REVIEW: Matmos – Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives at Milton Court

Matmos, stage right, with supporting musicians, left, at Milton Court
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved

Matmos play Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives
Milton Court 23rd October 2016; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

‘What is that horrible thing under the floor?’ asks Barbarella in Roger Vadim’s eponymous 1968 sci-fi fantasy film. ‘That is the Matmos, my child,’ comes the reply, ‘composed of living energy, but energy in liquid form – and it watches us … it thrives on evil thoughts, deeds – and flesh …’ – from which the experimental electronics duo of M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, originally from San Francisco, now in Baltimore, derived their name, Matmos.

What has that got to do with Matmos’s impeccable concert performance of three of the seven half-hour episodes of American composer Robert Ashley’s magnum opus, Perfect Lives at Milton Court’s state-of-the-art concert hall?

Well, Ashley’s Perfect Lives is a forensic-fantastic cross-section through lives, thoughts and the fabric of the American mid-west – a ‘television opera “about” bank robbery, cocktail lounges, geriatric love, adolescent elopement, et al …’ – originally sponsored in the early 80s, to their credit, by Channel 4. ‘These are songs about the Cornbelt and some of the people in it,’ as Ashley put it in his introductions.

It’s a major feat of storytelling positioned as an urbane, off-beat collage of observations and insights into the psyches and settings of small-town America. This is captured through Ashley’s deadpan narrated libretto running with the music, and in this performance, integrated in real time by Max Eilbacher with a backdrop of continuously changing imagery which faithfully reflected the ethos and style of the original extraordinary TV presentation, including some original outtakes as a bonus.

Pure linear abstractions were spliced on-screen with road markings, fuzzy panoramas of park and field, gigantic letterforms, close ups of a bartender filling a glass (‘We don’t serve fine wine in half pints, Buddy.’), the image of a blue fluorescent light slowly slipping down the screen to synch with a lonely hotel room scene, and so much more, to add an enriching dimension to this tale of everyday folk.

Matmos are adventurers and perfectionists. Their fine-tuned presentation of this iconic work bubbled with the energy of inspiration and enquiry. With the top flight musicians, including strings led by bassist Britton Powell, who accompanied them on The Park and The Bar episodes, and stripped down to a duo on The Backyard, their interpretation was that of true devotees. The Backyard had passed muster with Ashley in person at The Stone in New York in 2008 (Ashley died in 2014, aged 84).

The constant narrative running through Ashley’s unfolding saga had originally been intended for David Byrne, but the composer decided to deliver it himself for the film version. At Milton Court the crew-cut Schmidt, attired in a beige 60s-style cardigan with bow tie for The Park and in black for the remainder, recited the quirky, borderline surreal text with arresting articulation, and something of the oddball perspective of Byrne and Talking Heads circa 1980, which also lapped at the edges of Ashley’s score.

The narrative was joyfully underpinned with the chanting of banal everyday phrases by the super-synchronised singers, Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby – ‘I’d say’, ‘Sure enough’ – who responded to ‘He saw her burst in to flames’ with ‘Spontaneous combustion!’ You get the picture.

Daniel at the controls set the mood with a displaced Indian raga percussive pulse and Walker Teret’s breezy boogie-woogie piano riffs made full sense when the image of ’30 Easy Lessons Boogie Woogie’ floated in to view.

In Perfect Lives the banal and the trivial rub shoulders with the timeless and the unknowable and with the trials and troubles of everyday existence. To quote from the text; ‘There was a kind of madness to it – the kind one reads about in magazines.’ Matmos, with their collaborators, drilled down right to the essence of these quandaries in a truly riveting concert rehearsed right down to the fine detail, with great sound and visuals – a five star performance.

M. C. Schmidt – narrator, video, guitar, string synthesizer
Drew Daniel – electronics
Britton Powell – upright bass, string leader
Caroline Marcantoni – vocal
Jennifer Kirby – vocal
Walker Teret – piano
Lucy Railton – cello
Angharad Davies – viola
Michael Lesirge – flute
Max Haft – violin
Gianluca Turrini – sound
Max Eilbacher – video

Categories: miscellaneous

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