Matmos: Return to Archive

When Moses Asch founded Folkways Records in 1948, he set out to create a repository of all the sounds of the world—folk music and protest music and indigenous music and jazz, but also sounds of the office, of the junkyard, of the bottle-nose dolphin. “I decided that I would become like an encyclopedia,” he declared. “You don’t eliminate ‘A’ because nobody buys ‘A,’ but keep ‘B’ because ‘B’ is popular.” Asch promised that not a single title would go out of print, an offer that attracted educators, scientists, and activists who prized longevity above mass appeal. The result is one of the most remarkable audio archives ever created: Across 40 years, Asch released nearly 2,200 albums, an average of one per week. After his death in 1986, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the Folkways archive and stored it in a climate-controlled fireproof vault. Any title can now be replicated on demand by a CD-producing “Moe-bot,” an ultra-modern solution that realizes Asch’s promise beyond his wildest imaginings.

Croaking Frogs, Buzzing Hornets, Squealing Dolphins: A Guide to Smithsonian Folkways’ Best Science and Nature Recordings

To celebrate Folkways’ 75th anniversary, the Smithsonian invited Baltimore sound-wranglers Matmos to record an original album that would sample this vast catalog. Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, a duo as likely to find inspiration in a Whirlpool washing machine as in the work of Polish composer Bogusław Schaeffer, were especially drawn to records from the 1950s and ’60s, the era when portable equipment first made it easy to record everything from toads to time clocks. Matmos came back with a counteroffer: The album would feature no original music, only samples; and those samples would come exclusively from these early nature and science recordings. Return to Archive is the motley, riotous result, a suitably retrofuturistic collage incorporating over two dozen records ranging from Sounds of Animals to Sounds of Medicine, International Morse Code to End the Cigarette Habit Through Self Hypnosis.

Daniel and Schmidt let the archive guide them. Some sounds play nicely together, as in the dozens of snippets on opener “Good Morning Electronics,” finely diced and snapped to an eighth-note grid to create a whirlwind tour of jungles, laboratories, and sci-fi worlds. Others, like the mud-dauber wasp in its eponymous track, demand space to themselves. Matmos work up an entire band from the buzz of the insect’s flight, sculpting bass, percussion, and distorted electronics through careful sampling, processing, and sequencing. It’s an impressive performance even if it lacks the novelty of the group’s previous tracks crafted from crayfish synapses and cow uteri.

Matmos best portray the social milieu of the early Folkways era when they wryly juxtapose its rosy self-help rhetoric with the smothering lifestyle of 1950s suburban America. On “Lend Me Your Ears,” the Shakespearean phrase is sung by a 12-year-old boy and an adult woman, both subjects of Alfred Wolfsohn’s experiments in extending the range of the human voice on the Vox Humana LP. As their voices strain against their physical limits, a barrage of mundane sounds interrupt their performances—a ringing telephone, a melody of doorbells, and most ominously, from Sounds of Medicine: “Sounds of the Bowels–A Normal Hungry Man Smoking a Cigarette Before Dinner.”

Instead of cleaning up the samples, which hiss and pop with surface noise, Matmos lean into the abrasiveness by inviting noise musicians to manipulate the vinyl itself. Daniel and Schmidt mailed their own copy of Speech After the Removal of the Larynx to the noise artist and instrument inventor Evicshen, who made resin duplicates of the LP that skip and repeat. Her turntablist performance serves as the foundation for “Why,” a mad mashup of frog croaks and infants’ speech that hurtles forward with a gritty techno beat. Aaron Dilloway transfigured his copy of Sounds of the Junkyard by recording portions onto quarter-inch tape and creating the rhythmic industrial loops in the chaotic climax of closer “Going to Sleep.” These moments of excess charge Matmos’ surgically sliced and quantized samples with thrilling unpredictability. Like John Oswald’s pillaging of the Elektra roster on Rubáiyát Plunderphonics or Madlib’s remix of the Blue Note discography on Shades of Blue, Return to Archive works because of an affinity between artist and subject: Like Asch, Matmos are building their own endless encyclopedia, one that both documents and playfully remakes the world around them.