Beneath the streets, the river
Kaffe Matthews’ The Swamp that Was
(lees werder in het Nederlands)
The other day I was curious about IPEM, the Ghent Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music. That is how I ended up on the website of the public radio and TV network. It is not that weird. In 1963 the network was one of the founding fathers. They collaborated with Ghent University to that effect. This encounter between culture and science is at the basis of IPEM, where musicians and engineers meet to make music together.
What did I find in that website? A broadcast of Tienerklanken, a programme for youngsters from a distant past, in which the reporter could still slow dance unabashedly with the teenagers he interviewed. Young people preferred listening to jazz, around that time. Electronic music was made by men in dustcoats, in laboratories with gigantic machines. They – and not the youngsters – knew the difference between concrete and electronic music. Pierre Schaeffer (for the concrete) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (for the electronic music) inspired them. They were head over heals about the potential of the newest generation of tape recorders. They got all carried away with white noise (the sound of the ether between two radio stations) and coloured noise (the filtered sound from their laboratory).
Electronic music was perceived as quite bizarre in those days. And today people probably still feel the same way when I ride a bicycle through the streets of Ghent, equipped with two speakers underneath the steering wheel and a box full of electronics on its rack. That bike is the work of the British sound artist Kaffe Matthews, which she realised during her residence in Timelab. It was on that bike that my curiosity about IPEM was aroused, and more particularly about the compositions of Louis De Meester. Riding through the streets I generate sounds and stories about the city, with a GPS linked to the technology on the bicycle rack. Along the Muinkkaai, by the town house which once housed the Institute, the widow of De Meester talks about her husband.
The sounds by De Meester will resurface later, in other places along my ride. And of course this is no coincidence either. Kaffe Matthews does not hesitate to refer to De Meester as the Ghent Stockhausen. He serves as an example for the music she makes today. And the line can in fact be prolonged, from IPEM to at the Muinkkaai to Timelab to at the Brusselsepoortstraat. There Kaffe Matthews has been working for months with the material she brought together, along with Brussels’ sound artist Els Viaene, in the city during the same period. Here no scientists with dustcoats, but artists in overalls. No humongous machines for specialists, but DIY-tools. And the interest in psychoacoustics is joined by a fascination with psychogeography.
Collaborative and participative
I had met Kaffe Matthews once before: twelve years ago. At the time she had already been experimenting for a decade with a violin and electronics, and she was part of the first generation of laptop musicians. I recall her particular fascination with the role and sound of the environment in her music. On our first meeting she was sitting at the bar of a concert venue in Brussels, listening to the fridge under the counter. A couple of hours later she used that sound during her concert in the same venue. This fascination with the sound of her environment is still there. To a degree that she hardly ever performs in a concert hall anymore, most of the time she works on location. She takes her music to the environment where she gets her sounds. Her method developed out of that concern as well. It is collaborative and participative. Collaborative, because she works with many other artists, technicians and researchers in order to obtain the sound of and on the locations she is after – in fact this is rather similar to the collaboration between musicians and scientists in IPEM. Participative, because she calls on people from that environment, to provide her with the sounds or to distribute them.
This also holds true of The Swamp that Was, the bicycle opera – her words – she made for Ghent. This project has a case history. It all started in 2003 with Radio Cycle in London, the city where she lives. There she links the bicycles of the participants, over the radio, to her studio. Radio Cycle is part of a late offshoot of a history that begins with free radio in the seventies and culminates in internet art during the nineties – the late twentieth century’s major participative and collaborative art tendencies. Actually, her original idea was to build a mobile radio transmitter. But this is not legally possible. A radio can only broadcast from a steady location. A license is limited in time. And the transmission radius has a fixed perimeter. For Radio Cycle the emitter was positioned in her studio, she had a one-week license with a mile-and-a-half radius. The cyclists themselves scattered the sound of the radio around the city. That way she broke through the numbing stiffness and the radio became mobile, after all.
The possibilities and limitations of Radio Cycle made her think about the technology. For Marvelo, during the 2008 Folkestone Biennial, she links her bicycles for the first time to a GPS. Over satellite she circumvents the licensing and transmitting restrictions. In Ghent she fine-tunes her technology, which results in this bicycle opera.
In The Swamp That Was that personal case history is supplemented with the history of the city. Whereas in Folkestone she still worked with anecdotes and children’s phantasies, in Ghent she uses stories of the inhabitants. In Folkestone (as in London) she called on the creativity of the participants, in Gent she takes a more documentary approach to stories about what is and was alive behind the walls and underneath the city streets. To this effect she spends a lot of time discussing with the inhabitants. But she also explores the city herself, along with Els Viaene, to collect sounds. In this work she returns those sounds to the city. With the cyclist as a performer she creates a swamp of sounds and stories.
This is no ordinary opera, that much is clear. There are no arias in this composition, no recitative or dramatic development. This composition consists of nothing but lines, fragments and scraps, combined together by the cyclist on his tour. This is more of a map than an opera, more like sheet music with various possibilities than an unambiguous composition. And the idea of the map can do with an update as well. This map is not visual, as it has been for centuries, but rather sonorous. Listening is more important than watching. Here the traffic indicators are part of the soundtrack. That’s how maps should can be in the digital era.
How to imagine this map to The Swamp That Was? It is a physical, tangible map: you have to ride a bike in order to experience it. It is a borgesian map: the size of its territory. It is a situationist map: the information appears in various layers of words, sounds, shapes, sensations, impressions, and situations. It is a map that will look different every time: it all depends on the pace and the sense of discovery of the cyclist. He has to apply himself to the art of sonic cycling: gradually and with an ear for his surroundings.
One thing is fixed: the beginning and endpoint of the ride. That will take you to the candy store next to Vooruit. There all bicycles are lined up and there they have to be returned. Once out in the street there are various possibilities. A route sets out along the Muinkkaai. It runs past IPEM, but also the zoo and the Guldensporenstraat: traces of a past that is no longer there. It is the quiet route, along the backs of the buildings. There is a blue route, along Visserij, the water carrying people and goods. There is the route of the Brusselsepoortstraat, running past Timelab, but also the beguinage, the distillery and the off-licence. Sooner or later all those routes take the cyclist to the Brusselsepoort and on to Ledeberg.
In Ledeberg there are no more routes. This neighbourhood is a zone. You ride around and the sounds come towards you from all sides. Here, between the concrete of the streets and the bricks of the houses next to the highway (on posters behind the windows: “Ledeberg wants to live”), this project achieves its social dimension to its full potential. Here grows The Garden, Matthews’ gift to the neighbourhood. The speakers release sounds by chirping birds and rustling trees. There are seagulls and bees. A tiny river. And on entering the cyclist is received with a warm welcome by the Ledebirds: the local band with a blend of all the cultures in the neighbourhood, where the tiniest supporters of Galatasaray play soccer along with those of AA Ghent.
A final route is left. The extra route. The excursive route. The counterpoint, the extension, the answer to the garden Matthews is making of and for Ledeberg. She refers to it as The Holy Grail Trail. It takes the cyclist away from the city. Along the Scheldt it’s on to the swamp, as it still exists today: the meadows, where geese run free. Here, even more so than along the routes in the city, the sounds blend in completely with their surroundings. This is the romantic route, heading into nature on the sounds of De Meester’s music for Lancelot. Those geese, that music, those enormous feelings of love and fidelity warrant a sublime blend of the real and the surreal. It is here, and not in the city, that the situationist dimension, the psychogeography, of this work becomes fully apparent.
By crossing the city borders – of the Ledeberg suburb and the riverside grasslands – Kaffe Matthews makes the city itself even more tangible. From those other spaces, those heterotopias, those utopias, people come back a new person. Precisely these excursions, to Ledeberg and the riverbanks of the Scheldt, complete this opera. They provide it with the indispensable epic dimension. The cyclist returns a modern Odysseus. This cyclist has faced up to the dangers of the city – which was not as bad as all that, considering Ghent is a cyclist- friendly city, but still: crossing the inner ringway to the other side does require a certain degree of awareness, courage and dexterity. Often using considerable guile this cyclist has needed to avail himself of a map, which did not allow for easy interpretation. And thus the cyclist ultimately has to tear loose from the sirens’ lure, enticing him away from the city. Even though this might be where this composer conceals her final ruse, letting the opera begin and end with the innocence of a candy store that was. This ultimate temptation persuades even the most dogged cyclist to head back to the place where it all begun.