Thursday night, the first night of Whartscape, had that still new and fresh feeling…virginal maybe? Open seats were hard to find in theater 1 of the Charles. Wharstscape posters adorned the wall with phrases like “Worm Paste,” and “Owl Dad.” As with much of Wham City, I have no clue what either poster means, and it’s implied that I’m not supposed to know.
I walked in mid-way through Mark Hosler’s lecture on the history and legacy of his band Negativland. To be more precise, I walked in mid-way through the “Mashin’ of the Christ” video edit for the Negativland song “Christianity is Stupid.” Hosler recounted the well-known media hoax that followed, involving an ax murder, a phony press release, and a clueless media.
What was most shocking to me, especially given my position in the media (marginal as that position may be), was the idea that I could have just as easily been taken in by Negativland’s fabrications as the hapless reporters covering the story. Incidents like this one, and the fake Ian Mackaye death report help reinforce the reality that sources must be checked, even in entertainment reporting. And Hosler brought up that other recent failure of the media to check the facts, and not rephrase the press releases. What was it again? It was something really big, and with dire consequences. Oh right… the Iraq war. A collective “Ooops…my bad” by the media on that one.
Hosler then went into detail about the infamous U2/Casey Kasem release. Again this gets to the core of Negativland’s ideals of the fair use clause. This combination of media/fair use law seems timely given the recent AP lawsuit against blogger Roger Cadenhead, editor of the Drudge Retort.
Negativland’s guerilla war, waged against the established media/copyright structure, irks me slightly. I wholly agree with them in principle, but I get this nagging feeling that Negativland, and many other subversive tape bands with political bents, lacked the maturity to both fully articulate their (legitimate) concerns, and ability to implement the action needed to right those wrongs. It’s like Milton’s Satan acknowledging he can never defeat God in open combat, so instead, decides to carry out a campaign of sabotage. Deep down, past all my cynicism, I’d like to believe that right need not resort to subversion (albeit, in Negativland’s case, very clever and well done subversion) to over come wrong.
I think out of all the tape/sampling groups that kicked-up copyright commotions in the late 80s/early 90s, none will top the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front). Sorry Mark Hosler and Negativland, but KLF transcended mere “appropriation art,” and made music that can be enjoyed without having to know the context it was created in, or the source of the samples.
The main reason I had come to the Charles that night, and indeed, my projected musical highpoint of Whartscape, was Matmos. I had decided beforehand that this group would provide a sharp contrast to judge Wham City and Whartscape against. Matmos had matured on the other end of the continent, well away from any Baltimore influence. The separation wasn’t just geographical, but also generational. Drew celebrated his 37th birthday on-stage, and Martin is somewhat older. I bring this all up to demonstrate that they come from a completely different scene, and different time than many present for the performance, yet Matmos fit perfectly into the Whartscape experience.
They are an IDM/noise/glitch/musique concrete(or as Martin has proposed, “Super Music”) group that flirts with the thin line between engagingly esoteric, and the inaccessible, without ever crossing it. Matmos is not the neon dance-off, Dan Deacon-ish group that has become synonymous with Whartscape.
The set began with Drew and Martin approaching the stage from the back of the theater with flashlights and laser pointers in hand. They targeted the beams onto a light sensor hooked up to a MIDI controller. The result-music played by photons.
They eventually reached the stage, and Martin thanked Wham City for the invitation to play. He also added that he had watched extraordinary music all evening, something that wouldn’t have happened in San Francisco, his former hometown. He called San Fran “over hyped.” Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t await Whartscape, and Baltimore.
The duo launched into the opening twitches of “Rainbow Flag,” a song that explodes with funky chords and synth arpeggios. It’s about as colorful as, well, the rainbow. It calls to mind Latin rhythms at points, like some track from a cyber-age Havana club, only sassier–really sassy, actually.
Sometimes Matmos member J Lesser was on hand for the night.
The next track, “Sun On 5 at 152,” was about as close to a traditional instrumental performance as I have ever seen from Matmos. Dare I even say roots music? Martin strummed an acoustic guitar, while J picked away on an electric. The sound combined with the visual projections (all done in house by Martin) of road maps, and highways evoked a sense of Americana wanderlust. This was also reinforced by the fact that this track is off of an album entitled “The West.”
The set closed with what else, but “Supreme Balloon.” This track lends itself to live performance, with the slow filtering sythn that gradually opens as the track builds with a steady thumping. Then the buoyant middle/climax. The final fade was made even more dramatic during this performance. The track closed with a tubla-like percussion sound. Then Drew switched on transistor radio-like devices that transmitted the sound. He then picked up the devices, one in each hand, and carried them down the aisle, swirling around a couple times. The overall effect is transcendent, or as an audience member put it “psychedelic as fuck.” The audience member becomes accustomed to sound coming from the speakers ahead, but to hear sound moving across the aural plane was something unexpected. Leave it to Matmos to play with convention.
The closing visuals are worth mentioning too. The camera moved over the surface of a creek, alternately focusing on the rocks and decaying leave beneath the surface, and the light reflecting across the water. Something very similar to what Tarkovsky did at the beginning of “Solaris,” in “Andrei Rublev” (during Rublev’s hallucination of his dead mentor Theophanes), and all throughout “Stalker.”
Matmos’s performance was astounding, and overshadowed nearly all of the rest of Whartscape. I would venture to say that what Drew and Martin lack in crowd hype ability (it’s not like Spank Rock can jump on the mic and get people dancing during a Matmos set), they more than make up for in the level of artistry and conceptual forethought put into each set. Or at least, this is true for all the sets I have seen since the group has moved to Baltimore.
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