cd Bea – Thunder Polyphonic Mind

The vast “cdBea” is electro-acoustic improviser Kaffe Matthews’ second major statement, following on with the same live electronics amazement as her previous release, cdAnn. Matthews is a unique musician, dedicated to live solo improvisation within a highly stylized context of her own creation. Her music evolves from three interfacing elements, abstractly filtered through her psyche: a conventional violin, a heavy rig of special “live sampling” electronics, and the social and psychological space of the concert. The last statement may seem pretentiously “conceptual”, but since her concerts exert an unusual sense of expanded mental “space,” it makes perfect sense. Her pieces are vividly emotional: gripping science-fiction landscapes which overlay the physical venue, altering the atmosphere with a dominating, somber delirium; as if the moment were being frozen, expanded, and cast into space. Because they are presented fairly neutrally without pretence and in long doses, the emotionality of her improvising can ring through, often moving into a sincerely dark and dissociated moods. It is probably this emotional intensity, the strange personal sense of place she provides, which is the most original aspect of her work.

The violin serves as a crucial kind of focus in this environment, with its miniature size and visual interest as a counterpoint to the layered masses of sound that Matthews creates. Truth be told, Matthews is a fine violinist, and on cdBea, more of her fiddling is heard than on the previous disc—in fact, some parts really soar in a deranged sawing sort of way. However, it is her ability to manipulate her electronics and the LiSa software she uses which makes her deserving of recognition as one of the most interesting live electronics players going. Specifically she has developed the technique of “composing” live with multiple streams of samples to an unprecedented level, like some of the best improvising drummers and pianists, able to keep many streams of discussion going at once–truly polyphonic and polyrhythmic improvising. The technology she uses allows for this on a physical level, but her sense of timing and proportion is key. Dense droning layers are built up, cut out unexpectedly into choppy rhythms, and then suddenly turn the bend to become entirely else. Throughout, there is very little obvious looping or hackneyed manipulation in the sound, and the total result is more akin to composed orchestral music or tape-spliced musique concrete than the usual direction of solo electronics. A hidden microphone always in the space, used extremely sparingly to add eves-dropped room-sound into the mix, seems like a sort of mental fake-out, adding mainly mystery.

The sound palette of cdBea covers a wide spectrum, often filling a large part of the audible frequency range with streams of transforming sound. There are many parts which are clearly electronic or string produced, and a fair amount of artificial ambience covering everything, which is particularly noticeable in the more oblique moments. Other sounds are more mysterious, suggesting out-dated automatons, household products amok, and telephone switch disfunction. With its density and harmonic riches, her sound has something in common with the Stochastic string work of Xenakis, and of later children like Elliot Sharp, Jon Duncan and Jon Oswald; but also has an openness and emotionality unusual in electronic music of this sophistication. In the midst of the buzzing drones, switching noise, and cascades of clattering, Kaffe Matthews is still there. In her wry way, she is keeping us company as we go.

by John Berndt
Baltimore, Maryland USA