The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
When British sound artist Kaffe Matthews thinks about sound, she thinks about space, about time, about travel, about people, about radios strapped to bicycles. In her approach to making music, we find clues about what is so provocative and new about sound today: not songs, but sites; not scores, but algorithms; not notes, but empty hard drives. Her work has traces of the rich history of the art of sound, from ideas of space, duration and indeterminacy pioneered by John Cage, Alvin Lucier, and LaMonte Young, to Nicolas Collins’s and Ryoji Ikeda’s work with feedback and failure. Her sound elegantly merges these aesthetics while at the same time articulating significant new departures.
In his recently published new book, Haunted Weather, David Toop uses the title’s metaphor to describe the sense of uncertainty and excitement that characterizes contemporary experiments in sound art. Using technology and custom computer software, Matthews gracefully constructs aural environments of fog, suspense, fragility, turbulence, and unresolved contradictions that define a sense of beauty that is in tune with the world around her. Through the language of performance, she builds moments of sound out of moments in time. Her audiences become witnesses to the way space and time can inhabit and give shape to sound. Whether she finds herself in an Australian desert, a London construction site, a Berlin basement bunker, an East Village apartment or an uninhabited Scottish island, Matthews samples her surroundings and captures their sonic personality. Fascinated with the collaborative process, she has worked with choreographers, dancers, architects, and neighborhood kids, discovering possibilities that she might not encounter on her own. More than with people, though, Matthews collaborates with the mysterious nature of circumstance and makes music out of where the wind might take her.
Anthony Huberman Let’s begin with your gradual move from working with the violin toward working with computers and software. What prompted that? What is it about the computer-as-instrument that encouraged you to leave the violin behind?
Kaffe Matthews If I had just pursued the violin and not discovered electronics, I wouldn’t be in the game of being a musician. It wasn’t an ambition. I’m only in it because I discovered what you could do using electronics and computers.
AH You never aspired to be a career violinist?
KM No. Well, I was completely passionate about the violin when I began. At six or seven years of age, I’d get up dead early before school and play. I was crazy about playing, but I didn’t pursue music any further than that. I was going to do medicine. Music was something you did as a hobby unless you were some kind of superkid.
AH Those damn superkids …
KM I got into playing music again in my early 20s and realized then that I’d never really listened to anything I’d ever done. That was when it all really started, when I actually discovered music as something to be made rather than something to be performed by somebody else. I played in a band for about four years and when the band split, quite by chance I got a job in this acid house studio and discovered samplers and mixing disks and electronics. What immediately thrilled me was that the sampler allowed you to make music without having to labor over it for hours every day, which was what I’d been used to doing. At the same time, of course, I felt like I’d started so late. I would practice for hours every day feeling like I had loads of ground to catch up on. Then I began playing a violin with a MIDI trigger, so that I was able to play samples from the violin. I was finding the sounds that I’d been asking my feeble hands and slow brain to mimic. Working with electronics, you can work with sounds that are outside the traditional paradigm of music. You’re able to work with texture and density, color and shape—the size of the sound. Melodic and rhythmic concerns disappear.
AH So discovering the computer made it seem as if all of a sudden these sounds were something you could own? Something you could impress your personality upon?
KM No, it’s funny you should say that. One of the big attractions about working with a computer was that the machine would crash, or it would do things and make sounds I would never have imagined on my own, which were often the most interesting things. And these were not sounds that I owned or that were a product of my toil, but simply material I could use, more like in a collaboration. The computer often had good ideas.
AH Well, the computer itself doesn’t have ideas; I mean, you’re still the one who is deciding that the computer did a good thing or a bad thing. There’s a certain amount of agency there. Although control or loss of control seems to be central to your notion of improvisation.
KM Sure, but suddenly it wasn’t just about me and my ability and my ego. It was about collaborating with this instrument that could produce stuff. And that continues to be why I work with machines. The fear that a classical musician has about not being good enough just disappears because it’s not about that anymore. Working with electronics, you have complete access to sound. It’s possible to work with music in a way that you just cannot do with your technique and spirit alone. You can break sound down to almost nothing, or you can multiply it to full-on noise, and everything in between. And there’s a phenomenal amount of control possible.
AH The way you can zoom in on the tiniest of wave-forms and tweak or adjust them.
KM And then repeat them. Hence dance music. The best and the most brilliant drummer couldn’t do what a drum machine or what a loop will do. In a traditional approach to music, you have to develop a very strong technique to be able to produce and accurately repeat notes. You have to know that the slightest movement of your finger will alter the sound, which is also about control. And I had taken all of that baggage into my approach to electronics. It took me quite a while to realize that hanging on to this kind of ferocious control was missing the point. I started putting the machine in situations where it was going to produce sounds that I wasn’t thinking of.
AH What is it, exactly, that you’ve set up through your software?
KM I began using the LiSa software in 1996. I’ve built this digital moving framework into which I can suck and pull and push sounds that I gather in real time from the space I’m playing in. Every movement of mine will do something very powerful to the music and I decide what to accept and what not to. The program is like an adjustable matrix, a movable frame in which all sides are hinged and that can be made smaller or larger. It’s like riding a horse. Really, I’m working with this very fragile human boundary between success and failure. One minute you’re walking along and everything is breezy and beautiful and the next minute it’s a bloody disaster.
AH Which is what ties you to the tradition of improvised music. Recorded or pre-recorded music is something that has already happened and an audience listens to it happening again. You, on the other hand, arrive at the performance with an empty hard drive. So the sound sources are all gathered on-site, at that moment, and you have to make decisions about adjusting and re-adjusting the software depending on what it does to the sounds?
KM Exactly. That is actually how I make music: it’s about all of it happening in the now. I am using this moment. After all, that is all there is. So what happens when we make music out of it?
AH What about your projects that seem to take as their subject this very idea of improvising with real-time data? Weather Made, for example, involved gathering data through flying kites.
KM In those projects I put myself in a situation where I can be a shifting framework through which the music can happen. Weather Made used the weather to make decisions that I would normally make, based on data that was coming from a huge kite that the team of artists I was working with flew. We had 12 streams of data based on changes in the wind speed and direction, brightness, red light, blue light, ultraviolet light, infrared, all pouring from the kite, 100 feet in the air, directly into computers on the top of a hill on this uninhabited Scottish island. Essentially I was asking the weather to decide how the matrix should move and therefore what the music would end up being. I worked with the software quite a bit to make it work in a way that made the most of what the weather might do. There was also a solar eclipse that summer. We went and flew the kites and then the sun went dark.
AH So there’s a document of this environmental moment as captured through what it sounded like?
KM Yes. Another project I did working with external systems was in the desert in Australia with doctor and composer Alan Lamb in 1999, where we recorded the music made by 200-meter-long stretched wires. It was like fishing: you waited all day with headphones plugged into the tiny contact mikes on the wires, listening to them humming until finally, in a combination of the wires’ length and temperature with the resonance of the earth, they started to resonate. The music that it made was like some awesome electronic choir. This was the beginning of my work with systems other than myself to make the music.
AH It seems that these systems describe distinct places. It can be Senegal or Australia, or a particular room in a particular building. Whether it’s taking samples of room sounds in real time during your performance or seeking out nontraditional venues to perform in, there is an interest in the site-specific. How is it that place grew to become such a central component of the way you think about sound?
KM What’s interesting is that it doesn’t matter so much what specific place I am in when I perform. So it’s site-specific in another kind of way. Very simply, because I am using samples gathered from the site itself, I’m going to use the software and guide the sounds differently in different spaces. For example, in February I did one of the hardest gigs of my life—well, almost as hard as laptops in a desert with Alan Lamb. I was in a dark cellar three floors underground in an abandoned brewery in Berlin, playing to a bused-in audience for four straight nights. There was snow on the ground outside, it was dripping and wet and completely pitch black. There were cat skeletons, it was pretty spooky. But I got super into it, wore skiing clothes and thermal pants. Once I got used to the feel of the place, I realized that we could make amazing music.
AH Did you play in the middle of the space? Each time I’ve seen you perform, you have avoided the stage. You recently played in a friend’s tiny East Village apartment, where proximity between performer and audience was not even a choice.
KM I wanted to come down off the stage. When I’d been playing violin, people had looked at me as if they were watching this performing monkey: Oh God, look at that girl with the violin and all that technology! All I wanted was for people to turn their eyes off and get down to some listening. “No, there’s nothing to watch here!” It’s also about experiencing sound in a space. I need to be in the middle of the space because I play quadraphonically and am moving and dismembering these new sounds around the room, working with feedback, the acoustics, searching out the resonant frequencies. Simply put, I need to hear what I’m doing.
AH You once told me that you went through a period when you were having doubts about performing, or the logic of the “performance” in general. But you need performance because your music happens in real time. You need people to witness that happening.
KM Yes, that’s how I make music. The combination of that time and that space with those people. Though having said that, I did have a great gig alone in the studio this afternoon.
AH So what is the relationship between how you approach performing, which is so much about that particular place at that particular time, with how you approach making a record?
KM Ah, that’s interesting. I listen to the recordings I have of the live shows and say, This is great, this is terrible. My first four CDs were pretty much all performances with some bits edited out.
AH I’m looking at your album cd dd, which says, “converting live things in situ from Italy, Belgium, and Scotland.”
KM Each CD progressively became more and more edited in the studio. Two years after ddcame cd eb and flo, where I let go of the violin completely and was using the theremin as the sound source, along with recordings of bits from lots of different gigs. I pulled them all together in the studio. It’s much more post-event structured than the other records.
AH It sounds like gathering data from field research. You travel and perform in these disparate places and compose a sonic map of sorts, of how these sites shape your sound material.
KM Essentially a recording has to stand up on its own as a piece of music. Performing has to do with communicating with people. I now think that people need to see somebody physically involved in what they’re making to actually grasp its essence.
AH Which is interesting in light of all the discussions around laptop performances and how there’s nothing to look at.
KM It’s funny because for a few years I’d been going, “Don’t watch me, shut your eyes and listen. There’s nothing to watch.” But everybody does watch me. Well, a lot of people do. And I’m always saying that there’s nothing to watch, and gradually I’ve learned that there is. They watch my face. They watch me get surprised, fed up, angry, and then excited. They stand over my shoulder and watch my computer screen. It all gives them a way into what’s going on.
AH That link to the audience is not often heard in discussions around laptop music. Or it’s discussed, but certainly not resolved. I’m interested in the way your approach to music works within the performance interface we’re used to. A performance is something very linked to time in the sense of a beginning, middle, and end. And your work with music or with the weather is not linked to beginning, middle, and end—it’s not tied to a linear structure at all, and yet it’s all about performing it. And unlike sound installations in museums that people enter and exit over the course of two months, in your work, sound is not just space, it’s a moment in space. You capture the sound of a particular place at a particular time and give it a shape of some kind. And then you stop giving it a shape, you let go and you end the performance. And yet you let the space, and the sounds in the space, continue on their own.
KM I have played with duration in that same way. But for me, music is not about left to right or linear movement through time. In fact that’s one thing that people often say to me after a gig, that they have no idea how long it lasted.
AH That’s exactly what I remember thinking each time I have seen you perform. There is a physicality to the sound that confuses or hides its link to time. In fact, the word sculptingcomes up often in interviews that you’ve given. And then there are the theater and dance projects that you’ve done. How do you see your relationship to visual art?
KM Sound is very much a physical material for me. I actually need to get a hold of it to do anything. So it’s about wanting to be able to work not just with time and space, but with shape. Shape is what I work with in music all the time: texture, density, size, absence, the location and division of sound, where and how it is in the room. Something I used to do a lot was to write down what I was hearing in order to understand life through auditory perception. You listen in a different way.
AH It also makes me think about your close link to architecture. As sound moves around a room, it’s almost as if your eye is following an object being tossed around. There is this visual trajectory that you go through.
KM It’s completely about that. In fact, I’m just starting to talk to an architect who is also a sound artist.
AH You’re talking about doing something together?
KM We are. There’s also a video artist whom I’m talking with at the moment because he’s drawing with light in real time.
AH Collaboration is a big topic for you. You have done many, with musicians such as Eliane Radigue, MIMEO, Sachiko M, Zeena Parkins, the lappetites, as well as non-musicians. What leads you to collaborate? Or is it precisely because you don’t know what the effect will be that you feel drawn to work with others?
KM One of the reasons for collaborating, especially with non-musicians, is that I will invariably be asked to do things that I wouldn’t do on my own, and it will push me in directions that I wouldn’t go on my own. In the early days, I used to make a lot of music with experimental theater companies. Dance, also, was one of the first things I started to work with, because dance works with motion, and dancers form shapes and make dynamics. Recently I did a project called Rock on a building site for a new medical research center with the choreographer Claire Russ. I hadn’t worked with a choreographer for about four years. We made a performance for the laying of the center’s foundation stone with dancers and a quad PA on the construction site. It was fantastic to play this music there, some of which I’d made out of sounds I’d processed from the construction site and some were more my response to the architectural drawings, which really looked like the set for Logan’s Run, a super technicolored ‘70s science-fiction kind of thing. At night, the site was floodlit, and we had all these dancers running around to new music pounding out from the building site in the heart of London’s East End.
AH What about your attraction to working with non-artists? Like the astronauts you recently worked with for Weightless Animals?
KM Well, the astronauts were the source material really, not the collaborators. Essentially that collaboration was with a visual artist, Mandy McIntosh, and a musician, Zeena Parkins. The actual idea for choosing space as the topic was Mandy’s. And also, while working in the desert back in 1999, I got the sensation of the earth as this floating chunk of rock, and of course the kite project took me into the atmosphere as well. For Weightless Animals, we were researching the sonic experience of traveling into space. We asked astronauts, “What would be your sound track for space?” What they said was generally pretty disappointing.
AH No Kaffe Matthews?
KM (laughter) No, I mean, they weren’t even wanting to listen to, you know, Hendrix, or anything like really rock. They’d have a little bit of light classical, or Joan Baez or John Denver. But there was one guy who looked me straight in the face and said, “Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand.” So I got a hold of a copy and mashed it up. Zeena got quite interested in the sound of one’s own breathing and the sensation of being inside a helmet, against this vast exterior space.
AH Enclosure versus complete vastness.
KM Yes. I mean, one thing that I was grappling with all the time was the fact that it’s a vacuum up there. Sound can’t exist because there’s no air. I was just trying to get my head around that idea. Of course, they’ve got massive air-conditioning systems in those space stations, you’ve got constant ground-control chit-chat, and it’s bloody noisy in your helmet all the time. But space is full of electrical activity. So I tuned into the huge radio receivers that are all over the world, largely in America actually, that are picking up this electrical activity in space and transforming it into sound and transmitting it on the Net for anyone to listen to. That was more source material too.
AH That brings up radio and one of my favorite projects of yours, Radio Cycle.
KM Yes, one of my favorites too, right now. Last summer I received a public art commission. I wanted to make a mobile radio station. I got dead excited about being able to work within the actual physical vicinity of my own neighborhood. I wanted to make music that could just be quietly played and make traces passing through the streets. Also for residents to be able to make music for this station as well as broadcast their own ideas, views, recipes, religions, gossip, the music they wanted to hear.
AH And then it grew into an actual piece traveling through the streets of London.
KM Yes. It dawned on me that a radio is really a mobile stage, and that what I really wanted to do was write pieces that I would broadcast on the Radio Cycle frequency, and have the music picked up by radios attached to bicycles riding through a particular series of streets. The score is actually a map, a journey taken through this particular neighborhood, and the audience would not necessarily know what they were witnessing. All it would involve would be choreographing the cyclists carrying the radios while the piece was being broadcast.
AH The idea of duration comes back again. The objective of being able to hear the whole thing is turned obsolete. You can’t hear the whole thing.
KM No, you can’t. But my motivation is never about forcing music onto people anyway. Even in my performances I don’t want to bombard the audience with sound. I’m more into using sound as an instrument to maybe increase awareness. To work quietly, more minimally, and give people a chance to be aware of the act of listening. Radio Cycle was a development of that. People might hear little pieces of music fly by them on the street and say, “What? Did I hear that?” And then of course they might hear it on the radio in their kitchen.
AH Passersby become the audience and the audience become passersby.
KM And then they might just happen to spend some of that day listening to the descending repetitions of sirens or to the air conditioner, or to planes flying over.
AH I’ve found myself recently becoming increasingly involved and interested in radio. What do you think of radio, in general?
KM Radio is free. Radio is private. Radio as a whole is a means of communicating; its power is astonishing. Radio is about the vibrations of molecules. It happens in the air. And that is what my music is about in general, it’s about hearing the air. So radio has begun to play an increasingly important role in my work.
AH And London has a fantastic art-radio station, Resonance FM.
KM London life has really changed for a lot of people since Resonance FM started. Four years ago, I was saying to people, London sucks, I never play here, there are no other laptop improvisers. But there’s also recently been an influx of young people from other countries with heaps of ideas and energy.
AH Which has created enough momentum for it to feel like a community?
KM Yes. London is so big and spread out geographically; people are all over the place. So there were lots of little pockets of activity here and there. I think that Resonance is playing an important role in bringing together this sense of disparate activity and of course the huge array of musical styles going on. The visual arts community has had a strong, studio-led practice, where there are little galleries happening in small spaces. But the music kids, we haven’t had similar setups, and we don’t have a Tonic in London, like you guys have in New York. But now this is changing. There are lots of squat-based activities with new networks and really high standards of work, plus this new sense of community created through the radio.
AH You’re interested in audience and this back-and-forth between someone who’s providing or shaping sound and someone who is listening. Through performance, working with communities, and then through radio, your music really seems to act for you as a way to get people to see each other, recognize each other.
KM Yeah, I think it’s simply because I’m interested in a listening awareness. It’s a whole different world when you’re really listening. At the core, that’s what it’s about, turning people on to doing that.
AH Well, there are also formal experiments in sound-as-material going on, such as your interest in digital failures and in the architecture of sound. And the emphasis you give to space and to real time and to performance leads you to invest yourself in an audience. This idea of letting people witness the music being made rather than isolating yourself in the studio for 10 years, crafting some object really delicately.
KM Yes, it’s funny. I spend years or months or hours in my studio, building these instruments that I then wheel out and compose with people there listening.
AH I would love to hear about what things you’d like to do but haven’t found a way to do yet, some unrealized projects that are lingering in your mind.
KM Well, essential current projects aside—making an opera with the lappetites and another piece of sonic furniture on the way—a new idea is to structure and compose a score to be played by networked computers spread over London based on a Mayan architectural practice. I’m just starting to research it with wireless producer Ilze Black.
AH So are you actually writing musical notes for computers spread around the city to play?
KM No, it will be another movable matrix that expands over the city. A big, shifting framework that exists as a three-dimensional map, and there will be different people in different pockets of it. I’m not going to tell them exactly what to do. They will be asked to deal with a certain phonic situation at a certain time. Essentially we’re going to construct this great sonic building together. My Mexico trip is going to feed into this. I’m making a public sound installation in Mexico City as part of a major sound exhibition there in February. I think they’re commissioning 24 artists. I am to make a piece that will be broadcast from a sound system at an intersection. As we all know, Mexico City intersections are the most hideous, noisy places in the world. Our job is to convert these crossroads into places of beauty.
AH Well, Max Neuhaus dealt with Times Square, but yeah, that’s a challenge. But I think that your work makes it clear that no place is the wrong place for music.
KM I just had a really interesting experience in Seattle, for the first time in my life, I experienced cyberspace.
AH Cyberspace… sonically?
KM Well, being in the desert I experienced vibration. In Seattle I experienced cyberspace simply because you can go anywhere, sit in any café with your laptop and your wireless card, go online for free, anywhere. Anywhere! It’s incredible. I would sit for hours in a café, talking to people in Japan and Germany and doing work, looking online.
AH The sense of place that you are so interested in, it’s completely disappeared.
KM Exactly. I had never had this experience before in my life. I felt, God, I’ve just experienced cyberspace. I’ve been in this place where I could access any information I wanted, I could talk to anybody I wanted to … all the information that I wanted I could get hold of and I was just in this place. And I suddenly felt it: location doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter where you are, there is this ball of space that’s full of information and you can go in there and get anything, and that’s where I was.
Anthony Huberman is program director at the Sculpture Center in New York. He curated the sound section of the exhibition The Moderns, which was on view at Turin’s Castello di Rivoli in 2003, and is currently organizing sound-based exhibitions for art spaces in New York and London. From 1999 to 2003, Huberman curated dozens of exhibition-related music series at PS 1 Contemporary Art Center and managed the development of WPS1, the museum’s newly launched Internet art radio station. Huberman’s writings on sound art have appeared in Artforum and The Wire.
Originally published in
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.