“This is me just lighting a bunch of matches in the bathroom.” In a video interview for the music website Pitchfork, Finneas O’Connell—producer for his pop-star sister, Billie Eilish—is playing a sound file on his computer, explaining how he constructed a beat for one of her songs. As he plays the finished track, “Watch,” he bobs his head to the backbeat. “It became the snare, essentially,” he explains, and if we listen carefully to the whap of the boom-whap, we can hear the strike of a match. Boom-match. Boom-match.
Finneas’s gesture has long roots in the history of recorded music. Pierre Schaeffer, a French composer working with taped environmental sounds in the late 1940s, called this technique musique concrète—best translated perhaps not as “concrete” music (that’s a false friend), but rather “plastic” music. The new postwar medium of audio recording tape was, after all, made from plastic (like film stock); but more important, Schaeffer was thinking of the way he could reshape sounds by recording them to tape and then manipulating it, treating sounds as a plastic material to be sculpted. The computer has made this technique easier and more widespread, although perhaps at the sacrifice of one of its metaphorical dimensions—in a digital audio workstation, sounds are represented graphically as flat wave patterns on the screen, ready to be redrawn more than reshaped. Finneas’s match strike—a sound with a beginning, middle, and end—has been trimmed and compressed to just the middle in order to serve as a more effective whap.
But Finneas is also not the first to use a match as a snare drum. In the 1941 Howard Hawks screwball comedy Ball of Fire, Gene Krupa himself engaged in a bit of stage business with a box of matches. Krupa and his orchestra perform their hit from that year, “Drum Boogie” (with Barbara Stanwyck lip-synching vocals by Martha Tilton). As an encore, Stanwyck’s character, Sugarpuss O’Shea, calls Krupa down off the bandstand to a ringside table, telling the nightclub crowd they’re going to have to be “awful quiet” to hear the next number. “What’s cooking, Sug?” says Krupa. “Match Boogie, Krup,” says Sugarpuss. A wooden box of matches is thrown onto the table, and Krupa plays his hit beat on the striking edge, using two matches as sticks. In a flourish at the end, he lights both (and he and Stanwyck blow them out).
There’s a crucial difference between Krupa’s matchstick beat and Finneas’s, however. Krupa’s swing needs more than boom-whap, it needs the sustain of a dotted eighth note—the feel of extra time that a jazz drummer lets ride on a cymbal, or on the pull of a brush across the head of a snare. That smidgen of extra time is rhythm’s blue note, the unchartable variation off the grid that answers the square question of Gary Cooper’s character in the film: “What does ‘boogie’ mean?”
Boogie, one answer might go, means using the beginning, middle, and end of a match strike. To create the swing, Krupa drags the match along the box without fully striking it—it’s in the granular detail of that gesture, its rising and falling volume, its trailing off into a gap of near silence before the next strike begins, that Krupa hands us the dotted eighth note. We accept it with our bodies, and hand it back. And that, we might say to Gary Cooper’s Professor Bertram Potts, is boogie. Not boom-whap.
Which isn’t to say that Billie Eilish songs don’t have a groove: fifty million teenagers can’t be wrong. But her beats don’t have a groove built on dynamics. On the contrary, when Finneas starts nodding his head to his own backbeat, it’s a response to only the loudest hits of the rhythm. Indeed, his match strike has been pared down to nothing but a loud hit. No drag along the box. No slide into flame. No breath to blow it out. Just another abrupt strike, exactly as loud as the last. Each is, in fact, identical: a digital assembly line of a single, tightly edited, and then duplicated match strike.
This lack of dynamics is typical of contemporary pop. And not just pop. It’s characteristic of our listening in so much of our contemporary landscape, physical and cultural. In an environment crowded with stimuli, the loudest bits reach us. The rest? Not so much.
Even, it must be said, in an art museum.
To hear Krupa swing on a matchbox, Sugarpuss O’Shea asks the crowd to gather round a table and focus on a tiny object. How often do we focus on something as small as two matches nearly but not quite striking into flame? The museum is in fact one of the few places in our lives where we do just that. We gather round a vitrine, a sculpture, a painting, and we focus on an object. We look at details. We see small gestures. We feel the swing.
But for sounds?
Before the lockdown, I was lucky enough to tour the newly rehung permanent collection galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As many (and many with more art historical chops than I) have attested, there is a tremendous amount to appreciate and enjoy in this new curatorial approach to the collection—I was dazzled by works I had never before seen, as well as by those I had seen but that now sit in surroundings that cast them in a different light.
As an audio experience, it was a disappointment, however. Or more precisely: it was no different from the usual disappointing experience of sound in an art museum. All struck match, no swing.
Not that the choice of works that feature sound isn’t interesting—just as with Eilish’s music, you can’t say there isn’t a lot there worthy of attention. But attention to detail, to dynamics, to the full range of sound in these works is not what is asked for in the way they are presented. It is often not even possible to perceive, given the mechanics of the situation.
Consider Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931), a 65-minute film represented in MoMA’s new fifth-floor galleries by an 8-minute excerpt of a video transfer, playing continually on a projector. The image, though small and many times removed from its original medium, is visible from a distance, bright and sharp despite being shown in full ambient light—quite a feat of current technology. As for the sound . . . it similarly can be perceived from far away, but only its loudest bits. Even up close, it is difficult to discern any subtlety in the audio, given its less-than-crisp amplification (through speakers buried behind the wall, it seemed), competing ambient noise, and what sounded like a muddy transfer from the original film. Moreover, I would venture that, for much of the time you spend in the museum hearing the sounds of this clip, you are trying to ignore them. The next gallery over—with no physical or other sound barrier between—houses Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26), which thereby acquired a soundtrack of industrial sounds recorded on location at an iron works factory in the Donbass, Ukraine, 1930.
MoMA’s online guide to the galleries maintains that ever since their acquisition in 1955, “the Water Lilies have held a cherished position in the Museum, affirming Monet’s conviction that art can provide a respite from an increasingly urban, commercialized, and technological world.” To give the curators and exhibition designers the benefit of the doubt, this juxtaposition is certainly provocative, an invitation to compare what was happening in industrial parts of the Soviet Union during the first Five Year Plan to the conditions in Giverny in the 1920s. On the other hand, is that rather heavy-handed point worth a permanent soundtrack to the Water Lilies? Visitors have no option to see them without these sounds. “There are no earlids,” as environmentalist and composer R. Murray Schafer famously wrote.
But to me, there’s an even greater problem than sound spillage at work here, which is that Vertov’s work is no better served by this situation than Monet’s. This particular film is actually a landmark of sound composition—Vertov’s subtitle, not included on the MoMA wall tag is, “Symphony of the Donbass.” The work is not a feature-length assault of industrial noise, as the sounds from this 8-minute excerpt in the galleries might lead you to believe. On the contrary, Enthusiasm is, in the words of Soviet studies scholar Lilya Kaganovsky, a “four-movement symphony in which leitmotifs and refrains develop a musical narration.” The soundtrack is constructed from far more than industrial sounds: it includes a piece of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 3 (“First of May”), a Russian Orthodox church bell ringing, marching bands, patriotic group singing, field songs, political speeches, snippets of conversation, the electronic sounds of a radio transmitter–a remarkable range of locational recordings made with one of the first sound-to-film cameras in the world (and the only one then in the Soviet Union). What is more, these sounds are often deliberately out of sync with the images. They are in fact heavily manipulated—Vertov used the new sound-to-film technology to cut and change the “live” sounds his camera recorded as radically as his montage altered the images. As Kaganovsky writes, with Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Vertov “developed a musical score that integrated noises and their transformation, distortion, and variation–anticipating the aesthetics of musique concrète by nearly two decades.”
None of this is audible in the MoMA gallery. It is sad to say, but you’ll have a fuller experience of the work on YouTube. This is not only because it has been so radically, even misleadingly, excerpted in the museum. It is also because you cannot hear the dynamics of this work in the gallery–you get only the loudest bits. It feels no more directly connected to musique concrète than Finneas’s middle of the match strike. No detail. No context. No swing.
Alas, this problem is not peculiar to the new installation of MoMA’s permanent collection; it is typical of sound display in galleries in general. In this moment when we are shut out of museums altogether, I long to return to them along with the rest of you. But when we do, maybe we can rethink how to incorporate sound, in all its fullness and meaning, into their purview.