The Musical Alchemies of Ramuntcho Matta
published in _Review: Latin American Literature and Arts 56 (Spring 1998)
An initiate in the magic of musical contexts, Ramuntcho Matta is that rare composer whose work is never predictable. His music seems constantly to be expanding its language, at one with the breath of the world, for everywhere he turns he listens and learns.
Matta's main instrument is the electric guitar. Raised mostly in Paris where he still lives, son of the Chilean painter Roberto Matta and an American mother, he first took guitar lessons at the age of seven from a member of the Cuarteto Cedrón. Several years later he studied at the Schola Cantorum, but was eventually kicked out because he wanted to adapt Erik Satie's music to the electric guitar: he thought the guitar was the problem, only to realize that Satie was not considered a serious composer, due in part to his love for songs. Years after, John Cage told him, "If you want to make some money with music, you better write songs."
Indeed, songs have been an abiding interest, but Ramuntcho Matta has written music for many settings---theater, dance, films, CD-Roms---often using the voice or texts of writers and painters as well as various found sounds. The guitar, whether geared up with a new wave edge or delicately introspective, lays the foundation for a rich texture of far-flung elements. Yet that richness derives from spare juxtapositions---sometimes the guitar is absent altogether in favor of a more direct approach to rhythm and voice.
Above all, Matta's approach is playful: by a sort of wise innocence he remains ever inventive. Over the past two decades his work has shown an instinct for the metamorphic potential of music, and this may be seen to greatest effect in his latest record, Philosophe par le feu [Philosopher through Fire] (Printer Editions). A marvelous object by its very packaging, the CD comes as his part in a luxurious cultural review, Cahiers intempestifs (#6), which gathers---in a folio format on vellum paper---offset lithographs and texts by an international array of artists for its theme issue on alchemy.
The nearest thing to a song opens the record, against a background of guitars and tabla, as Matta's softspoken voice chants "On devient" [We Become], a meditation on growth and transformations. From the refrain "On est ce qu'on devient" [We are what we become], he launches into a litany that proceeds by poetic associations largely built on the assonance of French words---"On devient sourd [deaf], on devient sûr [sure] . . . " Such provocative transitions, here carried by wordplay, dominate the record in rhythmic shifts that make an exquisite kind of sense. Thus, midway through the nineteen tracks, for example, the listener comes upon the following sequence: "Athanor," where Matta weaves the melodic threads supplied by Danish saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen and Marianne Spang-Hanssen's flute till they sound like a conference of Andean birds; "OonAlchimia," by Chilean composer and frequent collaborator Claudia Huidobro, which folds her own breathy and sung vocal sounds in and out of the voice of her daughter; the upbeat "Les exquitsmots," where a breathless chanting leads into layers of percussion with sparks enough for the superb American trombonist Glenn Ferris to build a ring of high, dancing flames; the second of five very short pieces, "Dans le laboratoire," for a film by Brigitte Cornand, offers the sound of splashing water punctuated by whistles and other tones; without pause, a brief discourse by psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, "Machines," suggests that instead of its gloomy association with the advance of world capitalism, the machine of social and economic systems might be turned to more creative ends; then, with a heavy dose of feedback, guitars and voices meld into a soaring tribute to the artist, "Christian Boltanski."
More than in previous work, Matta has developed much of the material through elaborate studio techniques, with overdubbing and other processes, sometimes involving computer. This is especially evident in his treatment of voices and text on the record. In "Sonnet à Tommaso Cavalieri," a woman recites Michelangelo's poem backed by bass and drums, but the second time around her voice is electronically split into several registers in a manner explored by Laurie Anderson. "Be no ego" builds percussively using as one of its ingredients the voice of William S. Burroughs, transmuted into a warbled croaking, and with the help of two longtime collaborators: Polo Lombardo, who plays the conch shell, and Don Cherry, the jazz and world music pioneer who instead of playing trumpet speaks here admiringly of the conch's purity, chanting the title phrase in the end (Matta produced a rap album by Cherry, Homeboy, in the mid-1980s). Curiously, one of Matta's most important teachers in the ways of art and magic, the inventive poet and painter Brion Gysin, appears with voice intact on two pieces, narrating a notorious episode from Burroughs's life on "Guillaume Tell," accompanied only by Matta's walking bass line; on "The blind crocodile of Alamūt," he recounts his own initiation into the Caste of the Assassins, over a dense texture of percussion, guitar, and other sounds combined in the studio with Arabic chants recorded by Gysin in Morocco back in the '50s. Perhaps most remarkable about their long collaboration is that Gysin died in 1986! Philosophe par le feu concludes in another bit of posthumous wizardry, with the voice of the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, who lived in Paris till his death in 1995. Matta went to visit him on the eve of his final illness, to record his voice for a set of musical aphorisms. Cioran was coughing from a cold and spoke of a painting by his friend Victor Brauner, with "un personnage aux yeux énormes" [a person with enormous eyes]; it was then that Cioran began to lose his memory, and from one moment to the next he no longer recognized Matta, who stopped the recording. In "La toux de Cioran" [Cioran's cough], therefore, we hear the cough and the phrase about Brauner's painting as they are slowed and deconstructed electronically until the final fade.
The notable consistency of Matta's vision can best be appreciated by returning to the elegance of his first CD, Domino One (Crammed Discs/Made to Measure), released in 1991, which reissues in abridged form three projects from the mid-1980s. In these he wrote the music for Régine Chopinot's ballet Via, a video by his father R. S. Matta, and a theatrical labyrinth for the Barcelona troupe Teatre de la Claca. Throughout Matta shows a versatile ear for building moods and textures out of various traditions, playing not only guitars but also sanza (thumb piano), ney (Turkish and Persian flute), percussion, electronics. His group here includes Cuban trumpeter Guillermo Fellove and Brazilian saxophonist Cacau, along with Negrito Trasante or Ahmeed Kawa on percussion, and occasionally Lombardo on conch or the wordless vocals of Elli Medeiros. Melodically, as in the short pieces for ballet, the music may at times seem like brilliant doodling, but it always provides a deeper enchantment. "O Clapo," for instance, comes off like a dream, a journey to the most distant or personal landscapes, yet made up of the simplest elements: Matta and Trasante clapping water, and the unhurried musings of Medeiros's voice.
Subsequent records highlight Matta's considerable talents as a songwriter. Brion Gysin's Self-Portrait Jumping (Crammed/Made to Measure) is the culmination of a decade's work, since Matta first wrote music to his words in the early 1980s. When they used to perform this material with Matta's new-wave band, Gysin billed himself as the world's oldest living rock star (then in his late 60s) and he did seem rejuvenated on stage. By turns cautionary, defiant, bawdy, lovestruck, and mystical, Gysin's songs and stories can also be darkly comic ("Stop Smoking," complete with hacking cough). Two songs are based on permutation poems he wrote in the early 1960s: "Kick," with the phrase "Kick that habit man" (featuring Don Cherry), and "Junk," as in "Junk is no good baby," both given rollicking treatments by Matta's group. Over a rhythmic tapestry composed in the studio years after his death, Gysin also reads from versions of his two hallucinatory novels; in "The Door," Matta transmutes the noises of a door from Felix Guattari's house into a dialogue with Steve Lacy's saxophone, a fitting counterpoint to Gysin's ironic update of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the simplest arrangements are reserved for two love songs, "All Those Years" and "Somebody Special," tenderly sung and performed on guitar by Matta.
On 2 l'amour (Crammed), Matta offers his own contemporary love songs in a cool international style that he terms "hypnopop." He wrote the French lyrics which he sings with a delivery that is sometimes intimate, sometimes jaunty, and he plays most of the instruments: guitars, bass, keyboards, machines, noises. Guests include musicians from sub-Saharan and North Africa, the Caribbean, and Portugal, as well as two singers from the Afro-Belgian group Zap Mama and saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen. Musically, the mix is very smart, alert to a whole range of cultural currents, while the lyrics are uncommonly resourceful in expressing the complexities of emotion. Being a pop album, the label also released two singles plus a striking experiment for the dance floor: a 14-track CD made up of vastly different remixes of the same song, "Viens Dormir Avec Moi" [Come Sleep With Me], in such styles as Acid-Jazz, Techno, Ambient, Trance, and Tribal, promoted as part of the safe-sex campaign.
Matta's newest projects have been taking him in further directions yet. Que votre "moi" soit le bienvenu(e) dans le monde [May your "me" be welcome in the world] (Printer Editions) is a record and book set for newborn children, the first in a series. The title refers to a painting that Victor Brauner did for Matta when he was born. Besides the CD, the package contains 15 cards with works by contemporary artists (Chris Marker, Annette Messager, Bernard Pagès . . . ), a large puzzle reproducing Brauner's painting, and an interactive exercise book for games, coloring, and stories. Matta, recognizing the openness of young children to all sorts of music, asked a wide range of performers to take part. Besides his own contribution and those by previous collaborators (Huidobro, Cherry, Spang-Hanssen, Boltanski), some of the surprises include: classical singer Joan La Barbara's duet with her six-month old son; a trio of conch, didjeridoo (of the Australian aborigines), and violin; Portuguese chanteuse Lara Li; sufi flutist Kudsi Erguner; a candomblé chant mixed with Gregorian improvisation.
Finally, Soundcards from Chile will soon be released, the result of Matta's first trip ever to Chile, in February, 1997. A mixture of precolumbian instruments and Latin grooves with computer-processed elements, the music is "a traveling in time," as he describes it, "a mystic meeting of two migrants looking to reach their cosmic ancestors."
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published in Shuffle Boil (Berkeley) 5/6 (2006)
Ramuntcho Matta / Simon Spang-Hanssen, Nice Rice (Maat, 2003)
Multimedia artist and professor of doubt at French universities, Matta is mostly self-taught though he also learned from the likes of Brion Gysin, Don Cherry and filmmaker Chris Marker. In duets with the well-seasoned Danish saxophonist Spang-Hanssen, Matta plays guitars on the black disc and electronics on the red disc. The first is full of pithy tunes launched with a delicate touch that linger long in the mind, as much for their stylistic freedom as for their attractiveness. Matta’s guitar playing has always made a poetics of restraint, which carries over to all his music in that it employs few instruments to produce the most combustible flowers, as it were. Likewise on the red disc his use of electronics--which is rhythmic and melodious and strangely evocative--continues earlier work in the articulation of dreamscapes. Here, most of the pieces are more extended in their play, billowing out to inhabit us a while.
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Update (2003 to 2013)
After two decades of releasing his productions through a number of small and mid-size record labels in France and Belgium, Ramuntcho took matters into his own hands. Around 2003, he established his own imprint, maat, through which all subsequent projects have been released. This provides him the opportunity to not only document his ongoing collaborations and sound installations but also to stretch out and explore as far as imagination (his own and that of others, as he would be the first to acknowledge) will allow. To date, the maat catalogue includes over forty titles---predominantly CDs (a few of which recuperated earlier productions), but also books, journals, a set of playing cards and related flash drive, as well as assorted objects.
Within a few years, in turn, the maat imprint gained a house, as it were, a conceptual space---which soon became a virtual space and, eventually, a physical locale as well. SometimeStudio, both the website as well as the storefront in the upper Marais district (26 rue Saint Claude, Paris 3), is described as "a space dedicated to what we undertake sometimes." If it began as simply a name for the home studio where Ramuntcho produced certain sound projects, sometimeStudio proved a welcome umbrella---a roof, more like---where he could also present the work of other artists.
A brief glimpse at some of his catalogue over the past decade is in order, therefore. Skin (2005), part of his sound installation for a show on the subject ("La peau est ce qu'il y a de plus profond") at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes, keeps the music simple but vast. Spare constructs of guitar, bass (Frédéric Dutertre), electronics, a bit of piano and other sounds, unhurried as a stray breeze, lay out a sequence of daydreams through which his voice serves as an intermittent sort of guide---by way of song, playful recitation, whispered encouragement, talking, whistling. Ramuntcho is an artist of intimacy, ever keen on small formats, from which he manages to unfold unheard wonders. Ma-tta (2007) and At-ta (2007), the result of a visit to Tokyo, present live performances he did with the duo Mama Milk (Yuko Ikoma, accordion; Ko-suke Shimizu, bass), and joined by Hiroko Komiya (playing ordinary things for their sound qualities) on the first disc. The music on both sets is delicate, yet perpetually surprising, as though listening beyond itself.
Among Ramuntcho's sometimes collaborators, the one who goes back the longest is Simon Spang-Hanssen, ever since he lived in Paris from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. During one return visit, he and Ramuntcho and Frédéric Dutertre, as the collective trio SaFaRi (drawn from letters in their names), recorded a series of improvisations that were subsequently reworked and mixed into the tracks on Happy Hands (2008); the project also developed into an array of collective visual art pieces and a half-hour animated film. Reliable in the spark and color that he brings, Spang-Hanssen's saxophones and flute encourage a dancing melodic instinct, scented by faraway places. Naturally enough, he and Ramuntcho articulate quite a different dynamic in another trio, HiRaSi, with Hiroko Komiya, on (14 02 N ; 64 45 E) (2009), named after the geographical coordinates that mark the spot between the three. More spacious and free-form, composed of more mysterious ingredients, the music hovers at the edge of materializing into a known place.
Way back in 1986, when one of his mentors, Brion Gysin, died, Ramuntcho became the heir of Gysin's important cache of reel to reel tapes, which included recordings made in Tangier, Jajouka, and Paris. Some two decades later, drawing on this collection, Ramuntcho juxtaposed experimental readings by Gysin and Burroughs for an installation, The Cat Inside (2008), that premiered in Grenoble; the audio track was subsequently released under the maat imprint. The two separate voices, along with electronic effects, are mixed into a single unsettling performance, even while remaining spatially distinct. Such precedents left a trace in his own work, of course, so it is not surprising that Ramuntcho has also made room on the label for pioneers like Jon Appleton, whose Electracoustic Music (2010) gathers work from 1968 to 2004, and the sound poet Larry Wendt, with Old Favorites (2010), a compilation of pieces from 1975 to 1989. Long based in San Jose, California, Wendt has built a remarkable oeuvre of ingenious soundscapes that blend geek musings, travelogue, terrestrial and otherworldly effects, all laced with a sly vein of surreal humor.
Of course, this quick overview barely touches on the range of audiovisual enterprises that Ramuntcho and his associates have been involved in over the past decade, down to their most recent productions: Intimatta (2011, DVD), his warm and playful film homage to his father, and Dakinis (2012, CD), in which Sofia Stril-Rever sings mantras to the Tibetan Buddhist goddesses, with discreet musical grounding provided by Ramuntcho and Hiroko Komiya.
Through the last several years, however, he has embarked on another grand project, his most ambitious yet. Situated about fifty miles east of Paris, in the Picardie region, Lizières is described as a cultural resource center, or more precisely as a centre de cultures et de ressources (the French word lisière = edge, border, threshold, margin; ie. the space where one thing meets another). The property, bought in 2008, covers 3 hectares of land (7½ acres), and all the buildings were in various states of ruin. These include a nineteenth-century chateau, with 1,000 sq. meters of surface space (approx. 10,750 sq. feet), a small barn, stables, and other outlying buildings, with a total area of nearly 3,000 sq. meters. Soon, architects and other specialists were engaged to study how best to proceed in restoring the various elements of the property, and in 2009 a non-profit association was created to support the overall mission. Work on the chateau itself began in 2010, and was completed the following year, using local materials and local contractors, and incorporating the most ecologically friendly practices. The center at Lizières was inaugurated in 2011, and since then work on the rest of the property has gotten underway, which will eventually yield more lodging for extended residencies as well as more studios and workspaces.
The aim of Lizières is to serve as a site for interdisciplinary exchange, creation, study, and reflection. Assorted walls, rooms, and outdoor areas have been used for exhibition spaces and performances. Regional schools have sent groups of students there for short-term audiovisual residencies and workshops. Conferences and a series of monthly "picnics" are devoted to encounters across the arts and social sciences. Such projects may also take advantage of the high quality recording studio on the premises, which remains available for instrumental sessions as well (when I visited in late October of 2012, Simon Spang-Hanssen was back in the region, recording a trio date with bassist Sébastien Boisseau and drummer Christophe Lavergne, subsequently released as Luna Moon). The center has even produced an occasional literary & arts journal, Lizières, with the first issue dedicated to an exploration of the site's potentials, and the second issue investigating the fertile terrain between free jazz and contemporary music. There is, it seems, no end of possibilities as to what may be developed at Lizières.