Clive Bell – The Wire, December 1996

Kaffe Matthews has been taking tea with several elderly people in the northern seaside resort of Bridlington. The excuse was her research for an installation piece in the Sewerby Hill Museum, but you get the impression that Kaffe relished meeting Olive Smee, Nora and Arthur Durham and the rest. “I built up a tape piece from a recording made at a tea dance. They were playing lush waltzes over a bad PA in a hall with an enormous reverb. Someone introduces the next dance, them everybody stands up, and you get this fantastic sound of feet shuffling onto the dance floor, the sound of a lot of people suddenly present in one room.”

Alongside the museum installation, Matthews also played live violin in a chill-out room full of sofas, while Olive handed out cakes to the audience. Upstairs she devised music for a large room with a “dance floor” entirely coated in white cake icing. “We gave the audience bags of pink icing which they could squirt around and decorate things.”

The violin music that Matthews produces for her installations and live shows is a far less sweet affair, a world away from tea dances. Using a computerised sound processing set-up, she can sample and treat her live playing in real time, and the results show an extraordinary range of improvisatory imagination. Starting by stacking up the violin arpeggios as if in a Steve Reich piece, she suddenly shifts into a dense wall of distortion and extreme noise. This in turn settles into a kind of violinist’s tropical rain forest, fragments flickering past like ungainly insects, which then opens out into a “dark Ambient” tundra landscape, devoid of all obvious violin sound and yet entirely created from live violin input.

With one foot in each of the converging camps of Electronica and Improv, Matthews played on David Toop’s recent “Pink Noir” album, and in November appeared in London’s Purcell Room in The Brood, as well as at the monthly eclectro-paradise The Sprawl. A regular fixture at the LMC gigs, this month she contributes to two fringe multi-art events: Rude Mechanic and Keep 3.

“Within the last year I’ve made a major change in my technical set-up,” she says, “and it’s allowed me to start making music that I’m really excited about. Before, I was using the violin to trigger pre-recorded samples via the MIDI pick-up, but this was an absolute nightmare.”

The problems of adapting MIDI – a yes/no triggering system designed for keyboards – to the sensitivities of the violin proved counter-productive. “You end up cramping your violin technique, and also spending hours pre-programming your machine with material that may turn out to be inappropriate once you’re inprovising in public.”

If a composer is someone who likes to take a lot of decisions before the performance, and an improviser takes the decisions during the show, then Matthews with her violin and computer is both a composer and improviser. Her new system uses a Power Macintosh to run software called LiSa (“Live Sampling”), developed by engineers at the STEIM institute in Amsterdam. You sample into the software’s memory as you go, and playback via MIDI. On the violin body there’s a little switch pad with buttons, sending remote control messages to a MIDI controller box. So there are no pre-recorded samples, just violin sound being grabbed and processed in real time.

Matthews caps off her live set-up by always setting up another microphone, maybe in a lobby or a bar somewhere near the concert, to provide a wild card element to sample. Recently she found herself playing in a concert hall in Warsaw, inside a castle. “The nearest bar was 300 metres down the road, so we ran a cable all the way along to this bar, and I hid my tiny mic in a vase on a table reserved for 8:30 pm – the same starting time as my concert.”

The tension in Kaffe Matthews’ performance is between the violin and the software. Brian Eno has pointed out that these days, before you can play or record music, you may have to invent your instrument. Matthews explains: “I need a physical contact with the instrument – I like the feel of a vibrating box under my chin, and the sensation of pulling hair across gut strings. But when I set up the software, that’s the instrument too, and I’m constantly modifying and redesigning it”.

by Clive Bell
The Wire
December, 1996