A Textual Analysis of Matmos – ‘The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast’ (authored 2009)

(Here’s an essay I done as a media project in 2009 that I thought some people might find interesting.  It’s not that well written, but provides food for thought…)

The album is titled such in reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical investigations” (1953). The ideology and concept behind this album is in its creative use of referencing, in form of “musical biography” to ten prominent historical figures that Matmos consider being culturally important to the gay community, generally creative entities who have led very colorful lives.

The musical biographies are created in an electronic music style known as “Musique Concrete”, which uses natural sounds recorded as the raw data for the samples, which are in turn manipulated (with studio composition techniques) and collaged together in musical structure to portray the subjects life aurally.

The live raw sounds that are used in this technique are sampled from objects and events considered by Matmos to be significant in each of the ten artist’s lives, e.g. ‘Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith’, where snails crawl around a light-sensitive Theremin and laser, which creates pitch change and a high squealing effect to symbolize paranoia aurally (it remains in question whether this aural paranoia is representative of either on personal account of the author or the crime matter that Highsmith wrote about).

In this way, this project is more controlled in its symbolic meaning by the authors, rather then the audience, and would be considered to be a monovalent (rather then polyvalent, or open to multiple interpretation) text in this regard, and not consciously open to other interpretation in meaning.   In all other regards, TRHT (sic) would be considered to be a post-modern work, with its complex intertextuality.  This intertextuality is densely layered at times and a challenge to interpret in whole, the meaning interspersed and related to song subject’s lives through musical genre, effects to signify important events, album cover work representative of objects within and portraits of the subjects, and the object representation mentioned previously.

Being all of this in mind, I feel it being plausible to contest whether or not this album would be a little TOO dense in concept, and therefore not accessible to a significant audience, as a larger audience either would not recognize the concepts involved in this album, or entirely not be interested in linking music media with any other kind of information.   It is argued that the album itself can be negotiated and enjoyed in content without need for linking of Matmos’ concepts, but I personally believe that the album would not nearly be valid on a musical as a mere dance music album.

For those who understand the multiple concepts inherent in the album, TRHT is an extremely valuable piece of media, one that is pioneering the way we can digest our media.   However, I DO feel that dominant meaning could be rather clouded and ambiguous to a larger audience, and that this album is targeted at an audience “in the know”, a more educated audience who are informed in contra-cultures and understand the more subtle elements and conceptual nature of some media creations.

One is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s literary theory, in how TRHT is constructed to gain a deeper understanding of character; much like Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” does in literary form.  VW’s concept of “tunneling” relayed a way that metaphoric ‘caves’ could be created behind the subject or character, and deeper investigation as to the subject’s character could be further understood by creating ‘tunnels’ in these caves that in turn link up with other tunnels.  The tunnels in this case would imply reference to learn more about the artists by researching them deeper in order to gain more understanding of the relevance of mediums or tools used to portray the subject and their work/lives in Matmos’ music.  This creates a greater richness of the subjects as characters in a historical context, and further attributes to the idea of TRHT as a post-modern work, as Matmos have (albeit unconsciously) reworked what was originally a theory from a modernist framework, and the theory was appropriated from a different medium of creativity (i.e. English literature to Anglo-American electronically produced music).   This theory of ‘tunneling’ is not complete in the literary fashion, I must admit, as the tunnels suggested by Virginia Woolf also talk of linking each character to each other, as she explains in her own words.  One is still reminded of this tunneling process in the deeper search for character, by this example, and this way of explaining her theory is readjusting the meaning to relate to the idea of a way to get to understand and expand upon character through a different medium, i.e. music.

This idea could be used to argue whether or not the actual author (Matmos) is compromised in terms of being in control of the meaning within their own media creation, and thus heralding a new form of “death of the author”, previously theorized by post-modern ideologist, Roland Barthes, in his study of (post) structuralism and the way that meaning can be contested by the audience, by way of individual interpretation of what such work could mean to one.  This would be something new, as previous application to this theory within music may have only been previously disclosed to lyrics within music (e.g. Bob Dylan).

Even ownership of the content can be contested, as the subjects of the biographies are indeed the authors of their own lives and own works.   How can Matmos claim to create this concept for their album, when the subjects of this particular concept are living, breathing people, who have in reality created the subject matter for the songs?  Meaning could also be contested by lieu of interpretation without the signifiers, as solely dance music without concept.

Collaboration also can be used for the argument that the text doesn’t solely belong to the authors, as the album is also a creation of the graphic artists who contribute portraits of the subjects and cover artwork, the guest speakers and musicians in the albums production (including Bjork and The Kronos Quartet, amongst others), and then there is the usual fact of mass media production of the item itself. So Matmos, i.e. M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, can only be credited for sound engineering of a concept that doesn’t actually belong to them.

However, this cannot really take away from the creativity in appropriation of all devices, in my opinion.

Another contested matter within this album is whether or not the fact that the subjects are homosexual, means that the overall album has a sexual political overtone within it. I, personally, did not identify any such politics in my initial listening, or for that matter, really have any other interests in Matmos apart from the facts that they used “real life” samples to create their music. It has been seen by reviewer, Dan Ruccia, that all Matmos album reviews become “lists”, in the way that all of Matmos’ albums are created on concepts. Dan Ruccia states, “[…] it could just be a list of their influences as gay men, or just some ploy to make me, the reviewer, talk myself in circles, but there is no escaping the politics of this music, be it active or passive.” (2006), and also seen by others to be some sort of ploy on Matmos’ behalf, as a type of academic “in-joke”.

Maybe Matmos should not be underestimated as so far as what they have taken into this album’s multiple facets, with their obvious intelligence in their advanced concepts. One would think that before any artist releases their work, they have attempted to think of all the collective cultural interpretations of their work and how they would signify to everyone.

Moving on to more practical matters of this product, one of the initial reasons I chose this particular album to analyse was to portray how the music industry is tackling music piracy. It seems apparent to me that it would be logical for the industry to return to vinyl as a physical format, because it is more difficult to reproduce, and because of the artistic possibilities of creating album cover artwork. Matmos have also provided those who wish to access their music digitally with codes to their record label site, to download the music (with a limit of 3 downloads per code) onto their computer. However, this could be problematic in the way that other people can then share the music digitally, but is a great idea in terms of accessing your own music and retaining your vinyl’s original condition as a collector’s item.

The item itself as an object has obviously had a lot of effort put into the packaging logistics, rather then just having a couple of plain white sleeves to contain the two records in, as a lot of record companies do to cut the often expensive costs of producing vinyl compared to CDs. The outside is shaded in a rich purple and black print, with a rather abstract photo of the front, of a rose in (you guessed it) the mouth of a beast, with objects used for sampling, and related to the artists, as previously discussed. In this way, it is like a sort of group photo of the subjects, by way of contextual relationship between object and person. The inlay includes portraits of the subjects, and the rather creative use of a timeline, with the production detail tables measured to the length of each subject’s lifespan, with a line between portrait and subject production details.

My response now to this album, is that I can’t really enjoy it for what it is anymore, now that I have worn myself out by deconstructing its meaning and purpose. Now my feelings are that sometimes, music was meant for just enjoying it, rather then contesting and re-evaluating its inherent meaning. However, my analysis of the album may prove valuable to those who are interested, and therefore this album has become one of the more important albums I have listened to.

I feel that there is a lot of discourse within electronic music to be explored, and that only by relaying my thoughts on such matters can electronic music be taken seriously as an art form with a great deal to be analysed within its structures. I consider anything that covers new territory to always be important. I have gained understanding within my studies this semester of how various media can be intertextual, and what this represents. This information has been invaluable for gaining a deeper understanding of certain signifiers within media products and enables the deeper “tunnelling” to reach new meaning and gather new value.

This makes media products richer in content for me, while conversely creates greater estrangement from media products I really don’t identify with on a cultural or moralistic basis. It becomes apparent to my understanding that there is still a lot more ground to be pioneered with new technologies such as electronic music, and there is still a lot of theory to be explored in terms how different types of media can intersect, conflict & travel parallel with each other in terms of concept, production and theory, and thus gain new significance and create new products or concepts for audiences to reposition and create new products from their concepts again.

Reference List

‘The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast’. Matmos (Schmidt, M & Daniel, D) (2006). Vinyl LP x 2. Matador Records

The Rose has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast – Dusted Reviews. Ruccia, D (2006). Dusted Magazine. 10 April [http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/2973] Accessed 26 April 2009.

Pitchfork: Matmos: The rose has teeth in the mouth of the beast. Stosuy, B (2006). Pitchfork Media. May 9 [http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/5153-the-rose-has-teeth-in-the-mouth-of-a-beast/] Accessed 6 May 2009.

‘Virginia Woolf’s Contribution to the Development of the Novel’. Marsh, N (1998). Virginia Woolf. The Novels. London: Macmillan Press, pp. 185–195.

‘Reading the Media: image analysis’ in AS Media Studies: the essential introduction. Rayner, P. Wall, P. & Kruger, S. 2003 Routledge, London pp. 29–43.

‘Death of the Author’. Barthes, R (1997). Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang, pp. 142–148.

‘Semiotics Ideology Language’. Terry Threadgold [et al.] (1986). Sydney: Association for Studies in Society and Culture.

A Textual Analysis of Matmos – ‘The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast’ (authored 2009)

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