Stephan Mathieu and David Maranha – Strings


On 17 July 2011, the minimalist musicians Stephan Mathieu and David Maranha performed an acoustic concert in the tennis court at the Fundação Serralves park in Porto. Stephan Mathieu played his virginals harpsichord with electromagnets, while David Maranha used violin and shruti box. The performance lasted 29 minutes and 20 seconds. The performance centred around a drone in the key of A. In February 2012 a recording of that performance is being issued on a single-sided LP by Cronica and Serralves under the name Strings.

Of course, a musical work is more than the sum of such prosaic details, and that thirty minutes does not represent the entirety of the artistic process. Why virginals and violin? Why play in the park? Why the key of A? Clearly some thought went into such decisions, they did not happen to be in the same place in the same key by chance. There was a creative dialogue which extended back over days or weeks or months before this piece was performed; as is typical with any duo performance, by the time it came to be performed, a certain number of the parameters had actually been fixed.

In fact, had this been a laptop duo performance, many more of the parameters would have been fixed. Unlike with software, when using acoustic instruments (especially ones as old as the virginals and violin), there are clearly certain variables relating to the instrument or the instrumentalist which can’t be controlled precisely – for example on a violin, exactly how hard or fast you bow on the strings, or whether you happen to catch another string as you do so. So at times in the recording of this performance you can hear Maranha’s strings creaking and groaning, squeaking and sliding over the surface of Mathieu’s ebowed virginals, these unexpected inflections appearing like disruptions on the calm surface of a lake, as if a pebble had been tossed in from the shore.

By playing outside in a public space, as opposed to in the more tightly constrained environment of an indoor concert venue, yet more uncontrollable variables appear. After just one minute of Mathieu’s shimmering sonic heat haze, there is the unmistakeable sound of wind blowing into an unprotected microphone, a fairly typical summer sea breeze rumbling in from the Atlantic Ocean. A few minutes later, an airplane roars overhead, probably carrying tourists on their way to visit the sights of Porto’s old town, with its modern buildings rubbing up against baroque architecture. Such details could probably have been prevented from being captured in the first place, or even excised later. So why weren’t they?

There is a sense that Mathieu and Maranha are reaching back to some sort of root. The call of that A drone is as magnetic as the pull of the past, and the pull of nature. By using acoustic instruments in an outdoor setting, it is as if they are aligning themselves with the inherent unpredictability of the natural world, as opposed to the more controllable digital world; any glowing apples here are the result of sunlight dancing through orchards. The choice of the baroque virginals and violin, and the way they deploy them, takes us back from that thirty minute performance. It takes us back through the creative decisions that led up to them, and beyond. Ultimately, their strings lead us back through around 500 years of musical history, towards something timeless: the creative dialogue between man and nature.


Stephan Mathieu, BJ Nilsen and TSU at Cafe Oto, 8/5/11

Stephan Mathieu

Last week, the Guardian named Dalston’s Cafe Oto and the Vortex as two of the ten best music venues in London, and given how these two stand (so far) apart from the rest thanks to their laudable commitment to adventurous programming, I’m almost surprised that they managed to find eight more, to be honest. Cafe Oto was pretty full tonight for the sort of free-thinking lineup you really wouldn’t find anywhere else in the city: a Room40 night featuring the artists Stephan Mathieu, BJ Nilsen and TSU (Robert Curgenven and Jörg Maria Zeger). It led me to wonder whether anyone had come along to Cafe Oto as a result of the intrigue created by the Guardian’s article, and what they would make of a music venue which sets out to challenge the prevalent notions of what music actually is.


The duo of Curgenven and Zeger was the most conventionally musical act on the bill, which is saying something considering one of the key “instruments” they were using was a pair of amplified electric fans. Every so often, Curgenven would dash round from behind his turntables to turn the devices on or off, creating a satisfying base drone of variable intensity. And, no doubt, a lovely cooling breeze for himself and Zeger (why has no-one thought of this before at the notoriously sticky Cafe Oto?). He used his vinyl mainly to provide a grainy patina of crackle, mostly as reassuring as the sound of raindrops on a campfire, but at times so harsh that it sounded like he had the needle on the label rather than the groove. Zeger slowly applied pressure to one of his many pedals, and stroked at guitar strings, the sound accumulating in deep, unpredictable waves. Too unpredictable, perhaps, with some of the feedback crossing the line from being irritating to being painful, disrupting the narrative flow so often that it was a bit of a relief when they turned the pedals and fans off, leaving a wisp of a song smouldering from the turntables.

BJ Nilsen

There were no such disruptions to the narrative of BJ Nilsen’s excellent set. His mix of field recordings and crystalline drone touched on some timbres and themes common to his recent work for Touch, heading out from the networks of The Invisible City, with their electrical chatter and neon buzz, and out towards the Storm, bitter winds threatening to tip some seals from the Arctic shelf into the sea. In between these was a long abstract mid section which built from muffled voices through the clanking of clocks, and up to a dense and dramatic crescendo (and Nilsen does dense and dramatic crescendo as well as anyone) containing organ drone and icy whines. The sections of the journey all seeped inexorably into one another, drawing the listener relentlessly forward through this familiar – if still dark and disconcerting – territory that Nilsen has made his own. His world is teeming.

Stephan Mathieu

Despite all this unconventionality that had gone before, it would perhaps have been the manner of Stephan Mathieu’s performance that would have been most surprising to the uninitiated. Watching him carefully place an e-bow on the string of a harp, stand back with hands on hips, and then eventually return to inch another towards it, he looked more like a man playing himself at chess than someone engaged in a musical performance. And the comparison is apposite: Mathieu’s work is very much based on logic, and a grandmaster’s understanding of age-old rules. One seemingly innocuous move from Mathieu could signal the start of a huge, pre-planned sonic onslaught, strong enough to overcome any known defence. Recent works such as his Virginals performances, and his superb A Static Place album, have dwelled on notions of obsolescence, but that notion perhaps obscures just how alive this music sounds. While completely devoid of such notions as melody and rhythm, it lacked for nothing in terms of resonance and texture. As he added layer upon layer, chiming note upon chiming note, it felt like the whole of Cafe Oto was vibrating in one glorious chord, and the more you listened, the more interesting its miniscule inflections became. As John Cage would have it: there is no noise, only sound.

Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place and Remain


There seems to be a quest in much of Stephan Mathieu’s work to disrupt the linear nature of time, to capture a moment and hold it forever, to reach back to the past and drag it through to the present day, or even to reverse the process of obsolescence. His is a very slow and quiet rage against the dying of the light. I saw a performance of his Virginals project (a version of which is to be released as an album later this year) in Berlin last year, which saw him bringing not just the room – the crumbling old Sophiensaele theatre – back to life, but also rejuvenating that renaissance Virginals keyboard and a Philicorda organ. He made them sing in ways their inventors couldn’t possibly have dreamed of, via versions of pieces by the likes of Charlemagne Palestine and Alvin Lucier. His much-lauded Radioland CD from 2008 grabbed threads of shortwave radio as they were vanishing into the cosmos, and span them into huge tapestries of sound, preserving them for posterity in these new forms. But it isn’t just about the fourth dimension, as the titles of these two new CDs for the 12k and Line labels, A Static Place and Remain respectively, suggest. Mathieu is stepping outside the relentlessly flowing stream and into new eternities where whole new rules of time and space apply.

The first track on A Static Place is even named “Swarzschild Radius”, a term which denotes the distance from the centre of an object which, if all of its mass were compressed into that space, would cause its gravitational field to be so strong that light could not escape – i.e. it would become a singularity, a black hole, an infinitely deep schism in the fabric of space-time. If this is already sounding a little scientific, consider Mathieu’s descriptions of his working methods on A Static Place: they involve “spectral analysis and convolution processes”, which sounds like something men in white coats would use at CERN to view the spirals traced by colliding subatomic particles as they try to unravel the mysteries of subatomic forces. But, gravitational fields aside, there is a much more human, emotional pull to this music.

A Static Place is rooted in Mathieu’s passion for very early 78rpm records, which he has been collecting for some years (“I love the way they transport sound”, he has said). He plays them on, and collects the results from, his HMV 102 mechanical gramophones, which themselves date back to the 1930s. There is a further temporal dislocation involved here in that the pieces he uses on this album are recordings of material from the late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, works dating back centuries. And as such, they feature instruments which too have passed into desuetude: clavichords, lutes, and the like, whole families whose voices have faded to near silence. Mathieu is pointing his microphone directly at the past to collect these ghostly transmissions, much like an astronomer pointing a telescope at the night sky to detect in its faint red shift an echo of a time when notions of space and time were in fact meaningless.

As on previous work, such as the Transcription album he made in collaboration with Taylor Deupree, he plays these records on the acoustic gramophones and captures the sound via microphone, feeding it back to his laptop. Such is the extent of his processing that you are quite hard pushed to pick out any of that aforementioned instrumentation, their unfamiliar tones and textures coalescing into a spectral orchestra. Or even at times a chorus, for there does appear to be a voice deep within that opening track, calling softly from amongst the galaxial arm of hiss and static, and from amongst samples of strings which have been stretched seemingly to perpetuity. Another piece, “Dawn”, bristles and buzzes like a field of insects in summer breeze-tossed cornfields, as if a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” had been entirely deconstructed, all instruments being removed to leave only heat haze and a languidity that seems like it could linger forever.

Layers are built up by Mathieu, not just layers of different instruments, but more contextual ones which are bound into the very process of the work’s creation in a different way. The section entitled “A Static Place 1a” feels like a room thick with resonance, its harpsichord strings echoing into a three dimensional space and collecting glistening harmonics. But which space? Am I listening to the studio in which the piece was originally recorded? The room into which Mathieu was playing them back? Or, indeed, the one I’m playing them back into right now? When you let these sounds fill your environment, you help Mathieu to complete his masterful telescoping of a century of recordings and playbacks, of times and spaces, and you find yourself listening to something that is at once rather clever and very beautiful.

Similar notions are explored in the contemporaneously released Remain, which is based on work by another of Mathieu’s sometime collaborators. Janek Schaefer produced an installation for the 2007 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival entitled Extended Play (Triptych For The Child Survivors Of War And Conflict), which was a musing on two births, separated by considerable time and space: that of his own mother in Poland in 1942, and his daughter in far more recent and less fraught times. A Polish tango from the era was used as the basis for a new composition, which was then split up into its constituent parts and scattered across a number of vinyl records, which played from clusters of gramophones around the hall, all bathed in a blood red light. The exhibition was designed so that those visiting it would unintentionally interfere with the playback, causing the records, which were in any event playing back at different speeds, to pause, and thereby “extend”, resulting in a new creation of indeterminate length.

Mathieu was playing the recording of Schaefer’s piece around his own home on a variety of different soundsystems simultaneously, enjoying the different ways in which the frequencies interacted with the various spaces. He decided to capture these resonances, using microphones and repeated recordings and playbacks, much in the manner of Alvin Lucier’s famous I Am Sitting In A Room, before processing and further extending them into an hour long version. The original instrumentation is once again well buried well beneath a shimmering ocean of sound, a piano briefly emerging above the surface at the thirty minute mark, a violin at fifty; even the vinyl crackle of the original is now just the patter of raindrops on water. It is again the resonance which dominates, never still, constantly mutating, the waves reaching peaks of room-rattling proportions before gradually falling back once more.

The cover of Remain retains the vivid red light of Schaefer’s original work, but stretches it like a Rothko to fill the canvas. And that comparison is quite apt when it comes to a piece like this, a huge, seemingly monolithic (it is composed of one sixty minute track) construction which when perceived close up, as well as immersing and overawing, also reveals whole worlds of detail, brush stroke, surface imperfections and colour. There are a million shades of red herein, but all are full of blood, teeming with life. But if it had been Mathieu’s ambition on both A Static Place and Remain to, like Rothko, “create a place”, he would have overachieved. He has done far, far more than this, with masterpieces which completely obliterate the boundaries between different places and times, to create new singularities. These are recordings to treasure forever, whatever forever means.