Sunday, April 12, 2009

matmos, so percussion and PLOrk at the Kitchen

Just back from a triumphant, deeply original concert performed by the ceaselessly inventive electronic duo, Matmos, the Brooklyn-based percussive quartet So Percussion, and PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a collection of sound artists who create, with nine laptops, a symphonic avalanche of noise. The collaboration, staged over two nights at The Kitchen, a charming little venue on the outskirts of Chelsea (the one in New York, rather than London), showcased new interpretations of the artists’ own songs, as well as material from a forthcoming album they’ve created together.

And how to describe it? It’s hard to say. A member of So Percussion is the first to take the stage, and his first action is to lean over a table, take out a box of plastic toothpicks, and start sticking them into a large sweet potato. Once a few have been inserted, he begins plucking at them, noting with satisfaction that each rings with a different note. He starts picking out a melody of percussive clicks. Three bandmates join him on stage and stand around the vegetable. Each leans forward and before long they have established a hypnotic, mesmeric cycle of sounds. I can scarcely believe I’m watching four men play a root vegetable.

It’s at this stage that Matmos make their entrance; as ever Martin Schmidt looks the very image of the mannered academic, prim and serious in his neatly ironed shirt and bow tie. His colleague, Drew Daniel, arrives dressed in blazer and tie, but soon discards them; he's far less formal; a bit of a joker. When Schmidt is explaining the use of beer cans as musical instruments, Daniel can't resist turning on his mic – which he's fixed up with a filter which makes him sound like Darth Vader – to interrupt his partner and get a big laugh from the audience. As So Percussion continue hammering a tune from their doctored vegetable, Matmos start piling complex squiggles and skittering beats to the mix. The sound builds and builds, simultaneously experimental, primal and funny.

This relaxed, complex but cerebral approach defines the set. The Princton Laptop Orchestra join the proceedings, wringing amazing, cascading sounds from their laptops, and each player is thoroughly distinct, courtesy of a custom designed hemispherical speaker which "emulate the way traditional orchestral instruments cast their sound in space".

'Aluminium Song' begins slowly with atmospheric squeaks and squiggles, but climbs up and down through several dizzying tempo changes, organised intuitively by a rotating set of animations on the video screens, which the players patiently watch and follow. 'Ceramic Song' is an absolutely beautiful number which summons up thoughts of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gamelan in the way that So Percussion hammer out a beautiful, cyclical melody (this time played on suspended plant pots). It draws gasps from the audience in its latter stages as PLOrk contribute a simply extraordinary, unfathomable panoply of sounds through floor-mounted devices which allow long strings to be pulled up and stretched, changing sound with the players’ movements. At one point the song is so hypnotic and involving that all nine musicians, their arms cycling through the air as one, look like downhill skiers descending a mountain in unison. Jaws are dropping all around me.

The next few songs (and I started losing track of which song was which here, unfortunately) are just as good. PLOrks’s matching set of Apple laptops are clearly fitted with motion and tilt sensors, meaning that the musicians raise and lower their machines, creating an effect analogous with the bending of a string. Any notion that their highly technical approach is not every bit as real or authentic as a traditional orchestra is quickly dispelled by the sight of their highly physical, emotive performance.

One song (perhaps ‘Boomdinger’, perhaps ‘Inlayers’) begins with dark washes of synthesisers and a steady electronic pulse that recalls something early on Warp Records, but switches tack suddenly to embrace a lush, deeply organic collage of faux-natural sounds. PLOrk’s laptops begin to talk to one another, each emitting a different sound, somewhere between a animal’s grunt and alien song, and the musicians face each-other, responding carefully and offering their voices as if in the most natural of conversations. One member, whose laptop offers up a sound like a lamb’s bleat, begins to sweep his laptop down towards the floor, laughing, and enjoying the way the sound rushes through the registers. Suddenly the noise is anguished. The screen, by now showing leaves nestling in water, consolidates the deeply bucolic noise filling the room. The song ends with the sound of rain, and newspapers and bin-liners being scrunched up and torn up close to the microphones. It’s just stunning.

This is an unqualified recommendation, in case you hadn’t guessed. I’d love to know how different these guys sound from show to show, as so much tonight seemed intuitive and improvised – and yet so often sounds came together with such perfect precision that it seemed impossible not to observe great deliberation being employed. Either way, this was a collaboration that was deeply musical, deeply arty, and deeply enjoyable. Am already excited at the idea that this lot might come over to the UK sometime soon.


Anonymous said...

Sounds amazing, love that kinda thing. Will you give lots of notice if you hear of them coming to the UK?
Really enjoying hearing about your trip to NYC - you always find the best things to do.
Jo, Hove

dave. said...

i love matmos- it would be exciting to watch them come up with their sounds, whether they involve potatoes or beer cans. the only exception: a chance to cut... i have a weak stomach when it comes to surgery.