have a scene party, but those kids tried anyway (and to be honest, when I was that age I thought every time was a good time to get wasted and have a party too). A telling moment came when the MC, a woman in drag as Justin Timeberlake, introduced Matmos by saying, “Let’s get the dance party started!” Drew and Martin of Matmos looked at each other in a puzzled manner. Martin said, “It might be a challenge to dance to our music.” I think that was the first big indicator of a disconnection between Matmos and their audience.
The whole night was a benefit for Transmodern Festival coming to Load of Fun in April. The night began with a bunch of performance art. It was awful, but what did you expect? Most acts reminded me of middle school talent shows, specifically when a bunch of attention starved girls decided to dance awkwardly to the Macarena. Except now it’s called art, and it’s supposed to mean something. I won’t go into what I think of performance art at length, as this is a music blog, but I do hold it in low regard. I agree with the points made by Michael Fried (now a professor here in bmore at JHU) in his famous essay Art and Objecthood. Even though the tract was written against Minimalist, I think many of the points apply to performance art. It’s really just a genre of theatre, as it exists only in a specific moment, unlike a more Keatsian model of art that exists for the ages outside of any social context. “Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre,” wrote Fried. This is a global statement (and what critic can resist making proclamations), but remained true in the specific case of last night. And to clarify, though Matmos performances do have a slight theatrical element, they never rely totally on those aspects.
The set began with Martin bowing an acoustic guitar, as video of concentric circles and a clenched fist were projected behind the group. Matmos’s tracks don’t follow the familiar strophic form. Instead the music begins with an acoustic sound created and then sampled, like the bowed guitar. Then dense layers are added. A beat comes in at some point, but it never remains in strict, metered time. Rather, the beat twitches, skips, and shutters. On the whole, the music feels very organic, which is not usually the adjective used to describe electronic music.
The two pieces that stood out were undoubtedly Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein and Germs Burn for Darby Crash. For Roses and Teeth two assistants came onstage with long-stem roses in hand. A stack of crates with a mic on top was place stage center. The two assistants began drumming out a rhythm with roses. Martin read a paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Rose petals flew about, until finally only the stems were left. The faint scent of rose hung in the air, competing with the cigarette smoke and bike messenger b.o.
Germs Burn for Darby Crash is an ode to the Germs front man who gave punk the Mohawk. So, fittingly David Serotte, a Baltimore local who has been performing with Matmos at area shows, got a Mohawk shaved onstage. Martin taped a mic to the clippers, and that barbershop vvvrrrrvvv was the basis of the track. It was also during this piece that small fires flared up in the high-end speakers on both sides of the stage. I seriously thought about hedging my bets and moving closer to the door. But I had a good spot, so I stayed put. I looked at the waifs in tight jeans around me. I felt reassured knowing I played contact sports through college, and I could stiff-arm my way through that crowd in the event of fire.
On the projection screen behind the stage was video of a man’s forearm being burned by a cigarette—a “Germ Burn.” After the show Drew, an assistant professor at JHU, told me he was supposed to burn one of his graduate students with a cigarette onstage, but the student did not show-up.
“That’s probably just as well. I would have gotten the reputation on campus as the professor who burns his grad students onstage. I should probably wait until I have tenure to start doing that,” Drew said.
The Backyard, the final piece, was a twenty-minute work based on a section of the Robert Ashley opera Perfect Lives. And this is when things really fell apart. At this point in the night the crowd was big, drunk, and loud…really loud. I couldn’t hear the text Martin was reading. I was frustrated, given the fact I had paid the Floristree to see the show. After the show Drew commented on the situation.
“We took a risk. We needed silence for the song to totally work. Though, anytime you have a twenty-minute spoken-word piece, you’re asking for it. It needed to be that long though, it wouldn’t work if we shortened it,” said Drew.
David Serotte, who has known Matmos for six years and now performs with them, called the last piece “unfortunate.”
“It was the right act, but the wrong place. The audience just wasn’t feeling it. It takes two to tango,” said David.
It was a show of contrasts really. Take for example, the puerile performance art versus the mature Matmos, the disheveled bohemian versus Martin in a suit and tie, or the politeness and professionalism of Drew and Martin versus the rudeness and amateurishness of the Floristree. Right act, wrong place, indeed.
Expect to see a Q&A with Matmos very soon.
Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Witgenstein
Germ Burn for Darby Crash
Here is a statement from the Floristree:
the talking was unfortunate, and it’s rare we have situations like that at shows here. i think the fact that the show was a benefit alot of the crowd was there to support that and socialize rather than see a show per sae. it was a bummer as we were all looking forward to Matmos playing here.
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