Be careful what ya think about, punters… the group’s experiments in telepathy, explained.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“I love that moment in composition when you’re trying to get something going and you’ve got this emptiness and then suddenly from out of nowhere it forms,” says Drew Daniel of the experimental electronic duo Matmos, explaining the appeal of the telepathy experiments that formed the basis for this year’s The Marriage of True Minds. “It seemed like doing these experiments was a way of having that moment again and again.”
He and his partner, Martin Schmidt, have been making strange, beautiful music out of the oddest elements for 20 years now, but they have, arguably, never done anything as unusual as these Ganzfeld-style parapsychological experiments. The two of them led roughly 50 sessions in Baltimore and Oxford, England, in which participants laid down on a mattress, put noise-cancelling headphones over their ears and halved ping pong balls over their eyes.
Daniel, meanwhile, in an adjoining room attempted to convey the theme of The Marriage of True Minds telepathically to them, and the subjects described the images, sounds and idea fragments that came to them as they lay there, blind and deaf. Their impressions were recorded on a video tape, and once they were finished, Schmidt escorted them out of the room – without any discussion of what had happened. Later, Daniel and Schmidt used the video tapes as the basis for music, sometimes literally, interspersing the words and recreating the sounds suggested by the tapes, and other times more liberally, as a prompt for more open-ended composition.
Daniel says that he got the idea for the sessions from Brian Massumi’s book, Parables for the Virtual. In it, Massumi described sensory deprivation experiments first devised by Wolfgang Metzger in the 1930s. “He described experiments where people’s heads were held in place, and they looked at a seamless white surface for ten or twelve hours with no variety or change,” says Daniel. “They started to hallucinate all kinds of colors and shapes and forms, because I think the mind can’t stand emptiness.”
Metzger was a pioneer in Gestalt psychology, but his work was later adopted by parapsychologists including Dean Radin and Daryl Bern. “You cover people’s eyes, cover people’s ears, and the theory is that ESP pathways will start to open up once they’re not drowned out by these other sensory inputs,” says Daniel.
“The big lingering question here is whether what’s happening in the ESP sessions is a version of what was happening in the visual Ganzfeld experiments, where the mind can’t stand emptiness and just embroiders,” Daniels adds, explaining that he is, himself, neither a believer nor a skeptic when it comes to ESP. “I’m sort of bracketing that, because how would I know? But there just seemed to be something exciting here about the intimacy of people just sort of relaxing and calming their minds and something just blossoming, something appearing. That seemed really exciting to me as a way to make music.”
Ed Schrader, the Baltimore musician who records as Ed Schrader Music Beat, was one of the participants. He first met Daniel and Schmidt when they ate at a restaurant where he worked. “We got to chatting and it turned out, to my surprise, that they dug my music and knew of me, as I did them,” he remembers. “I half jokingly said ‘Hey we should jam sometime’ to which they said yes. I’m still a bit star struck around them. I’m just a dude from Utica New York. This kind of thing usually doesn’t happen.”
One night Daniel and Schmidt invited Schrader over for dinner. It was his birthday, and they fixed him borscht. “We ate, and as I was enjoying an espresso ala Martin, Drew asked if I’d go in this dark room and put in a blindfold,” says Schrader. “’Oh behave’ I thought!”
Nonetheless, Schrader put on the headphones – and the ping pong balls – and let his mind go blank. “I have a state college degree and read stuff on my phone. I’m not exactly the spokesman for neuro-telepathy,” says Schrader. “But, well something happened. I started to envision a world of large towers like green triangles. It may have been the way I was envisioning the movement of sound.”
Schrader’s imagery became the foundation for “Very Large Green Triangles,” the first single for the Ganzfeld EP which appears in slightly longer form, on Marriage of True Minds. It’s a dense, trippy, intricately layered piece, the quick precision of its overlapping rhythms overlaid with dream-like spasms of strings and chanted vocals. Says Schrader, “I LOVE what they did [with it]. Martin and Drew take these disjointed particles and turn them into gorgeous quilts that have the ability to appeal in a very primal way to anyone with a set of ears.”
Like many of the subjects, Schrader saw triangles. There is, in fact, a cut on Marriage of True Minds called “In Search of a Lost Faculty” which collates all the triangle references from perhaps a dozen different sessions, into a single hallucinatory collage. The two have a couple of theories about why triangles came up as much as they did. One is that the tripod that the video camera rested on forms a triangular shape and is the last thing that subjects saw before they covered their eyes. Another is that triangles are ubiquitous in graphic design lately, and that people may have just absorbed them unconsciously.
But Daniel won’t confirm or deny that triangles had anything to do with the concept he was trying to convey. About that concept, he will say nothing at all. “He hasn’t even told me, by the way,” says Schmidt, when the subject comes up.
“Yes, that remains an absolute secret. I want the whole concept of the new Matmos album to remain something that was only in my mind in those moments and then was attempted to be shared. I want the purity of a purely conceptual record to hover over the actual songs,” says Daniel. “We have a real record. A material physical thing you can play on your turntable or a bunch of files you can put on your hard drive. But it’s relationship to that mysterious question of ‘What was I thinking?’ I want that to remain permanently open. “
Daniel says that he did try to transmit the same concept every time – and that this is more difficult than you might imagine. “It’s really hard to think of one thing. I found that incredibly challenging to sit unmoving and just think,” he explains. “At the end of a day, if I had done 10 or 15 sessions, it was exhausting. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.”
“I will say that when we would start a set of sessions, there was often a freshness and intensity to the first one,” says Daniel. “So as a subjective report about my own ability to transmit, I felt like there were diminishing returns. That trying really got in the way…not to sound like Yoda. There was a sort of directness, a feeling of being connected, that would often take place in the first session.”
And though he doesn’t want to get branded as either a true believer or a scoffer, Daniel says that he did sometimes feel a sort of contact with his subjects. “There were definitely moments when I felt a very strong connection and there were moments when I thought, ‘This is a farce. This is not working.’”
“But he thinks my cooking is good, too,” Schmidt, who may be a bit more skeptical than his partner, interposed. “Don’t trust him at all.”
Many of the people in the Baltimore sessions were musicians. In addition to Schrader, Dan Deacon did a session, as well as members of Nautical Almanac and the Arditti String Quartet. In Oxford, Matmos worked primarily with visual artists. But there were others – a retired person, a garbage collector, a boy from a sandwich shop. “We realized that we couldn’t just talk to musicians,” says Daniel. “Because I think, yeah, if it was all musicians it’s sort of like leading the witnesses. You tell people to relax and suddenly they’re talking about ostinatos and chord progressions. That’s a little too easy.”
People responded in different ways to the process. “There were people who could not shut up and just want to pour forth elaborate visions, and there were people who were quite resistant, I think, or just highly self-critical and it was hard for them to empty their mind,” says Daniel. “There’s also the distraction of the white noise. So often, people’s first few sentences in the sessions would essentially be a reaction to what it’s like to lie down and listen to white noise.”
“Oh, it sounds like the beach. Oh it sounds like I’m in a car trip,” Schmidt added. “We were like, ‘Oh, god, stop talking about the ocean.’”
Still, the sessions managed to generate a wealth of usable material, much of which has been posted, as transcripts on a Tumblr. Then Daniel and Schmidt began the task of turning that input into music.
“We were very, very loose about it,” says Schmidt. “In fact, Drew and I have something of a conflict on that subject. I think his idea for this album is brilliant, and I don’t think he stuck to his guns as much as he should have. I thought we should have literally listened to the tapes and done exactly what they said and nothing more.”
“However, we are pop musicians and this would have generated largely an album of musique concrete, which, face it, nobody wants,” he continues. “Or like 28 people in France and 8 people in NY want that, oh and 6 in Boston, 2 in San Francisco. It’s not going to be a good introduction to our new record label.” (Matmos moved from Matador to Thrill Jockey for Marriage of True Minds.)
“There’s a varying tension or restraint that we allow concepts to put on us,” says Daniel, according to Schmidt, the more “pop” oriented of the two. “Sometimes it’s good to be in a tight space which you’ve got to work inside and sometimes you just don’t want to think that way.” As a result, some of the cuts, such as the “Ross Transcript” are fairly literal representations of the words and sounds suggested by the video tape. Others, such as “Very Large Green Triangles” were more freely interpreted. Some compositions come from one specific transcript; others aggregate imagery from a number of sessions. There is even a cover – a drastic reimagination of the Buzzcocks “ESP”.
The Buzzcocks song, Drew explains, is mainly there because it’s about ESP. “I think for all the high falutin’ conceptualism, we’re actually kind of crushingly literal minded people sometimes,” he admits. “I think that song, at least my decision about a) covering it and b) deciding how to move it from super harsh doom to happy, chirpy Drew and Martin singing together, that arc is a way of addressing a frustration. It’s like an affair when you’re trying to communicate with someone and you just can’t and the movement in that relationship to a situation where you can and maybe you have.”
“ESP”, along with some spoken-word intervals from the sessions, are intended to point listeners gently towards the idea of telepathy, even if they don’t read the liner notes or know about how the album was made. “They’re the equivalent of a wall plaque in a museum that says, over here is this topic,” says Daniel.
Most of the conceptual element of True Marriage of Minds is tied up with the telepathy experiments, but there are also some typically Matmos-y sound-making experiments. “There are Chinese checkers used as a rhythmic vehicle on ‘Aetheric Vehicle’ and handcuffs used as a rhythmic source, and a rubber band and tap-dancing. But there are also a lot of horns and guitars and drums,” says Daniel.
“Oftentimes the things that we work with are weird samples, but if they don’t reconnect to the idea behind the piece, we don’t even mention them,” says Schmidt. “So yeah, we were thinking more about trying to represent these people’s psychic perceptions than to highlight specific sounds, that’s absolutely true. We were kind of letting them do the work.”
Matmos will be performing the new material throughout the spring, incorporating some Ganzfeld-ish touches, but not, as I suggested, simply blindfolding and headphoning the audience and then thinking the show at them. Instead, there will be videos of the Ganzfeld sessions playing in the background, and perhaps, some audience participation. For instance, Matmos has occasionally put headphones over a handful of audience members’ ears and then asked them to replicate what they are hearing. They will also be playing with a full band, bringing Horse Lord’s Owen Gardener on guitar and Sam Haber on drums to Europe and Horse Lord itself as an opener and backing band for U.S. dates.
Meanwhile, Daniels, who teaches at Johns Hopkins, has been busy finishing a book based on his doctoral dissertation, a thesis on melancholy in 16th century art, drama and prose, and working on new Soft Pink Truth material. The two of them are involved in Antony’s latest recording project as well as sound for the new Robert Wilson play, the Life and Death of Marina Abromovic. Moreover, the ideas that emerged from the Ganzfeld experiences continue to percolate, with possibilities for remixes, videos and interpretations in other media (remember the Oxford participants were visual artists). “The idea is endlessly generative. That’s for sure,” says Schmidt.