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Discovery Through Listening: The Sound Art of Kaffe Matthews

Photos: Kristian Buus

A complex network of canals, rivers and docksides run through London like an ancient system of veins, arteries and capillaries, echoing its rural, pre-industrial history. Once the lifeblood of the city, they served as transport hubs, supply routes, sewer and water supplies for harbours, wharves, mills, tanneries and a waste sluice for early settlers. In recent times, the London waterways have seen and renaissance with an increasing number of boat dwellers mooring on its banks and locals flocking to the towpath to enjoy a rare slice of urban tranquility. This month, Canal & River Trust have curated a series of commissions called Arts on the Waterways, including a site specific sound installation at St Pancras Lock called in locking conceived by pioneering BAFTA winning composer and sound artist Kaffe Matthews.


Run Riot caught up with Kaffe to discuss subterranean soundscapes, cycling, canal politics and the ‘Three Devils’ facing burgeoning sonic artists today.

If London’s canal network is a metaphor for Contemporary London, what is it?

A curious thought. Canals are a backdoor in. They pass through forgotten or unseen parts and join places that roads do not. Any canal user therefore will create a completely different map of an area or region, not just to get around, but to comprehend it. I’ve used London’s canals since I moved back here in 1995. Initially as somewhere to find some quiet and green space to walk, and then as preferred cycling routes. So I’ve also seen the drastic rise of gentrification gradually spreading its presence along the canal paths, not just in the new-build architecture and smoothed and widened paths, but in the numbers of people and dogs and volume of noise.

The Olympics seem to have been an accumulating moment in this too. Yes, of course it’s super that more of us are now aware of and enjoying the canals safely at any time of day or night, but they now feel so owned. Will there be no wild space left in London?

What type of things have you found at the bottom of St Pancras Lock and how did you go about capturing their sonic qualities?

I won’t get inside St Pancras Lock until 3 February, when it will be empty – which will be incredible. Looking inside locks, it’s generally impossible to see anything as they’re deep and dark, but I’ve dropped underwater microphones inside them and sat and listened when they’re static, and also when they’re filling and emptying as boats come and go. As with all underwater recording, a lot of luck is involved as to what you might find. The thing that can also get in the way when looking to listen to the more subtle underwater plant/animal life, is the always varied sounds of running water, from blasting white noise to sweet tricklings.

Having said that, one of the most fantastic locks I recorded in was Denham Deep which is the deepest lock on the Grand Union and revealed a curious underwater acoustic and a filtering effect inside. Really beautiful and strange sounds. I sat there listening with headphones for ages in the end as passers by of all ages wanted to listen too. From the calm surface you’d have no idea that there was this ballroom of joyous sounds spinning around underneath.

Have you explored subterranean environments in your previous work?

I got very interested in resonant frequencies of ancient caves when I was first making Sonic Beds in 2005 and was looking for the ultimate frequencies to work with for body music making. However, I didn’t have the chance to explore this until working in the Galloway Forest with artist Mandy McIntosh on the project Yird Muin Starn to make temporary shelters for star gazers. I think my strongest design was Silent holes for gazing. Dig a trench long enough for a body and a metre or so deep, then lie in it and look at the sky – all those nature noises have gone and you’re in earthly silence gazing upon the heavens. Unfortunately the Forestry Commission thought this idea carried too many health and safety concerns, so I designed three massive oak Star Gazer chairs instead which are still standing on the hillside pointing at the sky beside White Laggan bothy.

Controversially, Regents Canal and the River Lea have become home to a growing number of nomadic boat dwellers, with many blaming a national housing crisis. Is there a political component to in locking?

The political component to this piece, and to my work overall really, is one of discovery through listening. In this piece the audience are taken underwater by first giving them familiar sounds, locks filling, boats, engines, then swooping bubbling down inside to an unknown space that is real but could sound mythical. Abstract worlds emerge with the occasional familiar treasure that should keep listeners hooked, and possibly intrigued. One of the most important things is not to give out labels and instructions as to what to expect. Rather make a space to experience that enables discovery. Of something maybe impossible and irrelevant to describe. After one of my gigs earlier this month, someone from the audience said he’d grown six new ears and he thanked me for it. Job done.

In 2014 you established the The Bicrophonic Research Institute (BRI) and are currently developing Interactive Sensory Bikes and have made 11 international Bike Operas. What is your fascination with the humble bicycle?

Smell the city! Get out. Move. Gaze at the landscape. Hear its changes. Be independent. Don’t destroy the environment – and aren’t cars in cities daft? Whatever kind of ‘civilisation’ are we to have allowed our architectural landscapes to have been built around the car and its traffic systems? No, the bicycle is a wonderful invention – and we need to encourage more folks to get theirs out. Folks often say, ‘God, cycling in London, it must be so dangerous’. And I say, no, it’s no more dangerous than many things. It can look really scary, but it’s worth a try. Cycling allows you to be really alive in a city. You need to have all your senses alert, like a cheetah, even when riding slow. And you’re also not waiting, queuing, or overpaying for some system to come carry you around at its own timetable, predetermined by someone else.

Many Londoners object to cyclists using the towpath, citing recklessness and increasing traffic as a disruption to the peace. Do you have any words of wisdom for our two-wheeled friends?

Yes, I’m fed up with how we cyclists can behave. The walker has priority on the towpath. In London we’re all set to go so fast. Do as much as you can as fast as you can all the time. I used to be one of those that got annoyed at pedestrians on the towpath, and then I realised that the independence we have as cyclists can maybe can give us some overblown sense of our own importance. Cycling like that is dangerous. If you’re going to use the towpath, ride with respect.

And yes, I have to admit to singing, albeit quietly, riding home along towpaths late at night. Sorry boat dwellers!

The alarming rise of the the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) in the cycling community has been well documented. What are your thoughts on this bizarre phenomenon?

Well there are young men, and young and middle aged women in lycra too. Let’s not be ageist and sexist about this. No I think this is all the fault of the lycra. Get rid of that, and calm down!

Amen. Back in April 2014 you completed an 80 mile sonic fishing walk up to Milton Keynes. What did you learn from the experience?

That setting aside a week to walk across England alone with a rucksack following this unknown route that traces the landscape is one of the best things a human can do. In fact as well as banning cars in inner cities, if given a chance I’d propose that everyone did something like this. However, don’t attempt to carry more than a 20kg pack, do save up beforehand as canalside food is good and you’ll develop a massive appetite. Do go find a local inn at night before bed, as that’s where you’ll meet such folks and find such stories, and everyone wants to know what an earth you’re doing.

As the first woman to have received the Edgar Varése guest professorship at TU Berlin, how do you find your experience working as a sound artist? Is it as male dominated as it was in the past?

Boringly, yes. Although I’ve never thought of myself as a female sound artist or composer, more a sound artist that happens to be a woman, I’m now actively pushing for changes where I can. For example, speaking up when contemporary sound art shows are put on that are all male artists, supporting the performance spaces that decide to present only female artists for a year, working with other women artists and encouraging them to speak out, not performing at festivals or speaking at symposiums where less than 50% of those presenting are women. With all the madness of last year, 2017 seems a year for activating ideas, not just talking about them.

You’ve been releasing solo works via your Annette Works imprint since 1997. What can listeners expect next from Kaffe Matthews?

Surprise. Stereo music making seems relevant again and I’ll be relaunching the alphabetical series with cd GG due out this spring. Watch this space.

As an established sound artist with a wealth of awards and accolades, what advice do you give to tomorrow’s generation of sonic pioneers?

Fear is the devil. Don’t believe all the horror stories about how hard it is, just get on with it. If you want to, you’ll find a way. Suggest finding somewhere to get your ears out and your head down with whatever gadgets, tools, or people you need, and start to make stuff. To play. To listen. The rest will follow.

The second devil is having ideas. They’re easy. Reading and learning and talking about them can be even easier. It’s more important now than ever to get physical with material. Make stuff. Experiment, take time. And you don’t have to go to college and take out a loan to do this.

Third devil: social media. Don’t let it eat you

Kaffe Matthews

‘in locking’ by Kaffe Matthews
6pm, 7pm and 8pm, Saturday 4 February
St Pancras Lock
London N1C 4PL
The free event is part of St Pancras Open Weekend.
More info: canalrivertrust.org.uk

‘in locking’ by Kaffe Matthews is commissioned by Canal & River Trust, and produced by BGA. The project is led by Bill Gee and Susanna Roland.

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