If there is a pair of artists out there who can "play" a washing machine, it's Matmos.
I caught Matmos as an opening act in late 2000. Just before they began their performance, they explained that they were going to have their backs turned to us because they believed the view would be more interesting for the audience. They were right. They slurped on straws, plucked the iron bars of an animal cage, and played film footage of the slow pan of the skin of some mammal (I think). The more I learned about Matmos, the more I realized that this was all business as usual for them.
So when I learned that M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel were drawing inspiration from the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine to create a 37-minute track of the same name, there was little room for surprise. If there is a pair of artists out there who can "play" a washing machine, it's Matmos. Helping out are Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher and Sam Haberman of Horse Lords, Jason Willett of Half Japanese, and Duncan Moore of Needle Gun. The next time someone asks you "how many avant-gardists does it take to play a washing machine?", you'll now have a punchline ready.
It all starts with the twist of the knob and the steady splash of water. When "Ultimate Care II" reaches it's two-minute mark, the tumbling sounds have been sequenced into a rhythmic track reminiscent of Amnesiac-era Radiohead. The sound of the rinse cycle is then chopped up in its MIDI form to take the track to its next plateau -- a metallic grind that sings (this may be the wrong appliance, but imagine the old-fashioned lint catchers being quickly removed from their compartments). Approaching its halfway point, "Ultimate Care II" is subjected to just as much digital twisting as anything by the Orb or Aphex Twin. In fact, it turns into a unique listening experience all on its own.
Ultimate Care II's press material gently hints at the fact that this "music" can become a satisfying listening experience, as if the press agents were bracing themselves for some unkind feedback. Be that as it may, Ultimate Care II is still an engaging listen. Curiosity alone should be able to carry you through the first half of the track. It's only towards the end when some honest-to-goodness notes are conjured out of the mix, announcing the Whirlpool as yet another avenue for ambient music.
And if your curiosity still isn't completely satisfied by the time the off-kilter, industrial clangs shut the door of the Ultimate Care II, word has it that Matmos and friends are planning on performing the work live on stage. No word yet on whole will be paying the water bill for that one, but it shows that Matmos does not shy from a challenge. It's works like Ultimate Care II that draw a clear line in the sand between thoughtless attention-seeking and a deep commitment to experimentation.