Kaffe Matthews is a pioneering music maker who works live with space, data, things, and place to make new electroacoustic composition. The physical experience of music for the maker and listener has always been central to her approach and to this end she has also invented some unique interfaces, the sonic armchair, the sonic bed and the sonic bike that not only enable new approaches to composition for makers but give immediate ways in to unfamiliar sound and music for wide ranging audience.
1: Article 50 / Brexit has to be revoked. It’s the only solution.
2: I’m inspired by the younger generation driving this rise in climate consciousness. Finally! Also by the group Extinction Rebellion who’re creating absolute havoc by their brave and organized mass direct action. It’s brilliant and hugely controversial and it’s working. The Government is taking notice.
3: I’m struggling with being an English person being in Berlin and not speaking German. So this is a fact. I am going to make the biggest effort to learn German.
1. What is the biggest inspiration for your music?
There isn’t one single inspiration for my music. I think my music is very much a product of my life. My mission on planet Earth if you like. I think it was in the 80s when I’ve been in West Africa for three months playing drums with some guys on the beach and I came back on fire and about a week later I had this epiphanic moment when I went “Oh my God that’s what I’m here for, to make music”. So that’s what’s been happening ever since and it’s been one long, ever-changing journey. So I guess it’s living. That’s the inspiration for my music.
2. How and when did you get into making music?
I came home from school one day when I was about seven with a note from my teacher and I gave it to my mum and she read it and she said oh they’re offering free violin lessons at school. Do you want to try and I went yes why not? You know a violin was this weird exotic box that you put under your chin and held it with one hand and moved your arm backwards and forwards with horsehair strapped to a piece of wood with the other arm and you could make all kinds of crazy sounds. And so that seemed like an adventure. So I started to play and I got hooked, this wee box vibrating through my body as I moved to make music, and that yes was absolutely the beginning.
3. What are 5 of your favourite albums of all time?
Well, the music that I love and that I come back to changes all the time so I couldn’t possibly say my five favourite albums of all time but the albums that come to my mind now are a mix of I guess some ancient memory and some things that I’ve picked up recently. So, for example, I guess funnily enough the thing that I will put in there that I always come back to is Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites Another one would be Dada Kramé which is an ensemble of African drummers, West African drummers from Ghana directed by Nana Tsiboe.
Another one would be Moiré Music, which is an album from the 80s made by an ensemble and it was essentially made up of British white musicians working with South African black musicians who’d moved to London and they made this really amazing mix off of I guess a kind of jazz, like this free improvised jazz that was going on, mixd with this township sound mixed with more traditional West African and Cameroonian rhythms. And this band was called Moiré Music. Yeah. Trevor Watts directed that. Oh, I’d also have to put in The Raincoats, a women’s punk band, also from the 80s and their album Odyshape. Then I’m thinking about these things that inspired me at the time and I guess John Zorn album Spillane could come in there actually. And then to be honest Lightning Bolt would come in, I don’t remember what it’s called, it is the first one that I bought. That’ll do. What a strange mixture!
4. What do you associate with Berlin?
Oh, space to live. Space to be the animal part of my human. London has become more and more crowded, more and more noisy expensive and stressful. And here you can ride a bicycle. Funnily enough, I have a Danish friend who’s complaining about the fact that it’s not so easy to ride a bicycle here. She feels a bit scared and I’m like What. Berlin is fantastic for a bicycle especially an old English racer like mine! The other thing, what comes first actually is the community of musicians that I’ve walked into. People that I’ve known for a long time, people that I’ve played with around the world and many of these highly skilled people now live here. And the range of approaches, techniques and styles we use is vast and we hear each other experimenting publicly and chat and argue ideas afterwards and set up new projects. It’s a veritable melting pot, and much more visible than in London. Made me realise that I was lonely for this kind of community in London. Yep, this situation here is extraordinary. And supportive. Oh and audiences really want to listen.
5. What’s your favourite place in your town?
I guess my current town right now is Berlin. And so my favourite place here is my studio.
6. If there was no music in the world, what would you do instead?
I think I’d cook. I would cook because actually cooking is all about experimenting with ingredients and being very sensitive to the details of the texture of the timing of where the ingredients have come from when and where and how much you combine and you make slight alterations to these details and it completely alters the outcome. I improvise a lot with my cooking, my music absolutely comes from improvisation and cooking is the same kind of thing. Even though when you follow a recipe you can come up with something new. But you’ve then got to improvise and experiment to understand the ingredients for it to really turn into something special.
7. What was the last record/music you bought?
Machine Lyrique by Xavier Garcia and Lionel Marchetti. I had just heard them live.
8. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
That’s a really interesting question. I think that to be honest, I would most like to collaborate with an architect, a female architect and we together would make spati-alized music. I’ve tried to work with architects before when I was first working with sonic beds and we really struggled to find the same language. But that was 12 years ago. Much water has since flowed under the bridge. So any female architects out there interested? I’d love to hear from you.
9. What was your best gig (as performer or spectator)?
Oh, the best gig. Funnily enough what comes to mind now? Because there have been many Best Gigs and I’m going to change my mind all the time about the best gigs because you’re in a different situation all the time and you’re looking at differ-ent things. You’re seeking different things when you do a concert. When you look back to them, right now, funnily enough what comes to mind? mm it’s a show I played in the Kaai theatre in Brussels and about, you know, I honestly think it was about 1999 and I was playing through a double stereo system and there were also films later that were being shown and the organization was a young bunch of improvisers and the guy who met me from a the airport had this really poisoned eye so that it was totally swollen and he still really looked after me beautifully and I went and sound checked and set up, and everything was ready… of course I was nervous. I was trying a new thing – I guess it was shortly after I’d released cd Bea, my second CD. And somehow it was just one of those shows where you take risks and these joyous surprising things just fly out of the speakers and somehow you’re riding this wave and just hanging onto it and then the show’s over and everyone is amazed and it is honestly a feeling of being some kind of medium for something else that is happening you know. And it was an improvised concert. That was what all my gigs were. But I’m being very long-winded about this very simply because I’m surprised that I’m, out of all of the hundreds of shows I’ve done, I’m surprised that I’m pulling this one out of the bag of possibilities. But I think with this concert the reason that it now feels such a special one was because I really had this sense of it. It was by no means just me making this music at all. It was absolutely a product of all the people in that space, that moment together in this huge space with lots people in it, and I was playing in the middle and there were four huge speaker stacks, one in each corner. And there was a very high ceiling and the music became massive but it really stayed alive and detailed and ever-changing and somehow it felt like we made this thing together you know and it still kind of stands up as something that was very special. I think also it was the first time that I’d played in this way. That I had taken big risks but they didn’t feel like risks at the time and that, also super important, I was playing through this massive and excellent sound system, so it was possible to be really detailed and paint and work with the size of sound live. And that was extraordinary.
10. How important is technology to your creative process?
Well technology essentially makes up my instrument. I use computers and I use mixing desks and I use gadgets of all kinds. So yes I adopt technology to create instruments. So I think at the very beginning the technology, even though I thought that I was driving the software, of course what I was doing was also a product of what the software would let me do.
I think a really important thing about what I was doing at the beginning was that I was using this software called LiSa, a live sampling system that was made at Steim in Amsterdam and it was one of these gorgeous bits of nineties user-friendly MIDI controller-driven software. So I used to play it from my MIDI violin plus a Peavey midi controller PC 1600 which has got 16 switches and faders in a box and the faders have got a long throw, so you can get a lot of detail from them and because the software Lisa itself was very simple to use, if you spent enough time with it, you really could make your own instrument with it. And so I worked with it for hours like four or five hours every day for years. And with a violin and then later a theremin and live microphones in or outside the space. And even now, the way that that system works also helped me develop my own instrument in my head if you like. And I still actually use that technique as a compositional tool.
So yes. I mean the gadgets that are around the software that surrounds the technology absolutely influences everyone. I think, to be honest, one of the things that used to really concern me was when people started to use sequencers as their tool for making music. That used to really worry me because you’re looking at what you’re making, sitting in front of a monitor with a representation of the sound appearing as it’s played. I think that’s still a huge issue. You’re not listening in the same way that you would without a screen, without using your eyes. The other thing is that sequencer software on a computer creates a timeline, so it’s very easy to al-ways be making music that’s following some kind of linear journey, right? Whereas of course the possibilities especially with technology you can really work with time and musical construction in a non-linear way. So I suppose I then started to work with MAX/MSP after Lisa and that very much enabled me to work in this kind of non-linear way, work in shifting layers, dive into geological slabs, although of course I could do that with LiSa as well. LiSa is MIDI-driven and so it feels very clumsy next to Open Sound Control as your controller which gives enables much more detail. You can get right inside the sound, be microscopic about how you’re working, but still live with OSC. And… Max/Msp can be played from OSC…
11. Do you have siblings and how do they feel about your career/art?
I have four incredible sisters and two of them are trained musicians. I’m not. So I think at the beginning one of them found it a bit hard, weird too that Kaffe was the one working professionally as a musician, a composer, and playing on big stages at times. But now they’re happy and supportive although can rarely, if ever come to my shows. Yes, I guess we operate in very different worlds.
Grüntaler presents Kaffe Matthews, Rashad Becker, Liz Allbee & Sukandar Kartadinata live at Kosmetiksalon Babette in KINDL on Thursday, 25th April 2019!
Photo © Katharina Hauke