Kaffe Matthews is one of the most enduring figures in London’s improvised music scene, and her recent conversion from processed violin to software based transformations of space has opened up her music to a multitude of contexts, including radio art, a sonic armchair and music for astronauts.
Feature in the WIRE magazine – issue 235, September 2003.
Words: Will Montgomery.
There’s a ringing in the air of Bethnal Green one Saturday afternoon in East London. I wander around the streets for a little while with earphones in and the radio on. Then I sit on a bench on a spot of public land, a sculpted grassy hump, its glass-strewn tonsure ringed with trees. It’s outside a former Victorian dispensary, now flats. The ancient Pellicci’s cafe, part of the local Kray-crim heritage, is just across the road, as is a busy-looking pawnshop and more newly established sari outlets. The ringing is in my head: Bow Bells, not Bow Bells. It’s a radio artwork and it’s being broadcast on Radio Cycle, a short-licence radio project run by Kaffe Matthews, best known as a first-wave laptop improvisor. The piece (by Keith de Mendonca of the Disembodied Art Gallery) uses only bicycle bells as source sounds but they’re processed into sharp tones and drones and they make a superbly active backdrop to the wan public-works optimism of the open space I find myself in.
Since the appearance of Resonance FM, with its all-points experimentalism, London avant heads have been able to turn on the radio without fear. Radio Cycle is a rather different project, a meeting point between sound art, music and community activism. The station had a week-long licence, broadcasting within a one and a half mile radius of Matthews’s Annette Works studio, high in a 1950s factory building by Regent’s Canal in Hackney. When we meet there the following week, on a rainy summer morning, the radio transmitter is still rigged up. It’s a roomy space. There are a couple of laptops, a mixing desk, a bed, racks of CDs. I sit in a large armchair that, I later learn, contains several loudspeakers and is part of Matthews’s sonic furniture project. Although she tells me she’s worn out from a week of 24 hour broadcasting, you wouldn’t guess it: she’s direct, articulate and humorous, ready to pursue aspects of any of her projects into animated digressions.
Growing out of a week of workshops in Bow, Radio Cycle’s highlight was a series of pieces that were broadcast and ‘played’ by a group of cyclists carrying radios and following predetermined routes in the area. Citizens out and about in London Fields, Victoria Park and streets in the vicinity would encounter these mobile soundworks as they drifted by on wheels. The local streetmaps, Matthews explains, took on the character of scores for her.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the radio itself is like a mobile stage,” she tells me. “Originally I wanted to have a mobile radio station but we couldn’t do that because you’re not allowed to have a licence and be mobile. Radio Cycle was about this invisible activity, this subtle alteration of what’s going on around you. Which explains the bicycles. You’d be walking down the street and a bicycle goes by. You probably wouldn’t notice the bicycle but you’d notice some sound. A piece of music floating by. Just subtle little tweaks, altering people’s environment to turn them on to what they’re hearing.”
Matthews has had a working base in North East London since the mid-90s: first Stoke Newington, then near Brick Lane and now Hackney. One of the main aims of the Radio Cycle project, she says, was, after many years of touring and involvement in online communities, to work more closely with local people. Another such local initiative has seen her going into two Hackney girls’ schools, introducing them to working with sound.
The ‘tweaking’ of East London streets through sound is, like most of Matthews’s work, an exercise in the traffic between systems, in this case radio art and the urban environment. This characteristic of her work is reflected in her self-assigned job description: ‘live converter’. When she first began playing regularly in London in the mid-90s she was converting her own violin sounds and ambient material sourced from the venue into rich and dense pieces of music that rapidly reached a critical pitch of complexity. Since then she’s moved through an astonishing array of activities that shows no sign of narrowing: installations, the sideline in sonic furniture, radio and Web based art, and collaborative musical work such as her involvement in Mimeo (Music In Movement Orchestra), Keith Rowe’s live laptop ensemble. Matthews is directing Mimeo’s performance at London’s Serpentine Gallery in September, their first UK appearance.
“Music for me has always involved other media,” she says. “ A couple of years ago I was talking to a funder from the visual arts world about Mimeo and I realised that at last they were starting to understand music that was not about tunes. They were suddenly realising that electronic improvised music was speaking in the language that they spoke in, that it involved texture, density, colour, grain, size and shape.”
During our conversation Matthews frequently returns to her interest in the physicality of sound (hence, for example, her forthcoming Sonic Bed, which will incorporate input from a neurophysiologist). Her live performances bring to the fore the plasticity of her raw materials, as she rapidly moulds narratives out of the conversion of sonic events. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that, after years of incessant touring, she reached a point last year when she was on the verge of giving up performing, the heart of her work. What happened instead, after a spot of intensive labour in the studio, was a new shift in the sound components of her work. This change is evidenced on her strongest CD to date, this summer’s double set cd eb + flo.
Like all her albums, it’s composed of material drawn from live performances, only this time she’s taken a much freer attitude, superimposing music recorded at different shows (in the past there was little or no editing). What’s most impressive about it are the sounds themselves. She’s arrived at a more spacious, stripped-down aesthetic, built on sine tones generated by a mini-theremin. The work moves through subtly overlapping loops and it has a remarkable warmth to it. Rather than the more elaborate edifices of her older work, there’s a new confidence in the capacity of her sounds to stand alone. Lines of sound move in gradual evolutions that draw the listener along with them. In taking this minimal turn Matthews is, of course, moving in parallel with a number of other currents in avant-garde music, seen in the work of collaborators such as Sachiko M or Andrea Neumann, for example. Yet the rhythmic richness of the music has clear continuities with the more layered pieces she has made in the past. It goes back, it seems, to a trip she took to West Africa in 1986.
“The most important part of my musical life, when I reached a moment of clarity and knew that music was the thing that I needed to do,” she says, “was when I came home from living in Senegal for three months and working with drummers on the beach. There I was taught about the importance of the texture of your skin, its temperature and its shape on the drum skin. And about the temperature of that drum skin and the shape of the drum, and the weight and dryness of the wood. All those details make up a sound and each alteration of those ingredients will change the sound. Changing those sounds will change the music and its meaning. And I learnt about how to put together ones and twos and threes in patterns and about how they can then shift.”
These two notions, the importance of small changes and the use of overlapping patterns, reappear in different guises throughout Matthews’s musical career. From 1997’s cd Ann onwards, there has been a fascination with the ways that layers of loops interact with one another. Incidentals, the introduction of sound miked from a nearby bar, for example, could be introduced to reinforce the specificity of the particular event and to change the music in a way that was only possible in that space. Although these days Matthews is less concerned with making her listeners aware of her working methods, the emphasis on unrepeatable particularity remains.
“I’m responding to the resonance and the energy of a space,” she remarks. “ That feeds the music and partially creates the music. It’s not about the place itself. If I was playing here on a Thursday afternoon and it was pouring with rain the acoustic would be very different and therefore so would the ways that I would improvise. It’s all in the detail. These tiny shifts of information are really crucial to creating the music. So the actual place itself doesn’t matter, it’s just the fact that there will be a different resonance and energy that will create and colour the music in different ways. And of course the size and energy of the audience has a huge amount to do with that.”
After several years of arduous work with a MIDI violin, samplers and effects in the early 1990s, the breakthrough for Matthews was her discovery of Steim’s LiSa software in January 1996. Whereas in the past she had been preoccupied with methods of controlling the technology she was using, LiSa allowed the machine space to speak. She learnt to set up particular environments on the laptop that would define the parameters of its responses without making them predictable: chance and the precariousness of real-time performance could be preserved in her interactions with the software. Things moved very quickly and within a matter of weeks she was doing regular gigs with the new set-up and a laptop. The following year she released cd Ann, a remarkable series of violin-sourced electronic improvisations that documents the richness of those early adventures with LiSa.
In those days Matthews was ardent about process. It was vital for her to communicate the fact that the music was, in the words of a CD sleevenote, “ a realtime exploitation of electronics in a particular place at a particular time”. More recently, however, there’s been a shift away from this concern and a greater reliance on the qualities of the sounds themselves. The movement from process to sound is caught in 2000’s transitional cd dd, which contained her farewell to the violin, “the last of the violins”. It is with cd eb + flo, however, that she has attained a new stage. Much had clearly happened in the period between cd dd and cd eb + flo .(Matthews and the violin, after all, went back a long way: she first played it at the age of seven).
“That gap has been about leaving the violin behind,” she explains. “It’s been about finding where I am next and going through a big change. I had a few difficult things happen. I was in New York for 9/11 and I saw it happen. It took me a year to deal with that. I think for a lot of people it was a shattering experience . I was also performing so much that I was not having enough downtime in my studio. To actually go through the shift musically I needed time to make it solid.”
Her new music is more focused on the possibilities of space. Matthews has been using eight channels to get beyond stereo sound, and she’s become more interested in the ‘architectural’ placement of sound within the performance space. Although many of the musical lines and what she calls ‘droplets’ of sound are very simple, their positioning has become a key part of the performance. On cd eb + flo too, the stereo image is carefully shaped. Some of the old love for rough textures is there in the glitchiness of some the loops but the most striking element of the sound is the use of very clean electronic tones.
“The sine tone, that really completely pure sound, is something I’ve loved as a sound source ever since I first switched on an Akai S900 sampler,” she says. “Even though it’s the antithesis of the violin. It’s this smooth sound, with no edges and no vibration. The violin is all about a vibrating edge. I’d been wanting to clear things out, make some space and deal with things on a much simpler level. That’s really what the use of the theremin has been about. ”
Matthews’s solo work often seems to involve a negotiation with control: the coexistence of her own ideas alongside the contributions of the machine and an openness to the accidentals of live performance. In her collaborations, however, Matthews explores a different side of her aesthetic. “Essentially, the collaborations I do are very much about making me work in ways that I wouldn’t on my own,” she tells me. In one recent piece, for example, she made a ‘collaborator’ of the weather. Weather Made, a project involving artists, kite flyers and writers, took place on an uninhabited Scottish island. Matthews used data from the kite strings, along with the temperature, light and wind, to control various software parameters: pitch, loop duration, filters and panning (the results are documented on an Annette Works CD-R).
“Why I find the weather to be an ideal collaborator is that it’s a system that’s outside my control,” she explains. “One thing about my early work with technology and the violin and so on, I realise now, was that it was about me controlling everything. Then working with LiSa was about setting it up so it can do its own thing, which I then deal with. Now the weather is completely outside that because it is its own system. It works in patterns but these patterns never repeat. I set up LiSa so the weather would do what I would normally do, my job was just to prepare an instrument for the weather to play.”
It was after this experience that Matthews went out to the Australian outback to work with Alan Lamb, whose monumental recordings of miked-up telegraph wires (such as 1995’s Primal Image) had made an enormous impression on her. “When I first heard his music I thought this is the music: I don’t need to make music any more, this is it,” she says. She was fascinated, she tells me, with their similarities and differences as strings players. Her aim is to perform live with Lamb in the bush, and uplink the music via satellite to huge sound systems at venues in cities worldwide.
Another collaboration, which has resulted in an interactive Website and which will see the release of a DVD in November, is her Weightless Animals project with harpist Zeena Parkins and artist Mandy McIntosh. The work aims to reflect on both the strangeness and the attractions of travel in space. For Matthews the project is part of her current exploration of the medium of radio and is thus linked to the more earthbound ambitions of Radio Cycle. Her contributions to Weightless Animals incorporate radio translations of the electronic activity in space, along with recordings of dialogue between ground crew and astronauts, and of the music that the astronauts choose to hear in space.
During a research trip to the NASA HQ in Houston, Texas, Matthews and McIntosh interviewed several ex-astronauts. “ In the old days the astronauts were allowed to take six cassettes each. I was actually given the six cassettes that one astronaut took into space. We’ve processed one of those. One of the questions we asked the ex-astronauts was “What is the piece of music that you most associate with space?” Most of them would just want [mimics astronaut drawl] “Some nice classical, a bit of folk, some Easy Listening ”. But one of them looked me straight in the eye and said, “Ravel’s Piano Concerto For The Left Hand. That’s the one, that’s it.” So I got a recording of that and processed it and made a piece out of it.”
The lappetites, a group of female laptop artists now in its third incarnation (featuring Antye Greie-Fuchs and Ryoko Kuwajima), is another of Matthews’ joint ventures. The group initially grew out of an event Matthews curated at New York’s Tonic, during which she played alongside Parkins, Ikue Mori, Marina Rosenfeld and o.blaat – the five musicians enjoyed the event so much that they went on to set up the lappetites. In its latest version Matthews says it has grown into an experiment with networked computers: “ I think that there’s a mammoth world of music that hasn’t been discovered yet that could be composed via us actually plugging our machines into each other and controlling each other’s sound,” she observes. “You experiment with controlling each other’s sounds. So it’s about thinking of sound as a central mixing pot that we all have access to. It throws up all kinds of ideas of ownership and control too.”
These days a Kaffe Matthews solo performance is an atmospheric event. She’s dispensed with the stage, preferring to sit in the centre of the space. The lights are off and only a little lamp illuminates the laptop, spilling onto Matthews’s intent features. She believes that a more valuable listening experience is made possible with the minimum of visual distractions.
“These days I’m getting to a venue quite a bit before the gig,” she remarks. “I place mics to be able to work with little bits of feedback. I’m resampling what I’m doing within the space much more. A stage is not relevant to me. I need to be in the middle of the space so I can hear how the sound works with a quadraphonic system. Working with the sonic aesthetic I have now, your actual position in relation to those speakers is more important. When you’re working with smooth tones and space and so on it really creates another kind of music, depending on your position as a listener. I want the people to be close because the hotspot of the sound is going to be where I am, in the middle, and they need to be there too. I need a little light so I can see what I’m doing but essentially it’s dark and people are in the position of just dealing with the sound. That’s what music is about for me , it’s about listening, active listening.”
It’s possible to draw parallels between some of the sounds that Matthews is working with and those used by musicians such as Ryoji Ikeda, Carsten Nicolai or Sachiko M. But the structure and organisation of the music is very different – the way that a piece develops its own internal coherence is quite specific to Matthews’s manner of working with rhythm and timbre. And, alongside the sine tones, she retains an attachment to very distinctive sharp edged tones. She returns to a spatialised, visual vocabulary to describe it.
“It’s the actual sound and the sense of shape about each sound that is clear, like little sculptured moments in air. I think I’ve wanted to let the air have a bit of space in what I do rather than have to stuff it full of sound all the time. One of the reasons I’ve come to this much more minimal music is that I don’t feel the need to blast music at people any more. I think some of what I was doing, working with high levels of sound, with great density and complexity, could feel bombastic, a bit of an assault. Now I don’t feel the need to do that. This music is small but there are little jewels.“