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LIVE REPORT: Matmos Perform Robert Ashley
David Stubbs , October 26th, 2016 11:34

In the San Francisco duo's interpretation of Robert Ashley's collaborative piece 'Perfect Lives', David Stubbs finds not only a musical outfit perfect for the composer's challenge but one with the qualities to improve upon the original

Even in the 20th century, when classic music underwent all manner of upheavals, tearing itself down and reassembling itself for the sake of modernity, the conventions and tropes of opera managed to stay mostly intact. The mode of the music changed, from Bartok to Schoenberg, but the orchestral fabric of opera remained the same. Classically trained singers were not forced to query fundamentally their whole approach to the genre, applying themselves much as they would as if performing Mozart or Wagner.

One composer who did write a truly reconfigured form of modern opera was Robert Ashley (1930-2014), whose work rethinks entirely the relationship between libretto and musical backing in the light of the 20th century. In the early Sixties, as a a member of the ONCE group, he and his colleagues constructed their own electronic instruments to realise compositions like 1960’s ‘The Fourth Of July’. Later, for his 1998 piece, ‘Your Money My Life Goodbye’, a semi-comic saga about an international swindler who claims her son is a James Bond-type spy, takes place mostly against a remorseless, Laurie Anderson-style electronic pulse.

It’s not only that he uses electronics, Ashley applies various extended techniques and minimalist tactics such as looping and repetition; he allows for unorthodox or spoken word deliveries, which do not require the usual gymnastics of opera singing to carry off (although they do require application of other kinds). He has even used his own, mildly Tourette’s-affected voice as an element in his compositions, in 1979’s ‘Automatic Writing’. In this respect he reminds of his contemporary Alvin Lucier, whose legendary 1969 piece ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ features his own voice, afflicted by a slight stutter, recorded back and forth from two tape recorders till his words are lost amid the resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself. One wonders why there aren’t dozens more Robert Ashley’s.

The structure of his pieces is often open-ended, permitting multiple combinations and different musical interpretations/arrangements rather than being strictly scored. So it is with ‘Perfect Lives’, a collaborative piece devised between 1978 and 1983 and eventually broadcast for TV. Made up of seven episodes, and set in a very American but un-named Midwest town, its overall story is of a couple of musicians who – along with a football-playing accomplice – plan to rob a bank but then only keep the money for one day: if they should get away with it, they will have accomplished a word of art. However, within its multiple settings - the Bank, the Bar, the Supermarket - the libretto takes a giddying number of twists, turns, digressions and abstract musings originally delivered in the form of an unfurling patter by the suave-looking Ashley himself. Despite the apparent simplicity of its structures, so many styles, conceits and concepts flow through ‘Perfect Lives’, both musically and textually, that it is impossible to take in cold first time off the bat. It requires repeated listening to get anything like a handle upon; however, it is a piece that is immediately utterly beguiling, mysteriously hypnotic, drawing you into its cryptic world like a whirlpool.

The San Francisco duo Matmos, now based in Baltimore, aka MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel, most famous for their collaborations with Björk on Vespertine and Medúlla, are singularly equipped to perform and elaborate on Ashley’s work. They have a highly literate and cross-platform approach, with a Matthew Herbert-like approach to sampling, as well as an incredible versatility: I’ve seen and heard Matmos live on numerous occasions, and it’s never been the same experience twice. Fundamentally, they get it; there is nothing academic, or drearily meticulous about the way they splice together elements in their music, which spans dance to the avant-garde and takes in found objects, electronics and regular instruments. All of these they bring together with serious, deadpan humour – an easy panache that comes from the deep working and personal relationship Schmidt and Daniel have developed in the nigh-on two decades of Matmos’s existence. Watch live footage of them performing their last album Ultimate Care II, made up entirely of sounds produced by a washing machine. There is nothing whimsical or bone-dry gestural about their approach to the undertaking. They extract something ingenious. They make a point, they agitate the cerebellum but more importantly they rock. They swing. They perfume. They groove. They rumble.

It is with absolute faith that they would deliver that I arrive at the Barbican to see Matmos perform three episodes from ‘Perfect Lives’, and they exceed expectation. First was ‘The Park (Privacy Rules)’ in which MC Schmidt delivers the libretto, sedentary, in cardigan and bow tie. Musical, visual and vocal narratives seem to cut across one another; the arrangement consists of wave after wave of strings and flute, underpinned by discreet electronic treatments by Daniel. As images tumble slowly down the backcloth, Schmidt’s narrative, a loose association of ideas moving away from the central theme, is punctuated by an almost sardonic Greek chorus of two female backing vocalists uttering regular, laconic phrases which offer neither assent nor dissent. The final episode is ‘The Backyard (T’Be Continued)’, to which Matmos provide a beautiful and effortlessly moving melange of sampled tabla and treated guitar, sending us on our way from the imaginary landscape of this opera affected and altered by its topography and events but not quite sure how or why as yet.

The highlight, however, is the second of the selected episodes, ‘The Bar (Differences)’, set against a tacky, flyover country 1980s idea of a cocktail lounge – all neon light and satin and bad honky tonk pastiche. A cheesy piano phrase rolls over and over as Schmidt’s narrator sashays about the stage, accompanied by the tick of a cheap Casio drum machine. However, there’s a sense of growing tipsiness as the piece imperceptibly builds, layer upon layer, the carefully accumulating arrangement simulating perfectly the sensation of riotous drunkenness as the philosophical ideas begin to flow like alcohol through veins, with Schmidt speculating wildly and unsteadily on the nature of the Self.

Only Matmos could pull of this sort of abandon with this degree of exactness, you suspect. Their arrangement of this episode is, frankly, an improvement on the (very fine) televised Ashley original, in which they bring to bear all the chops they’ve accrued over the years. The Midwestern theme of ‘Perfect Lives’ has invited comparisons with Talking Heads; however, there is a super-intelligence at work in this performance that feels like 3D chess compared with Talking Heads’ regular variety.