In a recent tribute to mathematician Alan Turing, electronic music duo Matmos uses the sounds produced by an Enigma machine.

M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel of Matmos Credit: Lissa Ivy Tiegel

From the SEPTEMBER issue of Seed:

How did you get your hands on an Enigma machine?
Drew Daniel: Robert Osserman [of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute] is the husband of my dissertation director. He put us in touch with this corporation called Cryptography Research. That place was insane. They had retinal scanners on the walls to go into certain rooms. It’s a serious cryptography Valhalla.

And you recorded from the Enigma?
Daniel: Yeah… There’s this mantra, “every noise has a note.” It’s basic­ally true. Even the Enigma machine is in a particular key. Martin came up with a piano part, and then thought, well, let’s make it more enigmatic by encrypting his notes.

Why encrypt the piano?
Daniel: It was about confronting people with the impenetrability of an encrypted signal.

What about Turing fascinates you?
Daniel: Turing’s achievements in math and in computing and in logic seemed particularly juicy as a subject, and for electronic music especially. Instead of asking the question, “Can machines think?” he asked a different question, which was, “Can a machine fool someone [into thinking it’s intelligent]?” So he redefined what was going to count as thinking—not doing it as a metaphysician would, but by developing devices that wound up doing things that started to look like thinking.
M.C. Schmidt: Also, politically. Once you’re talking about queer politics, his lesson is largely unsung, and dark. Given the current bizarre political climate, I think it’s good to remind people of these things. Do you know the story?

Yes. He contributed so much to science and computing, and to the British war effort, then wound up a target of the state. They tried to quash his homosexuality using ill-conceived hormone therapy and this led to his suicide, right?
Schmidt: Yeah. He was a war hero. He was classic patriot material.
Daniel: Hounded to his grave, with chemical castration. So we wanted to memorialize him.

You used some of his metaphysical poetry in the work. Despite all he knew through science, Turing seemed to be trying to get at something more. What do you think?
Daniel: I guess I’m prepared for that edge to be a little bit fuzzy because I study Renaissance medicine. In medical writings from that time, there are points at which they’re clearly observing things in cadavers that don’t scan with humoral medicine. Or, look at the interests of people whom we think of as scientific, like Galileo’s interest not just in astronomy, but astrology. It’s very difficult for us as modern, scientific people, to understand. How could they have respect for these ideas? But they did. We, too, want to believe in a rational, empirical, observable universe, but we’re also committed to, maybe, ethical or religious agendas that don’t scan, and we know they don’t scan. How to hold those all together, I don’t know.

Science and medicine have been fodder for many of your tracks.
Daniel: Yes. We have a piece that depends on the electrical conductivity of skin on our record A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure. Everything on the record was made with the tools of medical technology—in this case, it’s an acupuncture point detector.
[Schmidt probes himself with the device.]
Daniel: He’s looking for acupuncture points.
Schmidt: If you’re an acupuncturist, you know where they are immediately.
Daniel: When we do this piece, [the needle is] the source of the sound, and I sample it live. We build up a song in real time out of the sounds generated purely by the electrical current being completed through his skin.
Schmidt: It’s useful from a performance standpoint to do something that’s so incredibly simple at first.
Daniel: That makes us more like a science fair than a normal musical show. We’re demonstrating how something works, demonstrating the tools of it, and then it gets sucked into a larger composition.

Does learning about how things work as you’re collecting sounds change your view of them?
Daniel: There’s a difference between what you know and what you feel, and maybe art is a way of kind of having it both ways. We know that Medea isn’t really killing her children offstage, but it’s still a horrifying moment when that actress walks to the edge of the stage. In the same way, when we recorded a friend of ours having laser eye surgery, I knew that the cornea doesn’t have nerve endings. But it was completely terrifying to watch—even though I knew she wasn’t in pain. So you can know something, but it doesn’t necessarily touch your fears. Maybe that’s one of the limits of scientific knowledge.

Did you set out to integrate sounds from science and nature into your music?
Daniel: On our very first album, we went to the science museum, the Exploratorium, and recorded the sounds of an exhibit there, in which someone had amplified the synapse of a crayfish nerve. We were calling attention to the scientific principle that nerves are electricity, in a sense. As artists, science is a really rich field of activity to reference, and it’s provided us with conceptual hooks that, I think, have let people be curious about science, by way of listening to this music.

Originally published September 14, 2006

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