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So Percussion and Matmos - Treasure State

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Artist: So Percussion and Matmos

Album: Treasure State

Label: Cantaloupe

Review date: Jul. 12, 2010

I think what I’m supposed to write about here is the fact that this is a collaboration between Matmos (the Baltimore electronic duo known for working with Bjork and sampling the sounds of plastic surgery) and So Percussion (a contemporary classical quartet that plays pieces by composers like Steve Reich). Also, I’m supposed to tell you that in their performances with Matmos, So plays flowerpots, beer cans and cactus needles. Oh my!

Unfortunately, the music itself is not especially interesting. There are plenty of scratching, pouring and scraping sounds to be heard, but they’re mostly in the background, and anyway, strange sounds themselves aren’t enough. Where there are melodies, they have all the imagination and verve of an airport food court - "Treasure" and "Water" seem influenced by Reich-ian minimalism, but there’s little of the type of layering that animates minimalism’s simple materials. Where there aren’t melodies, the music has a loose, rambling quality that’s too variegated to be hypnotic and yet rarely has moments that are genuinely gripping or surprising.

A reviewer once wrote of a Matmos album that "This isn’t music you listen to; it’s music you talk about listening to." This distinction is important in contemporary classical music, as well. Since so few actually understand the music, it’s easiest to talk about wacky things that are easy to describe, like using beer cans and cactus needles as instruments.

This isn’t to criticize Matmos or So Percussion merely for turning strange things into percussion instruments. Maybe they just like the sounds those things produce, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But most of what you read about this album elsewhere will focus on the beer cans and cactus needles, as if the use of found objects as instruments is new. Just keep two things in mind: 1) it isn’t new and 2) it’s very difficult to describe what good pieces of music actually do. If someone writes a positive review about this record that suggests that the most interesting about it is the gizmos that So plays, then you’ll know that the critic did not see the music as a work of art, but instead saw it in much the way a five-year-old sees a lion tamer at the circus.

Actually, even that comparison doesn’t quite work, since what the lion tamer does is daring. Treasure State sounds slick and urbane, and like so many other pieces of music that have those qualities, it’s banal. At its worst, it also feels faintly, and rather lamely, exotic. One writer described one of Matmos and So’s pieces as "a soundtrack for a fantasy ride through a Chinese tropical jungle." If you want music to take you on a fantasy ride through a Chinese tropical jungle, whatever that is, then have at it - but keep in mind that you’re the nitwit with the fanny pack and the over-sized camera.

The last couple of tracks on Treasure State, which ditch the hip elevator music, come as a relief. They don’t sound particularly groundbreaking - "Aluminum," for example, features the rhythmic hyperactivity and squishy computer percussion sounds characteristic of early-00s IDM. It does, however, turn out to be cool to hear a percussion quartet fit in as crucial components of a texture that, in contrast with much of the rest of the record, sounds thoroughly electronic. The bulk of Treasure State, though, only falls into the category of music you talk about listening to.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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