Category Archives: Electronica

Acupuncture for music lovers: Matmos

Björk collaborators Matmos take an acupuncture break.

MatmosonLettermanIt’s karmic that I encountered Matmos in my acupuncturist’s office. They look ordinary enough, but you know just by listening to their albums that if anyone is entitled to claim the word “alternative,” it’s this gay San Francisco electronic-music duo.

Appropriately, by weird coincidence, when I called licensed acupuncturist Joseph Chang one weekday to see if I could get him to stick his needles in me after work, at that very moment, Matmos boys Drew Daniel and M. C. (Martin) Schmidt were occupying the two tables in Joseph’s place, the House of Qi, just around the corner from the Jon Sims Center for the Arts. “Come on over early, Joseph said, and I’ll get them to hang around for an interview. Bring your tape recorder.”

It helps to have such pull, especially when your interview subjects are in the midst of a world tour along with icy-hot music goddess Björk, serving both as her opening act and as her band. The day I met them, they just happened to back in town for a short break during the middle of their tour. They had come to Joseph to get body tune-ups and energy overhauls in preparation for the next leg of their journey.

They’re just regular guys, but they’re not. They’re sexy and sweet natured, confess to naughy behaviors, and brainy but not show-offy (at least off-stage), and they welcome the chance to talk about acupuncture.

“Keep in mind we’ve known Joseph since he started acupuncture school,” said Drew, the younger of the two young lovers. They’ve been letting Joseph poke them all these years. And that, too, is an odd fact in light of the fact they both are the progeny of medical doctors. Nevertheless, they have a healthy respect for Joseph’s profession, and a particular fondness for Joseph’s methods.

When they’re in town, they both regularly come to Joseph for treatments, and he lovingly pokes and prods them and twists and massages them to move their qi (chi) around and get them feeling refreshed. His treatments have been instrumental in Matmos’s stunning, meteoric rise to fame.

They do things with sounds you wouldn’t expect, generating all kinds of strange clicks and beeps and electronic hisses and pops and rhythms that somehow coalesce into listenable albums. Their mixing abilities and odd choices in instruments are what got them noticed by Björk, and why Matmos is now recognized as one of the most creative forces in the New Music genre.

And they have Joseph to thank for one of their hits, the piece they open all their solo sets with, and that’s prominent on their latest album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (Matador). It was from Joseph that they acquired a key noise-making instrument for the song ur tchun tan tse qi, Chinese for “acupuncture point detector.”

“At one point in the process of becoming an acupuncturist,” said Drew, “Joseph used as a teaching aid an acupuncture point detector that helps you find acupuncture points. The way it works is that you hold a metal rod in one hand and you move a pin across your skin – your skin is completing the circuit, and your skin is more conductive at acupuncture points than at other places on your body. This machine makes little clicks, and the closer it gets to an acupuncture point, the more clicks and faster, and it makes this incredible noise. We thought, wow, this noise is really cool. Can we borrow that? And we made a song entirely out of it.”

“It was so long until we returned it that we bought another one,” added Martin. Basically we stole it.”

Joseph produced one of the devices for my inspection, but the boys quickly dismissed it as inferior to the one they stole.

“We looked for other acupuncture point detectors,” said Martin, but none of them made the right noise. This one was perfect. So we pretty much stole his technology, and we use it every night on the Björk tour; it’s the first song of our set when we open for her.”

As Martin spoke, Joseph ran the device over, in and around one of Martin’s ear’s, and the thing occasionally beeped at an annoyingly high pitch.

“Right now everything is kind of healthy,” said Joseph of Martin’s health, as determined by the beeps (and his extensive knowledge of how to interpret those beeps). “But the lungs definitely make more noise. The liver is healthy. Stomach is good. Beep! Ah, the kidney has something, so you need to cut down on salty foods.”

Drew winced at the sound, and shook his head. “The version we have makes these pops and clicks like bacon frying,” he said. “It sort of goes from being rhythmic to being tonal. The clicks are so constant it has tonal qualities, and the higher the pitch the more conductive it is. And I sample that and build up a song.”

The duo pride themselves on bringing blatant homoeroticism into their act, and the Acupuncture Point Detector helps them do it. On national television, they’ve been captured by cameras indulging in blatantly homoerotic music making, as Drew sensuously runs the device over Martin’s skin, lovingly producing the kinds beeps and groans that distinguish their songs.

“We do it macro,” said Martin, making a gesture with his thumb and forefinger. “It only shows this much of my skin at a time.”

The album liner-notes for A Chance to Cut presents their technique more dryly: the song “Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi” is “composed entirely from sounds generated while measuring the galvanic response of Martin’s skin to a constant flow of electricity. Changes in pitch are produced as the detector pin moves closer to acupuncture points.”

This is just the sort of techno-geek speak much appreciated by New Music enthusiasts. Dry and to the point.

For those not attuned to the niceties of electronic music in the 21st century, keep in mind that melody is out, rhythm and tonalities and textures are in. When you buy a Matmos album, or go to their show, you’re not expecting violins; you’re expecting all manner of weird devices employed in ways that have nothing to do with their originally intended uses.

Apart from the Acupuncture Point Detector, the boys gather sounds from actual liposuction surgery, refractive eye surgery, and plastic surgeries (rhinoplasty, endoscopic forehead lift and a chin implant, all performed in California); a hearing test booth; pieces of human skull, goat spine, connective tissue, and artificial teeth; and the plucked and bowed cage of their late pet rat Felix.

As they confess on their website (vague-terrain.com), presenting such eccentric music live on-stage present extraordinary challenges. They have “survived on-stage computer malfunction and recalcitrant helium tanks” in locations as diverse as Paris, London, New York, Stuttgart, Lausanne, Frankfurt. Their sound effects alone do not make a song; the success they enjoy comes from a strong sense of musicality mixed in with a desire to channel distortion in interesting directions. It’s their technical skill – sampling, sequencing, mixing, editing – mixed with their keen music sense and a smattering of guitar and keyboard effects that keeps their sound sharp and distinct, if not for the masses, at least for all those unemployed computer geeks searching for inspiration. 

###

This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, November 22, 2001

Anything Goes: The State of Performance Art

The two-dozen or so artists and members of the audience that gathered one night last weekend at 455 10th Street, a performance gallery south of Market, were young and very hip. They were all pretty much insiders in the avant-garde art scene in San Francisco, and though they were expecting to be entertained and entertaining, they were not expecting the evening’s events to be either polished or particularly innovative. The fact that there were glimmers of outstanding artistic achievement was probably more than anyone had hoped for.

Michael_Brown_Performance_Art

When I entered the gallery, a shabby, converted warehouse, I immediately saw that the far end of the space was bathed in projections of typewritten words — big, bold, black-and-white lettering cast onto three walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the stage props.

Interesting, I thought; it had the same dramatic impact as enlarged headlines in scandal sheets. The words leaped out, unintelligible but insistent. The projection spoke plainly: it was “art” large enough to fill an entire space with a minimum of investment in materials, time or imagination. It was functional and put me in the appropriate frame of mind: weirdness.

I seated myself in one of the plastic chairs angled toward the back corner of the gallery and waited to see what would take place. A quartet of musicians in another corner, arranged in a circle so that the backs of some of them were toward the audience, separating us from them, was playing a crudely enchanting music, seemingly spontaneous.  They played recorder, violin, mandolin and drum. It was an oddly primitive music, contributing to the atmosphere of ritual that filled the gallery, as if some ancient rite were taking place.

At center stage a sheet was draped over a square metal frame, perhaps a clothes rack. The projections cast over the walls also partially obscured the sheet, making it blend in with its background, camouflaged. At an apparently predetermined point in the playing of the music, a hand from under the sheet reached out and pulled the sheet down.

Ropes inside the frame suspended a man’s slender, naked body. The ropes looped around his side so that he faced the audience frontally, his feet pointing to the bottom angle of the frame, his head pointed diagonally to the top. His nakedness was obscured by projections onto his white-powdered body.

The projections were of clothes and abstract images. So perfectly placed was his body in relation to the projector that the images of clothes, ever changing, perfectly matched his form, neatly dressing him. Then there were bizarre projections, full of wild colors and unidentifiable images that sometimes made his body look ghastly, as though it were a corpse brought out of a terrible battle in the midst of war.

_______________

The gallery presented a potpourri of individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

_______________

The people responsible for this captivating scene — m.c. schmidt, Wayne Niethold, and Michael Brown — originally devised the concept in New York for the Palladium. It was created, they said, to honor an acquaintance’s death.

“Performance art is just about anything you want it to be,” says Michael Brown, organizer of the events at 455 10th St.  Better known in the city as one of the infectiously good-humored workers at Café Flore, Mike is an installation artist whose vision and energy regularly brings together the works of various artists at the gallery, many of them, like him, recent graduates of Humboldt State College in Arcata, California.

The artists assembled a potpourri of installation, video, film, live music and performance art, individual pieces bearing little relation to each other, a feature that much of what is called “performance art” has in common.

One piece followed another in the course of the evening. The live music ended, and recorded, synthesized music took over, vibrating in deep, eerie, quadraphonic sound, a collection of found sounds and instrumental music with an overall ominous feel.

This was particularly true when the suspended nude climbed down out of his ropes, to be replaced on stage by four video screens pulsing eerily in the darkness with a taped segment entitled “Mechanical Spectacle.”

Created by Bill Smartt, Mykill Misrok, and Mark Misrok, it consisted of a mechanical farm, with mechanical chickens, ducks, farmers, cows, tractors and other such things, all in their proper settings of farmhouses, barns, and corrals, As the camera panned around and through the set, the pieces moved mechanically, as though they were magnetic and a magnet were being run underneath them. This movement was accompanied by strange electronic sounds, including echoes, claps, sticks clacking, and a farmer’s voice singing, in Hillbilly accent, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bail of hay.” It was a freakish and unsettling combination of sight and sound, nightmarish in effect.

This was followed, in startling contrast, by an outrageously funny act performed by Bill Smartt sitting at a desk, his face the center of a giant sunflower. In a Southern woman’s accent, he portrayed Kimberly, the receptionist for Temp Force, the temporary personnel agency.

“Thank you for calling,” she’d answer the telephone, her voice singsong, and then proceed to humiliate, degrade, and condescend to caller after caller seeking employment. The skit was done with great wit and devastating accuracy, even if the sunflower bonnet was something of a funny flop.

The most powerful piece of the evening, however, was Michael Brown’s own video presentation documenting the destruction of the old Falstaff brewery. It began with Mike engaging in a physical demonstration, a sort of rite in which he slowly and painstakingly moved a giant I-beam from the back of the warehouse onto center stage by rolling it on sticks.

At the same time, images of a crumbled building were projected onto one wall, first in black-and-white, then in color. My first thought was that it was the bombed-out embassy in Beirut, but then other images started appearing on video screens on other walls and I recognized the brewery.

The quadraphonic sound system was emitting magnified noises of traffic and jackhammers and the deep, echoing voice of a woman speaking in German. What was being said was never made clear, but the voice gave a documentary-like quality to the images, as though a member of the underground in World War II Germany was narrating an account of the atrocities she had witnessed.

Michael Brown and his colleagues at 455 10th St. did a remarkable job of providing fresh and interesting entertainment to a sophisticated, if not too critical, audience. Their ideas are as representative of the trends in performance art as anything else. Which is to say, in performance art, anything goes.

 

This article appeared in print in the San Francisco Sentinel, April 3, 1987.

It’s a raver’s life

In 1998 Aaron Schirmer attributed his having lived and thrived for 13 years with HIV — without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications — in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

Aaron_Schirmer
Rave promoter and long-term HIV survivor Aaron Schirmer.
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller.

 

IT’S AROUND 5:30 A.M. SUNDAY, July 26, near sunrise in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and Freaky Chakra is going wild. His stand-up mop of black curls thrashes to the thundrous beat he’s creating. His fingers move deftly across synthesizer panels and mixing boards. He pops a sampler button and tweaks a knob and suddenly the bass plummets an octive, high notes go shrieking everywhere, and the floor seems to drop out of the room. Everyone dancing feels under the influence, their minds zooming off into space.

Chakra’s pure dope. Everybody at Vibrator gets high off him, especially the guy dancing directly in front of the right speaker, facing the sound. He’s Aaron Schirmer, 28, promoter and mastermind of Vibrator, who persuaded techno-master Chakra to do his first-ever live sunrise set, tailored for Vibrator, the already legendary rave born a mere five years ago in San Diego.

Even more dope is Mark E. Quark, Schirmer’s friend and the DJ whose early morning vinyl spinning set Vibrator ablaze. Everybody felt the energy, deep down and all around. Quark’s mixes went over the top, magnetically drawing people to the speakers and turntable setup. Schirmer’s core group of friends moved close en masse, swept into the groove. Quark was setting loose the incendiary progressive house sounds that most signify what Schirmer wants Vibrator to be all about: a spiritual healing place, where the mind and body can repair themselves.

Some people find spirituality in nature, others in monasteries and ashrams. Schirmer finds his path to expanded consciousness – even the key to sustaining his life – right in front of the speaker, his whole being saturated with noise, as he dances ecstatically among the members of his tribe, flailing his arms and swaying trance-like to rapid-fire electronic rhythms and sound samples.“Vibrator is where I can free my mind and let go of my life’s problems and just be in that realm of beauty, just be out there, dancing and raving, separated from AIDS, from all the problems that come with living on this planet, everything. I just dance and let my body move and the music take me.”

 

New religion

If Vibrator is Schirmer’s church, raves are his religion. Indeed, raves are where a host of Bay Area youth – gays and straights, women and men together – go these days to transcend themselves and, very likely, partake of the sacraments: acid, ecstasy, and other mood-altering, mind-opening substances (crystal meth is virtually absent at the smaller, better raves. Ditto alcohol).

On this weekend alone, Vibrator is just one (and, with only a few hundred select participants, by far the smallest) of at least three raves taking place in the city, all of which are attended mainly by hard-core ravers who learn of the events through word-of-mouth.

But Vibrator, as all its attendees know or soon discover, is a rave with a difference. Few coming to it fresh would likely be able to pinpoint its source of singularity, but those fully in tune with its vibe understand its creative twist: not only is its promoter, Schirmer, an authentic raver, fully of the fold since his teenage years; not only is he cute and queer; not only is he sweet natured, loving, and open with all kinds of people; he’s also a long-term survivor hell bent on staying alive.

Schirmer attributes his having lived and thrived for13 years with HIV, without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications (though he was diagnosed as having AIDS more than a year ago when his t-cell count briefly dropped below 200) in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

“I don’t know how to explain it, really, in words,” he says. “It’s just this feeling I get when I go dancing sometimes, especially at outdoor parties where there’s a sunrise, and there’s this sense of tribalness. That’s when I start to think I have a key. Like, hey, I know exactly what I’m doing now, and I’m able to access this kind of energy that heals me. It makes me feel, like, shhhh, craazy girl! There’s nothing like it.”

Schirmer’s ex-boyfriend and current roommate Josh, 25 (they and Vibrator DJ Kevin West recently turned a former punk-rock venue on Valencia Street, the Def Club, into a live-rave space), shares the attitude: “I can have all this stuff in my head, day to day crap that stresses me out, and then go to a party like Vibrator and it won’t matter any more. It’ll be wiped away. I consider it a spiritual healing. It’s my form of meditation.”

Another close friend, Anna, who has traveled from San Diego to attend her fourth Vibrator party (though she insists she’s not part of the rave scene), says she’s not sure how motivated Schirmer is by having had a death threat hanging over him all his adult life, but “I’ve often heard Aaron say things like, ‘I need to go out and dance. I need to go hear some music.’ I think there’s a restlessness that comes from the distraction of HIV, and the dancing and the music are partly an escape. But it’s bigger than that, and it’s bigger than HIV. Like any non-HIV person at a rave, he’s having a really good time. But he feels the music more than most people. It’s very healing to him.”

 

Holistic response

Aaron_Schirmer_1
Aaron Schirmer
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller

While he fully accepts the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Schirmer remains deeply ambivalent about the pharmaceuticals now being widely prescribed to keep the virus in check. On the one hand, he recognizes their potential to keep AIDS patients alive, at least for a while, and he understands they have dramatically reduced AIDS-related deaths. Still, in large part because he’s done so well without them, he can’t help wondering if others with asymptomatic HIV wouldn’t do better pursuing alternative therapies.

“My doctor feels that whatever I’m doing is working,” says Schirmer, “so to stick with it. And that means making decisions like not taking the drugs right now. He said that if you get a gut feeling that you should be on these medications, then go with it. But if you’re getting a gut feeling that now is not the right time, go with it. So that’s where I’m at as far as deciding when to take medications.”

Schirmer’s twin brother, Mike, who’s also gay, HIV-positive (for 12 years), and a raver (or, rather, “former club kid,” as he puts it), went ahead with the coctail therapy after he came down with crypto and was told he had only a 20-percent chance of recovery. The drugs worked, and he’s in decent health, dancing with abandon at Vibrator, his hair the brightest Day-Glo orange in the room.

Unfortunately, Mike Schirmer couldn’t adhere to the drug regimen, so recently gave up trying – a decision most medical experts warn is fraught with risk.

“Going on medications is a huge decision,” says Tim Teeter, RN, a treatment support services specialist at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “All of the medications have side effects. You have to believe that what you’re doing is something you can stick with. At this point, that means for the rest of your life.”

“A wrong take on the situation,” cautions Project Inform’s Brenda Lien, “is, look, this guy [Aaron Schirmer] is living a long time without drugs, so drugs must be bad for you.

A possible explanation for Schirmer’s longevity, Lien offers, quite apart from his raving, is that “some people, for whatever reason, have immune systems better able to function [with HIV].” Moreover, the younger a person is when they’re infected, the better situated they are to fend off the virus. Schirmer was only 16 when he got the virus from his first sex partner.

Statistically speaking, Lien adds, Schirmer is only slightly beyond the normal survival curve: “Before combination antiviral therapies, the average time from initial HIV infection to death ranged from 10-12 years. At 13 years, Aaron’s clearly falling outside the norm, but only slightly.”

Still, Lien acknowledges, “Aaron’s system has clearly been able to control the disease. He’s probably a living example that one of the most potent antivirals is the immune system itself.”

 

Positive state

Keeping one’s immune system intact, in Schirmer’s view, is best achieved through a positive state of mind, which is why music and dancing help. He refuses to be a victim, instead concentrating on healing energies within himself (which has not prevented him from smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and indulging in recreational drugs, though he wants to cut back on those habits).

Later this month, Schirmer will travel with his lover Christian, a former punk-rock devoteé who’s not into raves but is way into body piercing and tattoos, to Borneo, a journey he hopes will introduce him to tribal people who, for the most part, never lost their connection with native spirituality (and who have their own style of raving).

“If you’re able to find an outlet,” says Schirmer in his gentle, boyish voice, gazing pensively into the near distance, “to seriously get down to the nitty gritty in your spiritual world and understand why you’re here, what matters, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more connected to your spirit than anything, you have a much better chance of survival, or at least accepting that you may die.”

A big part of what keeps Schirmer going, according to his friend Sarah (who is attending her first Vibrator), are the people he chooses to have around him: “He’s very emotional, and very open, and he needs people a lot, but it’s selective. His friends are his family. They’re a support group for him that he doesn’t really have from his natural family.”

What draws people to him, Sarah adds, and what makes them want to be with him at his parties, is that “he’s a big dreamer, which I love. There’s a sense of escapism with him. It’s an attractive thing to be around. This person has a depth of feeling and wants to share that.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 6, 1998