Re-Composing Poland

Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, by Matmos

With their latest release Regards / Ukłony dla Bogusław Schaeffer, American duo Matmos further close the gap between what is still classified, however anachronistically, as “classical” music and the pop idiom to which their brand of experimental electronica remains indebted.

Black and white country. Krakow, in January.

Like the band’s previous records, Regards induces a kind of double listening. 

Music that falls under the experimental rubric makes you work. You have to think before you can feel. But M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel make sure you always feel something while you are thinking, deeply involved in the music even as part of you holds back. 

Not only that, they want you to feel pleasure as well as the pain and perplexity that avant-garde culture tends to inflict. It’s possible for someone with conventional mainstream tastes, who normally finds high-minded pretence a huge turn-off, to enjoy Matmos records without feeling condescended to. If you want to tap your toe or do your thing on the dance floor, that’s fine with them.

I think this helps explain why Matmos have migrated from the fringes of the music world to being one of those artists that casual listeners, who are unlikely to seek out challenging records, still want to know about. Although they will never be bestsellers, they have built enough of an audience over their three decades together to qualify as standard-bearers for experimental art.

As the excellent liner notes from Thrill Jockey records note, the band was given access to the complete recorded work of Polish composer Boguslaw Schaeffer by Michal Mendyk of the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza. They compiled a whole library of samples from them, and then used them as building blocks to make the album. 

The problem with great liner notes, however, is that they have a way of constraining reception of the work they describe. For that reason, I made it a point to listen to Regards many times, as well as any Schaeffer compositions I could locate, before I read them

Because I have been following Matmos since I first got to know Daniel in the 1990s, while we were both graduate students at UC-Berkeley, this meant that I initially heard Regards in relation to their previous work, from their debut LP Matmos (1997), through their early “hits” A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001) and The Civil War (2003), mid-career experiments like The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast (2006) and The Marriage of True Minds (2013), and their sprawling collaborative opus The Consuming Flame: Experiments in Open Form (2020).

At first, I found it hard to figure out which elements of Regards they had taken from Schaeffer’s work as-is and which were the result of a montage effect. The first half of the album sounds an awful lot like what I expect to hear from a Matmos record, no matter where their samples come from. Not more of the same — every one of their releases has a distinctive character — but more of the similar. 

Part of the problem is that Schaeffer’s oeuvre is hard to hear. The classical music streaming service IDAGIO, which provides access to many experimental composers of the past century, doesn’t have a single piece by him. 

Although there’s a smattering of studio and live recordings available on YouTube, few of his major works are available in their entirety. Indeed, it’s primarily Schaeffer’s work as an avant-garde playwright that has been acknowledged in the West. 

However, the more I listened to the Schaeffer recordings I was able to track down, the easier it became to discern his contribution. Despite his training in classical composition, he rejected standard musical notation for loose directives in graphic form. His compositions promote heterogeneity, making room for improvisation and a degree of randomness. 

While Matmos also make music that tests the limits of their idiom, the fact that it still depends on the marking of rhythm makes the structure of their songs easier to perceive than is the case for Schaeffer’s compositions. But it is not a particularly rigid structure.

What sets Matmos apart from most sample-driven electronica is the elasticity of their rhythms. Even artists who assiduously avoid the driving 4/4 beats of the dance club tend to retain them as a kind of negative space. 

Matmos pursued a different path, when they set out three decades ago, and have consistently come up with percussion that captures the sound of the real world, rather than the artificial one musicians usually conjure. Their beat patterns can be so hard to make out that they seem almost random at first, until the self-similarity of natural systems gradually reveals itself. 

It’s that buoyant elasticity that stood out to me the first few times I heard “Resemblage” and “Cobra Wages Shuffle”, the opening tracks on Regards, songs which, if not exactly ready for the dance floor, are at least close enough to the club to hear it throbbing through the neighbourhood. That was also the quality that I kept coming back to after I had thoroughly familiarised myself with the album, because it doesn’t seem to derive as much from Schaeffer’s work as other musical elements. 

Once I was confident that I could read the liner notes without thereby limiting my capacity to hear the music on its own terms, I sent Matmos questions about the project. Schmidt was confined to his Amsterdam hotel room with a case of Covid. But Daniel responded in depth. 

The initial plan was for them to compile a “sample pack” for Ableton software that anyone might use to repurpose Schaeffer’s music, in the hopes of bringing his work the attention he deserves. 

“We had to listen to the pieces and log in detailed paperwork (for) every sample, as we made about 200 samples,” Daniel explained. “It was kind of like making a LEGO playset about avant-garde electroacoustic music. Which was fun to do, but also kind of crazy-making.”

As this painstaking task unfolded, it became clear that Matmos could produce a record of their own.

Given the depth of their engagement with unusual sources of sound — surgical equipment, washing machine, plastic bottles — it’s not hard to imagine them having achieved something that sounds like the Regards album without having anything to do with Schaeffer’s music.

The fact that they deployed the sounds they culled from his work shows that their sample-anything-that-moves aesthetic works just as well with material that was carefully crafted by an artist as it does with happy accidents.

Whatever the formal rigour of Schaeffer’s approach to composition, it is clear that he is prized in his native country for his sense of humour. His absurdist plays have been popular since their publication, weathering the period in which most art of the Communist era was cast away. 

Although his music clearly draws upon the austere Late Modern sensibility that dominated composition in the two decades following World War II, it also demonstrates an abstract playfulness. Given that the music of Matmos can also be characterised that way, it makes sense that they would find rich inspiration in his compositions. 

On the other hand, there is gravity to Schaeffer’s work, a sense of purpose, that is deliberately lacking from the Dada tradition that made mistakes into virtue. If he conjures laughter, it is the darkly existential sort of Waiting for Godot, rather than the slapstick of traditional vaudeville. 

That’s where the second half — or side — of Regards comes in. “There is something special about the moon tonight” starts with the kind of rhythms I expect on a Matmos track, only to disintegrate into a confusing palimpsest of spoken-word calm and clattering instruments. “If All Things Were Turned to Smoke” and “Anti-Antiphon (Absolute Decomposition)” forsake the burbling brook of the album’s opening tracks for a spare, disquieting soundscape. 

Whereas the former bend Schaeffer’s music to their will, the latter bends them to his.

It’s a lovely turnabout, giving us a feel for what might have happened if he had been commissioned to compose a work in which the “instruments” were not prepared strings and tubas, but samples from Matmos records. 

When I asked Daniel about the way the album unfolds, he emphasised the retrospective dimension of the process. 

“It’s often about narratives that are reversed engineered from the array of songs you make.” Schmidt and Daniel have to “figure out what is the best kind of ‘welcome mat’ to a record: it has to represent what the record is going to do, but in a way that is accessible since it’s the ‘on ramp’ to the whole structure.” 

The process is “often about tinkering”, with the goal being to “find a suite that seems to flow well. Sometimes that faces material constraints: in this case, I think ‘Flight to Sodom’ gets a little smushed on the vinyl pressing of the album, as it’s a very full frequency piece to put last on a vinyl side. I knew that ‘Cobra Wagers Shuffle’ was too silly to be the first song, and ‘Flashcube Fog Wares’ was too fucked up to be the first song.” That’s why the album opens with “Resemblage”, whose title neatly conveys the duo’s artistic practice.

“Usually the last song is also the important way you’re answering the questions posed by the whole,” Daniel added. “Where do you want to take the listener?” 

In the case of Regards, the implicit journey is from relative accessibility to a remote, disturbing destination. “I wanted a more ‘bright’ first side and a moodier, more frightening second side as a whole. Maybe all our albums are allegories about entropy? That seems fair to say at this point.”

Yet even if the album communicates a sense of mounting disorder when heard from start to finish, there is another sense in which that sequence serves an organisational purpose. The further Matmos get from the bounciness of their more pop-friendly sound, the closer they bring their brand of electronica into conversation with the classical music tradition.

Regards makes an argument for the “long tail” of Modernism, which presents us with the paradox of an avant-garde that feels aesthetically retrograde, yet is all the better for that datedness. 

Indeed, if you spend as much time poking around Bandcamp and out-there music blogs as I do, it eventually becomes clear that experimental music has never been so popular. 

Not in the sense of sales, necessarily — though the total number for the genre surely exceeds the number of people who invested in the New Music in the 1920s and 1930s — but because the barriers to meaningful innovation have been swept away by technology. 

It’s perfectly possible now for someone with no training in composition, who can’t even read music perhaps, to create “limit works” that push the envelope for both the sourcing and arrangement of sound. 

In a sense, this represents the apotheosis of the punk sensibility, which insisted that proficiency mattered less than passion. It’s just that, instead of three chords and a snarled vocal, we get processed ambient recordings and beat patterns constructed with software that renders human time-keeping superfluous. 

That’s part of the reason why Matmos is perfectly suited for bridging the divide between classical and popular, high and low. 

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Daniel participated in one of America’s most impressive punk and post-punk scenes while still a teenager. 

Although the music he started making when he met M.C. Schmidt initially seems far removed from the traditional rock instrumentation of bands like Squirrel Bait, Slint, Rodan and The Shipping News, it partakes of the same rebellious spirit, rejecting the pursuit of mainstream success in order to build and sustain an artistic community.

In addition to being a highly respected composer and playwright, Boguslaw Schaeffer was also a professor of music, passing on his decades of learning to students who would have very different opportunities from the ones that had been available to him, starting out in the early 1950s or even in the relative openness of the mid-1960s. 

Schaeffer was a member of the postwar Cracow Group, which brought visual artists, writers, and musicians together to promote formal experimentation instead of listless social realism. Even though he was from a different generation than Schmidt and Daniel, he shared with them this persistent drive to challenge the status quo and support others in that pursuit. 

We are far enough away from the collapse of the Eastern Bloc that even people who lived through those heady days find it difficult to recall. That ideologically reinforced remoteness played a role in the making of Regards.

“I would say that it ‘primed’ the way that we listened to the music,” Daniel remarks. “We were listening for a difference, and sometimes hearing it, and sometimes not.” 

Part of that can be attributed to the peculiar status that formal experimentation in art, music and film-making had in Poland during the “thaw” that followed Joseph Stalin’s death. Culturally, it was an enormously rich time in the country, despite its otherwise impoverished circumstances. 

For a respected academic like Schaeffer, it was possible to develop ideas without having to make money off of them. That autonomy was enormously valuable and surely inspires envy among contemporary American artists, who have fewer opportunities to secure support from the state.

Nevertheless, Schaeffer and his one-time colleague Krzysztof Penderecki struggled in ways that are hard for us to fathom. They lived in a totalitarian state with a massive security apparatus, without VPNs or any of the other cloaking devices that present-day dissidents use. One wrong word could end a career. 

This constant state of precarity is reflected in the gravity of Schaeffer’s work, but also its peculiar levity. When someone’s entire existence could be “cancelled” in a matter of days, if not hours, being able to make art without constant ideological supervision was a privilege so rare that it verged on the absurd. 

It’s important to remember the constraints that artists like Schaeffer operated under, even as we acknowledge parallels between his world and our own. 

Today, even those of us who live in the freest of nations contend with the simulacral double of that security apparatus, spied upon with almost every interaction that requires the use of digital technology. 

Combine that sobering reality with the politically repressive regimes in Hungary, Poland, and other former Communist countries and you have a recipe for misery that the works of those composers movingly communicated. 

The impact of Regards must be measured in relation to this historical context. Even if the album doesn’t compel many listeners to demand recordings of Schaeffer’s work, its very existence performs important cultural labour. 

To become aware of his legacy — and, by extension, that of other Polish artists of the postwar decades — is to perceive the aesthetic continuity that binds generations, in spite of the political upheavals that afflicted them. 

It also serves as a fitting tribute to the cultural scene that sustained him. Far from the mid-twentieth-century cultural centres of New York and Paris, Schaeffer and his colleagues were able to experiment without having to demonstrate the commercial value of their work. 

In this regard, they were not unlike the geographically dispersed, but aesthetically cohesive scenes that sustain Matmos. 

As Daniel put it in responding to a question about the significance of Schaeffer’s historical context, “I grew up in Kentucky and now live in Baltimore, so I’m very interested in the kinds of creativity nurtured by cities that are not ‘global media power centres.’”

Ultimately, Regards is a compelling attempt to facilitate greater contact with a past that is in danger of being erased from the history books.

Photograph courtesy of Matthew Savage. Published under a Creative Commons license.