It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Musicians who have been visited by the muse are fond of remarking that a song or album "practically wrote itself." To create The Marriage of True Minds, Matmos's Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt came up with an ingenious conceit to facilitate that sort of automatic writing. Inspired by experiments in telepathy, they invited friends to submit to mild sensory deprivation and then attempt to divine "the concept of the new Matmos album," which Daniel mentally projected at them from an adjacent room. They then used those transcripts as the guidelines for the album, availing themselves of cues both straightforward (Latin rhythms, chanting) and esoteric ("squelchy, squishy" sounds, rendered with chocolate pudding and an espresso machine).
The concept may sound off the wall, but the results turn out to be eminently listenable and, in places, surprisingly traditional — particularly when compared to the squirrelly bleeps of their last album, Supreme Balloon. Alongside organ drones and knotty sound collages, there are reassuring pentatonic melodies, sashaying samba rhythms, Krautrock miniatures and funky Afro-techno rave-ups; it's all deftly stitched together in a way that suggests the hyperactive stream-of-consciousness of a mind firing on all cylinders. Or, in this case, many minds. Here, we unpack the album's ideas by looking at some of the precedents for Matmos' experiments in social neural networks.
The Uncanny Volley
Although Matmos's telepathic investigations carry more weight as a compositional exercise (or a "conceptual gambit," as M.C. Schmidt put it), they nevertheless highlight the unstable relationship between sound and representation, between waveform and essence. Could recorded sound carry a resonance that goes beyond the merely emotional? Could it tap into other dimensions? That might sound like quackery until you consider that Thomas Edison himself speculated about the possibility of a device that would facilitate communication with the spirits of the dead. (Edison must have had a morbid streak; he envisioned the phonograph not only as a tool for playing back music and speeches but also to preserve "the last words of dying persons.") For researchers in EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, Edison's dream is a reality: they claim that spirit voices, inaudible in person, can be captured on ordinary recording devices. This 1999 album collects dozens of alleged examples of EVP recorded by Raymond Cass and other researchers, representing various types of phenomena: polyglot voices, which seem to speak in tongues; voices that sneak through radio transmissions; "singing" voices, which haunt musical broadcasts; and even alien voices, which sound like emanations from a world far beyond the afterlife. Skeptics are unlikely to be persuaded by many of these examples, in which transcribed track titles bear only the most tenuous relationship to the sounds on tape, and even then ("Uppsala Sun Countess"?) come close to nonsense. (One would hope, too, that if Philip Larkin did speak to us from the dead, he'd have something more profound to say than simply, "Something.") However, augmented with running commentary from Leif Elggren and the researchers themselves, the album makes for a fascinating archival document, and the strangeness of the captured sounds, combined with eerie radiophonic squeals and static, may just raise the hackles of even confirmed non-believers.
The Abstract Revolutionary
One of the challenges Matmos faced in transforming their participants' visions into music was deciding how to interpret certain cues. What does a "very large green triangle" sound like? That question has its roots in the work of Cornelius Cardew, a radical thinker and composer who might have answered, "However you want it to sound." Cardew's Treatise, composed throughout the late 1960s, marked a revolutionary upset in the battle between intention and interpretation: a graphic score, ultimately 193 pages long, in which conventional musical notation was replaced by cryptic shapes and markings with no explicit musical meaning. Cardew wrote, "Treatise is a continuous weaving and combining of a host of graphic elements (of which only a few are recognizably related to musical symbols) into a long visual composition, the meaning of which in terms of sound is not specified in any way. Any number of musicians using any media are free to participate in a 'reading' of this score ... and each is free to interpret it in his own way." This 1967 recording by Prague's QUaX Ensemble was performed using a portion of the score, which Cardew would not complete until 1970. Flautist Petr Kotik leads his colleagues (tenor saxophonist Pavel Kondelík, trombonist Jan Hyncica, percussionist Josef Vejvoda and pianist Vácav Sahradník) in a two-hour journey that travels far and wide through passages both dulcet and dissonant and across aching silences, as though the music were summoning itself into being by virtue of thought alone. In many ways, it was.
The Concrete Mixer
For "Ross Transcript," Matmos decided to play it straight, translating the sounds imagined by one of their experimental subjects on a roughly one-to-one level. The result, a linear stream of radio-dial swirl, snippets of easy-listening music, ringing telephones and all manner of gurgling noises, is intended as an homage to classic musique concrete, the style of musical collage that has informed Matmos' work since their very earliest recordings. The French composer and theorist Pierre Schaeffer was the first person to utilize recordings of everyday sounds as the basis for musical composition. Making good on the futurist sonics envisioned by Russolo in his "Art of Noises," Schaeffer cut and pasted "sound objects" on magnetic tape into vivid, perception-bending collages. This three-disc set of Schaeffer's collected works begins with "Etude aux Chemins de Fer," which manipulates train sounds into a radical fusion of noise, music and representational sound; 1950's "L'oiseau R.A.I." plays with tape speed, overdubbing and electronic effects to turn twittering birds into an alien chorus. By 1959's "Étude aux Objets," the sounds of conventional instruments are stretched to the breaking point, while 1975's "Trièdre Fertile" leads us to a world of pure, abstract electronic sound.
The Oral Historian
Occasionally, the voices of Matmos's experimental subjects surface in The Marriage of True Minds, which makes for a neat trick: recordings of participants imagining the new Matmos album become part of the shape of the music itself. (Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!) Steve Reich began his career by turning spoken-word recordings into music; "It's Gonna Rain" loops an evangelical preacher's thundering sermon into rhythmic surges of pure fire and brimstone, while "Come Out" is constructed using the testimony of a 19-year-old beaten by police in the Harlem riot of 1964. For 1988's Different Trains, a meditation on American exceptionalism and the European Holocaust that takes train travel as its central motif, Reich expanded upon this kind of documentary expressionism by modeling string melodies after spoken-word passages taken from interviews with Holocaust survivors and train conductors. Turning memory into music, it's a remarkable kind of transubstantiation.
The Brain Wavers
Once you get past its paranormal gimmick and conceptual trappings, The Marriage of True Minds is really about something far simpler: the mystery of romance — or, more specifically, the possibility of truly knowing a romantic partner, as Schmidt and Daniel have been for 20 years. The telepathic experiments out of which the album emerged are, in this sense, just a dramatization of the entirely prosaic sort of "mind-reading" to which every lover will succumb, on occasion. The album's closing song, a cover of the Buzzcocks' "ESP," plays out the lover's conundrum in straightforward terms: "Do you believe in E.S.P.? / I do and I'm trying to get through to you / If you're picking up off me / Then you know just what to do – think." Love Bites, the 1978 album on which the song originally appeared, is a masterpiece of anguished lovers' punk, tearing at the loose ends of unrequited love with the adolescent fury of ragged, back-to-basics rock and roll. (Where most punks turned their rage outwards, the Buzzcocks, doomed romantics to the core, tended to sink the blade deep into their own hearts.) Even committed Buzzcocks fans might not at first recognize the provenance of Matmos' version, however. It begins with death metal growls and cavernous guitars and then morphs into a kind of psychedelic hoedown; Daniel and Schmidt sing the chorus in unison before the music abruptly cuts off and Schmidt intones, "So…think." The moral of the story? If telepathy fails, try telempathy.