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Transmission
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Transmission Wed Feb 13 2013

Preview: Matmos Guarantees Psychic Weirdness @ Empty Bottle 2/15

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Here's a Valentine's Day story. In the mid-1990s, Martin "M.C." Schmidt and Drew Daniel met at a gay club in San Francisco, Daniel a dancer, Schmidt a patron, and both of them interested in new genres — of music, literature, sexuality, philosophy, you name it. Their meeting was, to nab the title of the pair's latest album, a marriage of true minds. They lived happily ever after. It may not be your typical fairy tale — the homemade fish-head G-string Daniel reportedly was wearing won't feature in a Disney film any time soon — but the couple has been together for twenty years, and their musical collaboration under the moniker Matmos has persisted nearly as long, resolutely challenging our perceptions of sexuality, and, inevitably, love. But the pink-and-red heart-shaped holiday won't play a role in what Matmos is bringing to the Empty Bottle this Friday, Daniel says over the phone from his and Schmidt's house in Baltimore, the house where, for four years, the two conducted the experiments that served as the raw material for their new album, The Marriage of True Minds, which comes out Tuesday.

The Matmos sound is difficult to describe. Those who've tried cobble together phrases like "eerie synth jams" and "glitched-out disco-bounce" and headier things like "model of electronic composition as a relational network." Everyone agrees that elements of musique concrete, a practice of building atypical compositions out of "found" sounds, are present but not presented purely. The building blocks of Matmos's music are the sounds not just of what happens around us but what happens to us. Inside us. The duo has recorded crayfish nerve tissue, liposuction surgery, rat cages, a cow uterus, human skulls, snails, cigarettes, latex, and life support systems, to name a fraction of their source material. The sounds are ones we rarely if ever hear — in most cases because they are beyond what a normal human ear can detect. In this way, Daniel and Schmidt are folklorists, finding meaning in the jackhammer rhythm of a technician grinding up wisdom teeth ("Roses and Teeth for Ludwig Wittgenstein") or the chipper cackle of skin succumbing to fire ("Germs Burns for Darby Crash"). Matmos documents the all too telling tales of the inanimate.

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On Marriage, their first record for Thrill Jockey, Daniel and Schmidt discovered a realm not yet explored by their contact mics: the mind. For years they have been videotaping hundreds of intimate sessions inside their cluttered but otherwise typical Baltimore row house. If you happen to be one of their subjects, here is what happens: You are taken to the second floor, to a room lit only by a dim red bulb and told to lie down. Once you are comfortable, the room goes dark as Schmidt places ping-pong balls, cut into hemispheres, over your eyes. Total darkness. Not even a rim of red light is visible. Next come the headphones, large, ear-encompassing things that hiss white noise like a severed connection, and all the small, normal sounds you hear — scraping, shuffling, scrawling, creaking, chirping, talking — are erased. You count down from twenty to zero, and then the session begins.

This is what's known as a ganzfeld setup. It uses sensory deprivation as a way to test for extrasensory perception, or ESP. The method was conceived by German psychologist Wolfgang Metzger in the 1930s, used to test his "gestalt theory" before being adopted by parapsychologists such as Charles Honorton, who first published the results of his experiments in the American Journal of Psychical Research in 1974. The results of such studies widely have been seen as inconclusive, but Matmos was not deterred. Between 2008 and 2012, Schmidt and Daniel brought in subject after subject. Friends, strangers, fellow musicians. They traveled to Oxford University and conducted sessions there. Each time, once the subject had been prepared, Daniel would attempt to telepathically communicate to them a concept. (He won't way what the concept was.) Subjects were instructed to speak out loud anything they saw, heard, or felt during "transmission."

Reading the transcripts of these sessions, which the artists are gradually posting on a Tumblr, is to understand the richness of this process. "I see the infinity symbol morphing into a Gordian knot," one subject reported. "Scribbles on a piece of paper or an electron cloud. Jesus Christ on the cross. An hourglass. Some sort of insect that's bifurcated with many legs and small black eyes. ... A galaxy viewed from far away slowly whirling around its center." Such imagery is like the grimy, green rind of a walnut. Once cracked, you hold in your hand its soft inner meat, which contains not just protein and phosphorous but the DNA needed to grow a new tree. Sifting through the ganzfeld transcripts, Schmidt and Daniel were tasked with finding each session's meat, to crack open the mellifluous monologue, descend into its associative labyrinth, and find the resonant nugget.

Sessions the musicians thought held a wealth of detail sometimes ended up being useless, and vice versa. They found patterns. They found chaos. Subjects reported seeing tigers in cages, circuses, apples, wagon wheels, images of canyons, bird wings inducing torture. They heard "The Wabash Cannonball," the voices of their mothers, music they described as "chromatic or microtonally cluster-y." Words like "grandiose" and "piecemeal" popped into their heads, as did images of Chinese checkers and the Swiss alps and the shape of an "S" spline curve.

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Some saw, heard, or felt very little. "The noise makes me think of driving in a car in the backseat and looking out the window and being very bored." "I heard, like, a faint chiming sound. I think. I can't really see anything." "I'm thinking about crushes that I have right now, one particular person I work with, but nothing's going to happen with that because we're co-workers and she's crazy so — ."

But occasionally, a particularly lucid mind would describe a scene in vivid detail. One session in particular feels whole, as if the person had fallen asleep and subconsciously narrated the subsequent dream. "Something pulsating. There's a garden. You're in a garden by a vine-covered wall. There are roses around your ankles. You're breathing heavily. It's a bright sky. The line is straight. The road is straight. But I can't seem to find a route. I think you've left the garden now. You're in some kind of room with computers in it. Could be space. The machines are sort of a fusion between 19th century industry and some kind of unimaginable futurism. There's someone singing too: 'I like it, I like it, ohhh, I like it.'"

The character — this "you" — explores an imaginary city. He walks into a bakery, buys a baguette, walks out. He sees a black polygon in the center of a storm. Meets a man with one brown eye. "He's saying something. The man is saying ... 'I couldn't do it anymore. I used to be able to do it but I couldn't anymore. Now I'm just incapable.' Trees, a sort of alpine scene. Snowing, lightly. It's a sort of ridiculous scene. Like a kitsch alpine scene from a clich├ęd snowglobe." This nonsensical tale became at least one layer of "Just Waves," a track from the EP that preceded Marriage. It's easy to see the musical potential of it. Full of scene-setting detail and ceaseless movement, colors, characters, confessions — it has drama and tension even in its chaotic, half-baked state.

The really fascinating thing about Marriage, though, is not the cinema of these video transcripts, or the methods by which they were captured. It is not even the amount of time and work Matmos put into making the record. It is the fact that the end result is listenable. From the orchestral opening of "Very Large Green Triangles," a Gothic-pop-meets-Baltimore-dance tune based on a session with singer/writer/comedian Ed Schrader, to the Ethiopian-influenced synth track "Aetheric Vehicle," the record is accessible, even, at times, beautiful.

When asked if the ganzfeld experiment will influence the band's live show, Daniel responds as if it's obvious. "Absolutely." The tone of his voice reveals mischief. He won't give details but says the goal will be to "take what was horizontal and make it vertical." Meaning, take the feel of an experiment that involved a single person lying on his or her back and translate it for a crowd of concertgoers in a club. Given the pair's reputation for provocative yet often hilarious live shows, it isn't hard to imagine that Schmidt and Daniel will succeed in this translation. What is difficult to imagine is just what that will be.

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Matmos headlines the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., Friday, Feb. 15, at 9:30pm. $10. Horse Lords and Matchess open.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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