ELECTRONIC MUSICIAN, KAFFE MATTHEWS, DOESN’T PLAY ELECTRONICA in the “techno” sense. You’d be hard-pressed to find any back-beats or “Get up and party” Iyrics in her songs. Nor does she rely heavily on preprogrammed sound. Her two full-length solo CDs (cdAnn, & cdBea) are filled with only live recordings “with 80% of the editing happening on stage.” Her violin, effects and most importantly, live improvisational technique are what define her musical personality. And when Kaffe (pronounced “Calf”) says she has never played two pieces exactly alike, that each recording is from “a particular place, with a particular audience, at a particular time of day, after a certain kind of journey,” she really means it. Hiding microphones outside in the street, putting them in the club’s kitchen, or attaching them to everything short of lightning rods, Kaffe feeds her show with actual live sounds that come from inside and outside the playing site. (She even hides them under the audience’s chairs.) The drone of an idle car engine. A running faucet. The chopping of a distant helicopter. Whatever siren or chirp she tunes into and samples during the performance becomes fodder for her public’s sonic environs. She works in the moment. Taking her time, drawing out every creak, patiently layering every murmur, Kaffe creates an invisible crescendo which pulls listeners into her world so gradually it’s almost unnoticeable. As the piece progresses and the levels get pushed slowly to eleven, Kaffe then tweaks her noises from something organic and generally recognizable into something almost otherworldly and extremely distinct . The idling engine becomes serious and alarming. The running faucet becomes a steady stream of ball bearings pouring into a tin can. The chopping helicopter blades turn into a swarm of locusts. Once the volume’s turned up and everything’s merged, the line blurs between electric and organic, and what at first seems like an assortment of innocent, almost monotonous tones transforms into a mutant hybrid of intimidating noise. But just as Kaffe scares, she is also playful. She understands what it means “to move” her listeners and she’s in complete control. Because when the cacophony becomes almost unbearable, when the sweat starts to form on her listener’s brows and the walls of the trash compactor start closing in Kaffe shuts everything off. Just as easy as slamming a door, she cuts off the engine, puts the bb’s and the locust’s away and switches the tone to something a little easier on the ears, like what it must be like walking through a carnival the morning after a delirious evening. The sky is grey, the cIowns are sIeeping, and there’s an accordian-grinder playing inside a tent somewhere. But even though this new soundscape seems calmer, the stress of that previous movement remains hard to shake. There’s still a feeling that something just ain’t right. And it might be that mic hidden under the chair.
by Jeyon Falsini
interviews – music – art snobbery – books
November 12, 1998