Monday, August 9, 2010

Told Tray-Sure

So Percussion and Matmos: Treasure State
Cantaloupe Music 2010

These guys get it.

So Percussion and Matmos teamed up for their last album, which I have finally come to hear in it's entirety. SoPerc are part of the new breed - 21st century classical music at it's finest, driving another nail in the coffin of the art/pop music schism. They're in good company too; Nico Muhly, the Bedroom Community Label, Eighth Blackbird, Kronos Quartet, Third Coast Percussion Quartet, the Bad Plus and Bang on a Can are stateside allies in the dual front against auto-tunage and elitism alike.

So's bio says it best: "Edgy (at least in the sense that little other music sounds like this) and ancient (in that people have been hitting objects for eons), perhaps it doesn't need to be defined after all."

Western percussion has evolved as an experimental craft - we work on our sounds with the same intensity with which violinists work on tone. With percussion, however, there are no "good" or "bad" sounds - there is only what is right for the job. All sounds can be music, and our instruments are defined by context. We're in the business of sound collecting, sometimes taken to an absurd level. The generation of Edgar Varese and Henri Posseur took experimentation to an extreme - suddenly orchestral works called for airplane propellers, and musique concrete pieces were created from recordings of trains. Despite the public's feeling of alienation, these mad sonic scientists were central cultivators of a richly expanded palette of sounds, as well as a newfound appreciation for the wielders of these noises, whistles, sirens, tin cans and wind machines - us guys in the back.

Matmos is right at home here. The experimental-electronic music duo has cultivated the same appreciation for sound in the abstract, taking noises out of context and recombining fragments into musical work. So P. is no stranger to the realm of electronic music - the reserved, atmospheric "Amid The Noise" made ample use of computer-generated noises and processed instrument sounds - and the Matmos collaboration forms a seamlessly cohesive unit.

There is a subtle beauty in the way tuned metallophones, cymbals, gongs and found instruments alike are warped by the computer processing, creating a kind of auditory surrealism that's most evident on tracks such as "Shard" and "Swamp." I'm reminded of "TNT" by Tortoise. But where "TNT" told stories, "Treasure State" creates environments.

This isn't a groundbreaking record by any means. That's good - we don't need "groundbreaking" in music. Pierre Schaffer, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen were groundbreaking, tearing down arbitrary walls between what is and what isn't "music." But there's a certain irony in works like Cage's note-less 4'33"; a piece that's built on ambient sound is akin to screaming "Appreciate the subtleties, dammit!" In many ways, SoPerc/Matmos succeed where Cage and his colleagues failed - their poetic use of sound draws you into an dreamscape world made up of everyday noises. When it's over, you'll start to hear the music around you.