Musique concrète, whose roots are in the early 20th century, can be defined as "electronic music produced from editing together fragments of natural and industrial sounds." Recently a small handful of musicians have reconciled its heretofore-academic treatments with the accessibility of popular musical styles. Of these, the San Francisco duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt) and the British Matthew Herbert infuse the genre with timely programmatic references, as their excellent new albums, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador) and Scale (!K7), prove.
Having read the biographies of a number of musical, political, artistic, and literary figures they admire, Matmos set out to compose a series of musical portraits of them. Certain of the tracks attempt a biographical distillation from the subjects' lives, while others pluck out single elements of their work or diversions and protract them over the length of a song. Matmos explore their protagonists with attention and finesse while creating wholly new looks at them, with one foot in a time past and another in today's era, when the vapid is elevated to celebrity and where technology trumps all.
In "Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith," Matmos use a banal fact from the mystery writer's life—her love of snails—and allow it to write the music. Pointing lasers at a light-sensitive theremin, they watched as several snails crawled across the lasers' paths, changing the theremin's pitch with their bodies and antennae. Vocal and speech cameos (Björk, Maja Ratke, Laetitia Sonami) add both human and fantastic qualities, most notably in "Semen Song for James Bidgood," which does feature the sound of semen. But musically it sighs with violin glissandi and aching dissonance. This is not the seedy repression of adult-age proclivities, but the opalescent sensuality of youth filtered through gossamer and voyeurism (like in pornographer Bidgood's Pink Narcissus), here guided by the ephebophilic whispers of vocalist Antony Hegarty.
Each track of The Rose Has Teeth... is an act of remembrance. By engaging their audience in active listening for the sampled moments, Matmos resurrect a pantheon of creative minds from obsolescence and re-color our experiences with ambience from the subjects' own lives (if only for four or five minutes), parading them through bathhouse disco, porn funk, and Oriental ragtime.
Where Matmos often allow the sampled material to make pronouncements on its own, Matthew Herbert processes his material into sounds that do not always resemble their source and authors with them a more didactic message—a protest. As with his past two albums, Scale contains highly political content that is almost kabbalistically encoded into straightforward pop songs. If the listener's pace is such that he has time only for the superficial, he will hear some delicious disco or house, filled with rich harmonies and orchestration. He of a considerate mind and more probing pace will find beneath the face a rich complex of extramusical material—recordings of coffins, petrol pumps, or events outside an international-arms-dealer fair.
The lyrics, though simplistic, are themselves political conceits. In "We're in Love," Herbert stretches regret back millions of years, to the formation of the fossil fuels to which we are now addicted. On the surface, though, it's a love song noir in the velvet voice of his espoused chanteuse, Dani Siciliano, who appears on 10 of the 11 tracks ("And though we can't believe it/We built a world to breathe it/And when we need to face it/It won't be there to take/We're in love").
Scale presents songs for the Age of Indulgence's demise. But by enshrouding the matter in pop sensibilities, Herbert prays for his audience not to abandon themselves to Peak Oil apocalyptic hysterics. Instead he gives us a new scale on which to focus—not a global one (which has all but betrayed us) but one more immediate. The imaginative here and now, the interpersonal relationship—these are paramount to him (and to us), for they are the arenas where things may be set aright, through personal responsibility and observance.
In his book, A la recherche d'une musique concrète, genre pioneer Pierre Schaeffer described the music thus: "The Concrete experiment in music consists of building sonorous objects, not with the play of numbers and seconds of the metronome, but with pieces of time torn from the cosmos."
Matmos and Herbert's "sonorous objects" reveal that time, in all its pieces, has much to teach us. And it's not all firstname.lastname@example.org