Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


Student Research from the Field

Worth A Surf


Expert Opinion

Research Briefs

Classroom Encounters

Techno Roots of Urban Edens

Student Playwright Finds Success in Failure

>Music from the Material World

Research Rewarded

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Music from the Material World

English professor Drew Daniel (l) and M.C. Schmidt have won raves for their innovative experimental music.
Photo by Andrew j. farkas

By day, Drew Daniel is an Oxford-educated assistant professor of English at Hopkins who specializes in the study of early modern England and the literary representation of melancholy.

But at night (and during breaks in the academic calendar), Daniel is one half of Matmos, a successful electronic duo that has won raves for its innovative experimental music. Together, Daniel and partner M.C. Schmidt have produced seven albums and have toured with and collaborated on several albums with the Icelandic singer Bjork.

Matmos' sound is original, distinctive. Daniel and Schmidt, who formed the group in San Francisco 15 years ago, use computers and samplers to manipulate field recordings of all sorts of sounds: amplified crayfish nerve tissue, freshly cut hair, the pages of Bibles turning.

Arts and Sciences Magazine caught up with Daniel in the midst of Matmos' European tour to promote their new album, Supreme Balloon (Matador).

How do you describe your music?

If someone asks and they are in a hurry, I say that we make electronic instrumental pop music. If they seem smart and actually interested, then I usually point out that our work is conceptually driven and draws upon the methodologies of the musique-concrete compositions from France in the 1950s, but joined with the syntax of techno and the harsh textures of the noise scene. We construct our music out of the noises of everyday objects and actions. We create collages out of sound, and we hope that by giving them form people will hear the music that's already inside the materials that are all around them.


What does being a musician bring to your teaching and research?

It gives me a set of instincts about performance and communication that I draw on in the classroom and in my writing. It informs the kind of scholarship that I engage in, in ways that are subtle and hard to pin down, but I can sense that they are there. After years of being on stage I can tell when audiences are "with me" and when they are not, and this helps in the classroom if I sense resistance or obscurity. Having been a working artist for most of my adult life, I also have some firsthand experience with the chasm of difference between the work and the human being who makes the work that informs how I interpret literature.


As someone with an interest in music as well as words, do you take special care in writing your liner notes?

Yes, it's crucial to our pieces that we curate the information about what the sound sources are in just the right way. Our work is conceptual in that the point is how the information about the samples affects your listening experience: When you know that you are hearing a melody built out of the sound of human fat recorded in a liposuction clinic, you listen in a different way.


How did Matmos come to collaborate with Bjork?

Bjork approached us about a remix of her song "Alarm Call" in 1998, and it snowballed from there into a four-year collaboration in which we programmed rhythms for her studio albums and created arrangements of her songs and played them onstage with her for several tours. I took a year off from grad school to tour the world as part of Bjork's band, then went back to school, then back to Bjork, off and on. It was scary at first, as were headlining at gigantic rock and pop festivals; I've stood onstage and played to crowds of 65,000 people and that's not something that most people have experienced firsthand.


How do you divide your time between music and scholarship?

It's very difficult and requires a lot of careful planning. Obviously, I can't tour during the school year, so I have to confine our performances to a few select concerts during spring break and Christmas break, and then we tour intensively for two solid months over the summer. It means that I have to frequently turn down concert offers. But I love teaching, and I'm extraordinarily honored by the chance to be a part of the Hopkins faculty, so it's a compromise that I'm entirely happy to make.


Do you tell your students about your music career or do they just find out?

I try not to bring up it up because I would rather not seem to be desperately trying to look "cool" to students, as I recall feeling rather suspicious of teachers who did that to me when I was a student. But inevitably it slips out and they start to turn up at my shows; I am flattered when they are interested but I don't want them to think that it's going to improve their grade. Only go to the show if you want to, please!