Matt Evans is a Brooklyn-based percussionist and composer who recently struck out on his own with his debut solo album, New Topographics (Whatever’s Clever, 2020). Recorded during a month-long residency at Red Hook’s experimental art hub, Pioneer Works, New Topographics comes on the heels of his collaborative work with vibrant percussion trio Tigue and new music chamber trio Bearthoven. His solo practice explores the meeting place of our digital and physical worlds by juxtaposing acoustic and electronic sound, and takes a wide swath of inspiration from visual art, poetry, and philosophy. Perhaps fittingly, we discussed his creative processes and inspirations by video.
Vanessa Ague (Rail): With New Topographics, you're exploring the interconnectedness of physical and digital worlds. What draws you to this as an inspiration?
Matt Evans: I think it's just part of our contemporary condition in so many ways. There's something about how we live our lives right now—half-physical, half-digital—that begs to be addressed. I’m trying to create work that feels like it’s both.
Liminal is a really interesting word that I keep coming back to. It really nails this space we’re in, liminal being something that occupies a kind of uncanny valley space at, or on both sides of, a boundary. To me, the crossfade of digital and physical is what is interesting. I've been trying to find sounds that exist mid-crossfade.
Timothy Morton’s idea of hyperobjects has also been huge for me. Hyperobjects is a name he gives to experiences that are too large and lack physical form. There’s a transcendent absurdity to attempting to understand things on that massive scale. For me, this project was about trying to capture that transcendent, absurd feeling with regards to how we experience the world in physical and digital tandem.
Rail: How are you blending acoustic and electronic musical elements?
Evans: One example is the chord that's playing in “New Moon.” It’s this chord that I could hear outside the studio. I could hum the pitches and decided to manipulate two keyboards to get exactly those frequencies. I recorded that sound into Pro Tools, and then I had a synthesized version of this physical landscape. Then I would send that chord through speakers and back into the room. I would have a microphone or a cassette player and I would walk around the room, recording the sound of that chord in different positions in the space, catching reflections, based on the experience one might have in La Monte Young’s Dream House. Just by moving a microphone in a static sound space, you get a sound that has life. I would put both the static and roving recordings on top of each other and the sound would gently wiggle against itself. The appropriate character for the sound was produced by constantly translating it back and forth between digital and physical.
Rail: You've picked text that has served as an inspiration and is also incorporated into the music. What led you to pick the text and how did you use it in the music?
Evans: It's a Richard Brautigan poem, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” It’s a really powerful poem, but it’s also worth noting that I find Brautigan to be a very controversial figure. I don't find him to be an inspirational person. I don't really want to deify him, but his work is very unique.
I was in Ohio, and I wanted a Brautigan thing because I had read one of his before. The only book the bookstore had was The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968). The first poem in the book is “All Watched Over,” and it rocks. It's so simple and direct. It's this psychedelic, ’60s-era poem that discusses a trust in cybernetics and a human “return to nature.” It’s over 50 years old, but it still reflects our contemporary experience of questioning the future within this idea of a techno-utopia. It's overly positive to a point where it makes you question the position, or at least that's my experience.
Translating mediums to abstract them and also to see if an idea’s core stays intact through various adaptations became a big part of this whole process. It unveiled something about how I understood “truth.” I realized that “truth” is this thing that can exist throughout translations.
I got really interested in whether my perception of this poem would [remain] intact through translation in a sound-based way. The first thing I did was record myself writing the poem out with a Sharpie on a piece of paper. Writing is a very percussive act, and we don't think about it. We create a lot of sound byproducts by accident, and I wanted to see if they could become a leading musical language. So I got interested in other ways I could translate it. I translated the poem into braille, Morse code, and radio teletype. It became a goal to collect and express through byproducts of our communication systems.
Rail: How did you pick the title for this album?
Evans: I went to the National Gallery in 2015, and saw these amazing Lewis Baltz photographs that led me to read about the original show where they were exhibited, called New Topographics. The photographers in that show were making work in the ’70s by finding minimal, abstracted representation in really flat, two-dimensional images of urban sprawl. I was really into this imagery for a long time, and it made sense in terms of connecting with the greater concepts of this record. I’m taking these multidimensional perspectives on digital and physical sound, and “flattening” them into a space that's just two speakers in front of you or just putting on headphones.
Rail: There’s a visual component to the album with the accompanying music videos and with the cover art. How did you choose those visuals?
Evans: It's all been ways to continue to play around with these ideas of translation, abstraction, and byproducts. “Cold Moon” was shot at the Coney Island Aquarium by my friends, Eridan. They made this really detailed, hypnotic video where each sound has some distinct visual representation. In the “Full Squid” video, I put water on a drum head and lit it with clip lamps, laying it horizontally on a speaker. Then I played the synth part loudly through the amp and the water simply responded to the physical vibrations of the sound waves, creating this beautiful little dance.
The third video, for “Spinning Blossoms,” was collaboratively directed by this amazing crew, Vanessa Castro, Mel Stancato, Dara Hirsch, and myself. We called ourselves “Soop Groop.” We shot it on two separate days, one in a small white box space where I'm playing some instruments, and another where Mel is dancing in an empty office space. Each of these video projects felt like ways to consider the movement and physicality that naturally echoes from the sound-making process.
I wanted the album art to be an image of Devra Freelander’s since she was a sounding board throughout the development of this project and a hugely supportive person in my life. Devra and I dated for two years, and it was an incredibly positive relationship. To this day, I think about her unbelievable brilliance. She had a light and comical approach to how she lived her life, and was able to write and make work in a poignant, poetic way. I was so in love with her, this intellectual side of her, and the joyous, loving side of her. Losing Devra is the most difficult thing I've ever experienced.
The work I ended up choosing is a piece from 2014, “Fluorescent Anomaly.” I chose it because it's this perfect analog to the sound that I was trying to make. It's a photograph of a physical object that was made to look like a rendering of an abstract conceptual object. It could have just been a rendering, but instead, it's a photograph of a physical object that is imitating a rendering. Ha! That translation concept, and how you feel Devra’s bright neon personality in the color that she chose, makes the whole thing work. Her personality is present in every step—in the rendering, in the physical version, and in the photograph—it really transcends translation. And I think, in a very short phrase, what a lot of this is about is trying to see what transcends translation.