If you aren’t sure how rock salt crunching underfoot, slow kisses and a five-gallon bucket of oatmeal could be instruments, then you probably haven’t listened to Matmos, a musical duo composed of San Francisco sound artists M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel. Their special brand of electronica, which melds manipulated audio fragments and electronic beats, has led them to tour with Bjork, to teach in Harvard classrooms and to exhibit work in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
Listening to a Matmos track is something like digesting an intensely colorful collage or intricate mosaic with your ears. The duo’s ability to explore sound and create highly listenable tracks using non-traditional sources has captivated fellow musicians, art institutions and electronic music fans since Schmidt and Daniel began collaborating in 1999.
Whereas many electronic DJs concentrate on pounding, crowd-pleasing tracks for clubs and live music venues, the Matmos sound is more cerebral, introspective and experimental. It should come as no surprise, then, that Daniel and Schmidt have diverse academic backgrounds. Daniel pursued a graduate degree in Renaissance literature at U.C. Berkeley. Schmidt heads up the San Francisco Art Institute’s conceptual art department and dabbles in numerous other avant-garde musical projects, including lao Core and X/I.
When Spark caught up with Matmos in the episode “Experimenting,” the two were finishing a sound installation for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County show “Sonic Scenery” to correspond with 17 animal dioramas. But in true Matmos fashion, the final product is no ordinary sound display. Instead of playing the music continuously as museum visitors milled about the show, the exhibit required guests to don headphones and personal music players and walk in a counterclockwise direction so they heard the right tracks at the right time.
In 2006, Matmos released its eighth album, “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast,” which like every album they produce, has a central theme. Each track on “The Rose” is a biographical sound portrait dedicated to a particular person. The sounds that serve as the minute building blocks for the full-length electronic songs come from things in some way related to the biographical subject. For example, a track dedicated to author Patricia Highsmith incorporates sounds created when snails, her favorite creature, crawl across a light-sensitive theremin (electronic instrument) and trigger changes in the instrument’s pitch.
Previous Matmos albums include “California Rhinoplasty” (2001), “A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure” (2001), “The Civil War” (2003) and “Wide Open Spaces” with People Like Us and Wobbly (2005).