A centrifugal force: the magnetic sounds of Trevor Mathison

Author’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2015 print edition of Sight & Sound Magazine.


Black Audio Film Collective, 1989

The trailblazing Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) officially formed in 1982, but began working together as a loose group of fellow students and friends at Portsmouth Polytechnic two years prior. Comprised of seven multimedia artists and thinkers from backgrounds in fine art, sociology and psychology, they curated programs of avant-garde and anti-colonial world cinema, and made their own work using film, slide-tape texts and video.

It’s no accident that the word ‘Audio’ shared level billing with ‘Film’ in their name: sound held equal importance with image in the realisation of their multilayered output. This remained the case when the group disbanded, and three founding members — director John Akomfrah, producer Lina Gopaul, and sound designer Trevor Mathison — re-emerged in 1998 as the collective Smoking Dogs Films.

Mathison was born in London, of Jamaican heritage, in 1960. His intricate work incorporates elements of dub and musique concrète, and functions as a binding agent for the stylistically disparate visual information featured in the group’s work. Akomfrah cites Mathison as a crucial collaborator: “The musical worlds of these films take the form they do partly because I’ve worked for so long with Trevor,” he told Sound on Film’s Daniel Trilling in 2011. “We’re both very interested in noise, for want of a better word: what Trevor at one point called the ‘post-soul noise’. These are sounds that take their cue from pre-existing black musics … but they’ve been defamiliarised, put through a sonic box that renders them strange and unusual.”

“Strange, unusual sounds” pepper the landscape of Akomfrah’s directing debut Handsworth Songs (1986), an essay film about the social unrest in the eponymous West Midlands district, which invites the viewer to reflect on how mainstream news grossly simplified the complex roots of the conflict. Mathison’s meshing of vocal loops, political broadcasts, dubby beats and surging electronics evokes specific musical influences — reggae soundsystem pioneer Jah Shaka (whose music appears in the film); industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire; David Byrne and Brian Eno’s cut + paste classic ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, for example — while heralding a radical approach to imparting information in a nonfiction context. As suggested by Jean Fisher in excellent BAFC compendium ‘The Ghosts of Songs’, the film boasts “a polyvocality of recorded testimonies and intercessional poetic voiceovers that, contrary to the ‘explanatory’ panoptical impulse of the documentary narrator, build an oblique relation to the audiovisual track.”

As well as conjuring fractured, haunting aural landscapes (see/hear also: 1989’s Twilight City), Mathison excels at integrating existing music to imaginative effect. In Who Needs a Heart (1991), a bleak docudrama about London-based 1960s self-styled revolutionary Michael X (aka Michael DeFreitas), avant-garde jazz largely stands in for dialogue. Why imagine words, the film seems to ask, when the feral, squawking horns of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy evoke the pain and paranoia of the characters and the era appropriately enough? Jazz is also to the fore in The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which matches the melancholy-suffused music of Miles Davis against various archival recordings of the eponymous scholar in a moving, time-collapsing duet (“When I was 18 or 19,” says Hall in the film, “Miles Davis put his finger on my soul”).


Trevor Mathison

In postcolonial-historical collage The Nine Muses (2010), Mathison’s scope is at its widest, forcing the viewer to challenge received canonical wisdom: he blends a vast range of classical texts (read by actors in voiceover) with Arvo Pärt liturgicals, negro spirituals and Indian courtly music to bewitching effect. Mathison also appears in front of the camera, playing a silent, deadpan wanderer stranded in a succession of ice-white Alaskan landscapes.

In essay film-cum-Afrofuturist fantasy The Last Angel of History (1996), meanwhile, interviews with esteemed black writers, cultural critics and musicians (including George Clinton, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Derrick May, Carl Craig etc.) are interwoven with the fictional story of a “data thief” who must travel through space and time in search of the code that holds the key to his — and the black diaspora’s — future. Yet subversively, almost none of the cited artists’ music is deployed in the film. “Last Angel proved conclusively to both me and Trevor that you could actually use your own sounds to bring [these worlds] into being,” Akomfrah told Trilling.

Mathison’s work isn’t limited to the BAFC/Smoking Dogs continuum. In March 2001 he, ex-BAFC member Edward George, and Anna Piva, under the name Flow Motion, created a digital audiovisual installation entitled Dissolve based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s lysergic countercultural adventure Zabriskie Point (1970). Mathison has also recently celebrated ten years of collaboration with fellow sound designer Gary Stewart under the moniker dubmorphology. Based in London, they conceptualise, produce and perform audiovisual events and installations largely based on themes of race, nationhood and memory.

Mathison, softly spoken and self-effacing in person, explains the difference in approach between BAFC/Smoking Dogs and his collaboration with Stewart: “When it comes to working with John, my thing is not to compete with the rest of the way the film has been set up — to complicate the situation by putting rhythms against another set of rhythms. The films have a very precise alchemy, a different kind of poetry. When Gary and I are doing our stuff, we can wig out,” he says with a wry smile.

One of dubmorphology’s most recent projects was the ambitious Mission to the Land of Misplaced Memories, a “memory collection spaceship” installation at Tate Britain. It’s a collaboration with writer Gaylene Gould, who told me about their process: “We sat piecing together ideas and concepts, trying to map the complex mess of human behaviour. Trevor, who is also an accomplished artist, would quietly draw a sketch that perfectly encompassed what we’d been trying to grasp. The swiftness with which he is able to embody a complex idea is astounding. I’m convinced he’s a wizard.”

Mathison may be reluctant to sing his own praises, but others are keen to highlight his crucial role in the artistic landscape of the past three decades. Culture critic Kodwo Eshun has hailed Mathison’s pioneering use of tape loops for their ability to make “the imperial anxieties of the early twentieth century resonate… with the multiple fears of the present.” Gould, meanwhile, lauds Mathison as “the quiet centrifugal force behind what we now recognise as a black British aesthetic. Essentially he helped re-imagine how sound and image can work differently to carry an African diasporic motif.” It’s heady, justified acclaim for a quiet man behind a sustained revolution in sound.

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