Challenging the methods in which we listen to music, Kaffe Matthew’s Sonic Bed is designed to be a social space in which you can enjoy sounds through your entire body rather than solely through your ears. While in Maastricht, Netherlands I was lucky enough to be able to visit Marres House of Contemporary Culture and experience the Sonic Bed first hand with Matthews present, as part a truly unique experience.
In 2005 Matthews designed the first of seven beds, Sonic Bed London. The bed present at Marres was Sonic Bed Scotland, the fifth incarnation of her design. Built from locally sourced Falkirk timber, the bed hides eight car bass-speakers under a mattress which Matthews uses to play a wide range of frequencies which reverberate through your whole body inducing a mix of feelings and sensations.
Anyone spending time in the bed will experience it differently, for some the long, droning low end tones Matthews played were sources of energy and excitement, leaving them feeling like dancing afterward. For me the sounds were hypnotic and entrancing, laying back with my eyes closed feeling the deep roars move around the bed beneath me was a very surreal experience. As high, ethereal sounds washed around the bed, low rumbles followed, growing in volume from one part of the bed another. It made me feel as if I was twisting and morphing, as if I was shifting around the bed. A wave of soothing wind-like sounds hit and then the growling bass came back, the combination creating a sensation of being in a heavy storm.
The differing personal experiences people have with sound is what inspires Matthews to make sonic installations of this nature. For years Matthews had been travelling around with her laptop, playing concerts of experimental improvised music and inevitably it drew certain types of crowds. “The audience was young white middle class guys generally, who were making and producing that kind of music as well,” Matthews said. “Then I went, ‘hold on a minute, I need to make this kind of music more accessible to more people.’ What about the normal people on the street, where are they?”
Matthews realised that if you give music to people as vibration through their body, they can get something from it and appreciate it in a new way, one that is an experience that’s almost an antithesis to headphone culture. “The things that I discovered about how vibration communicates with all kinds of different people were because I made a couple of sonic armchairs,” Matthews explained. “Old women and children would queue for an hour to have a ride in one of them but if you’d have played them that stuff through speakers or headphones they’d say, ‘give us a break, this is rubbish. This is just noise. where’s the tune!’ Vibration lets us use the whole body as an interface to listening.” Working since 1995 as a professional musician, one of the things that has always fascinated Matthews about creating and listening to music is how some people love a certain kind of music that others perhaps can’t stand. Factors including education, culture, age and mood (to a lesser extent) all influence how we react to the sounds we hear. “There was a guitarist who I used to work with regularly, this specific frequency that was the best frequency to me in the world, I loved it but he couldn’t stand it,” Matthews said. “Then there was this low frequency, that was this kind of high-mid that he loved, and I couldn’t stand that for example. Two of the people that experienced the bed today said completely different things about how it made them feel, which is great. This is one of the reasons why I started to do this.”
When Matthews began her research project Music for Bodies, she wanted to explore the factors that make different people react to sound in different ways. She wanted to answer the question, ‘why is it that my guitarist loved that frequency. and I can’t stand it?’ “Is it to do with how much I drank last night or how little I slept?” Matthews pondered. “Or is it the fact that I grew up listening to Mozart and he grew up listening to drone music. Is it because I lived in the country and he lived somewhere else or because hes a man and I’m a woman? I think there are definitely a male and female set of differences in all of this.”
Before building the Sonic Beds, Matthews wanted to try and understand what kind of sounds and frequencies people enjoyed most. She spent six months in her studio with an architect and a programmer putting together a think tank of a social economist, a materials physicist, an artist and an electro acoustic composer. “We would discuss what we were doing for Music for Bodies and the Sonic Beds and I ran an open day in my studio,” Matthews said. “Different people would come and lie in the bed and we would play different frequencies to them at different points on their bodies and assess what were the specific frequencies that people liked. We expected to come out with a set of concrete results, we really didn’t. To be honest, we’re not scientists so we weren’t 100% methodical for 3 years either.”
Matthews works a lot with low frequencies. As humans we generally feel frequencies from 100 Hz and below. When you go below 20 Hz and down get into subsonics, you start to get into areas of more dangerous things that she is avoiding for now. “When these frequencies are played at an extreme volume they will damage organs, will make you sick, will make you shit, will make you see ghosts,” Matthews said. “There’s all these theories that 18 Hz is the frequency at which ghosts appear and they find that places that are supposed to be haunted, 18 Hz is the resonant frequency of these places.
“I’ve been to 19 but I won’t go lower than that. I know artists who work specifically in those areas, it might be something that happens one day but at the moment I’m more interested in working with specific frequencies and finding out their effects on the body.”
The Sonic Bed series has allowed Matthews to travel the world, working and collaborating with a huge range of national and local styles and methods, leading to countless people from all walks of life being able to experience her creations. After creating Sonic Bed London, Matthews travelled to Shanghai to begin building the second version.
“Making a piece of art in china, a lot of rules and regulations had to be dealt with strictly. I decided to make the music for each bed with sounds from that place, so in China people responded to it very differently,” Matthews said. “People are smaller so you fit more in the bed as well. It’s still in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.”
After completion of Sonic Bed Shanghai, Matthews travelled to Taipei to create the third bed but for this project nobody was keen on giving their input and collaborating to make a Taiwanese version of the Sonic Bed. Instead the locals were insistent on copying the design for Sonic Bed London. “They used absolute rubbish materials and banged it out in two days, everyone else spent two weeks making theirs, but the workmanship was amazing in the end,” Matthews noted.
“An interesting thing about this bed was that whatever I said, nobody would believe me that it’s not interactive, they really thought if they moved the sound would change,” said Matthews laughing. “I even got two translators to speak with the director of the show to make sure nobody was under any false pretences, but they still didn’t believe me.”
Matthews then travelled to Quebec to build the fourth bed, the material on the outside of this bed is bark carved using a traditional Québécois technique. The funding for this bed came from the Québécois council.
“In Canada there’s more money for art in comparison to a lot of other countries, the funding for the Chinese bed coming from the British Council for example,” Matthews said. “What I learnt is the economics of these other countries just as to how well or how much of a collaboration we actually made to make the bed. The Canadian one was incredible, things like how they installed the speakers, I learnt a lot from a guy who helped me do that. It was -40° and I was there to make music, it was an experience I’ve never had before.”
The final installation of the Sonic Bed series was built in Marfa, Texas. The sides of this bed were made with reclaimed timber, pieces of plywood that had been covering windows of empty houses for a couple of years that were then sandblasted. “Some of the sounds that I was recording for the Texas bed were insect sounds and I got obsessed with this colour yellow,” Matthews explained. “I called the piece ‘Yellow’ and the sounds I was making I thought were yellow and some of the sounds I used today, some the high pitched sounds, that was yellow stuff for me.