Kaffe Matthews at the Knitting Factory, May 1999

Kaffe Matthews is one of the rising stars on the British experimental music scene. Over the past few years, she’s released two striking CDs whose unusually warm sensibility lifted them out of the pack from the usual noisemakers. Her discs require close listening that reveals strangely moving narratives emerging from the tapestry of ordinarily cool electronics. Perhaps it’s because her main instrument is violin, which she feeds into a piece of software called LiSa, scattering the analog sounds into hypnotic electronic waves or choppy bursts of feedback. As a result, her CDs contain a sensibility that makes her among the most listenable of all the experimentalists.

At the Knitting Factory, she appeared onstage solo with her violin and a bank of electronics. Matthews sawed away and twirled knobs to make an improvisational hour-long mix, using the violin not in the conventional manner, but as just another sound source; from time to time she’d pick it up and scratch on it to thicken up the mix. Instead of a concert, the show had the feeling of seeing an artist behind the scenes in the studio: it was fascinating to watch her–decked out in a blue warmup suit and post B-52’s coil–manipulating a barrage of sounds. When things seemed to gel, her face lit up in a big smile. And then there was a lot of waiting for things to gel. During those times, Matthews face would screw up like she was trying to solve some intricate mathematical equation. In this way, as the piece progressed through various highs and lows, Matthews took the audience along with her.

In addition to her violin, Matthews also incorporates the sounds of the environment wherever she is, making every performance site-specific. During a recent performance on WFMU, for example, she taped contact mics to the station’s windows and admitted the noise from the street as a sound source for her live improvisation. At the Knitting Factory, she sneaked a mic into the Tap Bar downstairs and occasionally potted up the ambient noise. Of course, down at the bar, they were playing some sort of dance music and every once in a while, a house beat would enter Matthews’ mix. She’d smile and sway to the beat for a few minutes before pulling a switch, shattering them to become just another part of her noisy landscape. The restaurant music was part Middle Eastern, part psychedelic and part electroacoustic. With the crashing waves of rhythmic feedback, Matthews at times reminded me of the British experimental band This Heat sans the pop hooks (she has collaborated with This Heat member Charles Hayward).

It’s smart stuff and draws from a number of disciplines, making it unique in its hybridization and openness. By bringing in outside sound sources, she invokes environmental composers like David Dunn, who did a series of important site-specific improvisations in nature in the 70; the violin element echoes the pioneering work of Malcolm Goldstein, Jon Rose and even bits of Laurie Anderson. But the humor, intuition and catholicism is all hers– and it’s something this normally too-dry, over-intellectualized genre sorely needs.

by Kenneth Goldsmith
May 11, 1999