Name: Matt Evans
Occupation: Percussionist, Sound Artist
Current release: Matt Evans's touchless is out via Whatever's Clever. The album was created "between 2019 and 2020 after the loss of his partner, sculptor and eco-feminist artist Devra Freelander."
If you would like to find out more about Matt Evans, visit his website. He is also on twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
We also recommend our earlier Matt Evans interview, where he talks in depth about a wide range of topics.
Music can deal with life and death in many ways. What are examples you find particularly inspiring for you personally? Has one of them possibly changed your view on life and death?
I don’t have a lot of direct examples that come to mind. I tend to experience music as a distinctly metaphysical, “spiritual” and viscerally cathartic expression whether it be improvised or excellently embodied. This deeply human form of otherwise inexpressible communication is always about life and death.
Maybe, because I see embodiment as an expression of true presentness, the act of performing and sharing is such an act of living that it is inevitably a statement about the inevitability of death and living towards it, or in the face of it.
Many of us associate music with phases of life which are particularly vivid, intense and important. Do you, too – and if so, what are examples of this? What is it about music that makes it so particularly powerful as a celebration/intensifier/diarist of life?
I’m coming back to embodiment which I find is a gateway— either led to by a performer, acting as a “guide” or by ourselves, dancing and responding at the club— to a truly vivid part of our existence. This embodiment is a an ephemeral place. We’re able to go so far into ourselves that we end up outside of ourselves, in some astral / cosmic plane or a space of one-ness. This feeling is unique and therefor imprints deeply into our memory. Great music that resonates us helps us remember we’re not alone, and this is extra palpable during ecstatic performances or really touching listening sessions (alone in a car for instance).
My favorite art and music transcends representation and just *is* this vivid, intense, important thing. I’ve always felt connected to the idea that great art isn’t *about* something but it *is* something. sharing that as a performer or experiencing it as a listener is really a powerful celebration of life.
Although this comes years after Devra’s tragic accident, I’m really sorry for your loss. The way I understand touchless, it is an effort of trying to grasp the absence of someone loved (“wandering experience of grief”, as the press release puts it). Can you talk about this absence – what it feels like, what it entails, how you dealt with it?
I truly appreciate your sensitivity. Devra was an incredible person and I’m lucky to have spent so much time with her, truly a person of joy and love.
Music is an incredibly important part of my identity— it’s basically how I process and interface with any question or experience I’m grappling with. So, trying to find ways to express absence through music was necessary for me to even understand what I had been experiencing— a way to look at how I was holding the loss of what was to me, an uncomplicated and deep love with Devra.
Shortly after her death I remember absence being something odd and impossible to handle. It didn’t feel real. Devra’s presence was everywhere and it basically didn’t compute in my brain. There’s a lot about grief that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t linear, and not logical. For instance there was a while where I was defining nostalgia as unsatisfying, because I saw it as an obsession with the absence / distance from an experience rather than just interfacing with the memory directly. I was convinced I could feel present in a memory rather than seeing a memory through the lens of time. I’m not sure if that totally makes sense and my thoughts on this have changed since, but I do think this kind of nonlinear thinking is more in line with how grief presents itself at its loudest volume.
The most important musical way I started to process this loss was when I began to trust ways of imitating Devra’s sculptural practices in my music making and feeling her processes as part of my being. In this way, I could inhabit her. From this perspective, making tracks like "Fluorescent Sunrise", "Solar Silhouette" (named after her sculptures) and "Firn" only became about absence when they were finished because, as I was making them, they were more a way of staying connected, to continue touching her spirit through ideas.
The only track that really feels like a direct meditation on absence is the title track— that one captures this wandering feeling that grief seems to manifest as. There’s an intense pain in loss but simultaneously as time passes you crave the directness and presentness of the pain, how real it was. There’s a grief for the initial intensity of grief. I think other folks who have experiences this will understand, but I get how it doesn’t “make sense”. I’m lucky that I’ve had an incredible community to hold me through a lot of those most wandering times, and now, as I settle into myself again— outside of identifying *as* my grief— there’s almost a relief to share this record as a capsule of my feelings the last few years.
Touchless is an effort of establishing a connection through time. What was Devra’s own relationship to music? How did you, concretely, deal with the topics of her work with sound?
Devra was an incredibly musical person— A talented singer with a gift for harmony, an excellent DJ of the most enthusiastic, joyous tunes around, and a creative sound designer and songwriter. She sang on my close friend Ben Seretan’s record “Youth Pastoral” and also designed a few sound installations with her sculpture collective “Material Girls”. So I’d say her relationship with music was extremely intuitive.
[Read our Ben Seretan interview]
Devra and I bonded over a lot of the conceptual, object poetry we found in sculpture and art making— which for me, is how I tend to approach music making. For Devra, making a large resin gradient sculpture was a metaphorical vehicle to express desire, touch and the experience of humanity in the face of climate change. I, following her lead, ended up taking similar conceptually poetic approaches into my compositional process. The most concrete connections are the tracks named after her sculptures. With those, I created stacked drone compositions and then traced the outlines of her sculptress with the master EQ. So, over time, those tracks are direct representations of her forms but expressed as sound. These are the most direct metaphors in my mind, since they literally trace 2-dimensional versions of her landscape models over the time of each track.
Additionally, I used glacial field recordings in both of the Arcto tracks— a way to include an arctic “placeless” within the sentiment of these delicate piano compositions. Devra often used an arctic “placeless” in her work, having traveled to both Antarctica and the Arctic Circle where she had snapped photos of her work in the landscape, catalogued topographies and shot footage on location.
Finally, "Firn" was conceptualized as a way of creating a musical work in the vain of Devra’s geo-metaphorical approach. I took this arctic, geological phenomenon of glacial ice in a liminal stage, and expressed it through layering manipulated tape recordings of piano improvisations with subtle beds of strings. This kind of abstract metaphorical representation that acts like a geological phenomenon is an imitation of Devra’s style without directly referencing any of her previous works.
According to the press release, “touchless questions the phenomenology of touch, reaching to transcend the boundaries of the physical to embody touch while remaining touchless” What is touchless touch?
I dug deeper into my research about the phenomenology of touch near the beginning of the pandemic because I started to really question what the essence of touch is. Senses are easily taken for granted and tactility is so core to our being that we rarely question what it’s made of. i think a lot of us have been craving touch, or noticing a lack of touch, in the last few years and I wanted to unpack why we need it and how it affects us— both as a chemical reaction in our brains and in a more ephemeral, spiritual way.
I started reading about oxytocin (the love drug), which is a bonding hormone in the human body that is released through physical touch and eye contact. Similar to dopamine and serotonin, it acts in an opposite way to the fight or flight response (adrenaline) that we more often discuss, and increases our sense of generosity, loyalty and sexual arousal with another person. This was an interesting scientific find but still didn’t define the more ephemeral reasons we crave touch.
Then my friend Emily Rose Cannon sent me information about Ruella Frank and her research into Kinesthetic Resonance, which seemed to highlight some of the somatic depth I was searching for.
The kinesthetic resonance between two people reverberates and gives us a sense of self in relation to another. It’s how touch and intimacy not only bonds us with another but supports our sense of self. This is also supported by a phrase from this Sergei Parajanov film The Color of Pomegranates which I love— “we seek ourselves in each other.” Understanding this, we start to see how touch and intimacy blur boundaries between physical bodies.
This boundarylessness is paralleled in how I feel gripping this stick when playing the drums. I almost don’t sense the stick any more, only the objects I strike. But how does this relate to an experience with a person? Does a person whose touch you’ve learned become your own touch? Can this boundary be absolved? Maybe in sex and other spiritual experiences— that’s where we break the boundary and find a oneness. It’s also being able to sense another’s senses, which is a kind of empathy that is a true knowing of another and ourselves.
When this understanding of touch is mapped onto loss, we realize that losing someone means we lose a part of ourselves. This is a specific part of why loss is so devastating (specifically a partner or someone close to us), because we lose a loved one *and* a reflected version of ourselves, the part that was resonated in that person’s personality and physicality.
So, if we agree that touching someone / something is a way to know ourselves, it makes sense to feel fear or strangeness in the face of relationships that are or become “untouchable” because there exists a version of ourselves in relation that we cannot know. This then ties into even larger “untouchable” human relationships with the unknown and supermassive phenomena like climate change. Touchlessness creates an inability to understand ones relationship to someone or something.
As I mentioned before, I found mimicking Devra’s processes and sentiments in my own language to be the best way to practice toucheless touch. It’s a performance of empathy. A way of playing out how she would have solved a question and therefore a way to embody her spirit and embody her essence
Has creating the music on touchless offered you concrete solace in the face of loss, death and depression?
Creating this music became an empathetic practice that was always there for me. The process of making was a way to interface with my experience in a space that felt “comfortable” or “mine” and I’d say it was more of a partner in my grief journey alongside sharing space with Devra’s community.
Now that the record is out, it feels like a crystallization of a time and feeling. So, I guess there is a concreteness in the way that it holds what I was feeling while I was making it.
What do you still remember about the recording process? How much discussion about the underlying themes of the album was there with the musicians participating in the performances?
The recording process was a lot of collage, which is typically how i work. I made "Fluorescent Sunrise" and "Solar Silhouette" in the months just after Devra’s death. I wasn’t thinking about an album at that time, I just wanted to find ways to imitate her work. The piano recordings on Arcto 1 and 2 are from years ago; recordings I sat on until i realized they expressed something I was feeling in the wake of losing Devra. I wanted to find a way to connect them with her process so that’s when I started editing in the arctic field recordings. Using places she had been and felt connected to. The instrumental performances from Tristan Kasten-Krause and David Lackner on Touchless are from 2018, when Devra and I were still spending a lot of time together. I sat on that material too, unclear where it belonged until this record started to take shape.
At that point, I started editing it down, basically sanding the form sculpturally until it felt right. "Firn" was the last track to come together and as I mentioned before, that felt like making something Devra would have made. Tristan and Elori Saxl have been close friends of mine for a long time so I trusted them to lay down takes that would fill the snow-slowed half ice world I was imagining, and eventually I collaged their recordings to give the track it’s form.
[Read our Elori Saxl interview]
The death of a loved one can make us acutely aware of our own mortality. What was this like for you and how did you deal with it? What’s your own view on life and what happens when it ends?
Ha ! Wow, such an epic question— mortality is one of the, if not thee most real thing humanity experiences. It’s also impossibly unknowable. Being so close to death definitely brings up more questions than answers. For a while I felt this loss like some kind of inverse of a psychedelic experience— a reckoning with the infinite possible dimensions of every moment— one that rips through your neurons in an instant. I’m lucky there was a lot of love around me from my family, Devra’s family, my friends and community. If anything, through this experience I became more aware of the power of love to hold us.
Regarding my view on what happens when life ends, a lot of times I wish I could ask Devra for the answer. Like, what’s it like ? is it “lit” ? I’d trust her to have an incredible description of the experience.
In a more practical sense, I became really aware of how we carry those we lose in how we talk about them and make work about them, discuss them and tell stories about them. In that way, there’s some connection to the eternal. Even though, in the grand scheme of things, we’re all little specks of dust, I think the *idea* of eternality is what eternality *is* and if we believe in it’s existence, for whatever our timelines are, then we can all be eternal within our communities.
Music can express the unspeakable. What can it express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is a feeling. It shares the esoteric ephemerality of our experience; the fleeting inexpressible elements of presentness that cannot be put into words. Music is an embodiment of life. Going back to that beginning of our discussion, sharing work in a community is inherently about life and death, and so is an expression of both.