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Retribution Body

Retribution Body is Matt Azevedo. A veteran of a number of Massachusetts noise and improv bands from the 1990s, Azevedo’s musical path shifted a couple of years ago when he picked up an ARP synthesizer on the cheap. Now, armed with the glorious ARP (and much else besides), he makes some seriously epic drones. I asked Matt a few questions by email prior to his December 17, 2009 performance on Rare Frequency.

What is the story behind the name Retribution Body?

Well, there is the short answer and the thorough answer. In Buddhism, there are several states of being, or ‘bodies’ of the Buddha. The Retribution Body, or ‘Sambhogakāya’, is the body that is earned as retribution for your karma (deeds). That is the short answer.

In the contrast to the other two bodies of the Buddha, the Dharma (Truth) Body (Dharmakaya) and the Transformation Body (Nirmanakaya), the Retribution Body is almost never translated from Sanskrit, is is almost always just Sambhogakāya. I’d always thought of Sambhogakāya in terms of an enlightened state, as it is described in the Platform Sutra:

“Think not of the past but of the future. Constantly maintain the future thoughts to be good. This is what we call the Sambhogakāya. “Just one single evil thought could destroy the good karma that has continued for one thousand years; and just one single good thought in turn could destroy the evil karma that has lived for one thousand years. “If the future thoughts are always good, you may call this the Sambhogakāya. The discriminative thinking arising from the Dharmakāya is called the Nirmanakāya. The successive thoughts that forever involve good are thus the Sambhogakāya.”

I first saw Sambhogakāya translated in Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of the Record of Master Linji (published under the title “Nothing To Do, Nowhere To Go”). Seeing it in English as Retribution Body struck me deeply, and I saw Sambhogakāya as not only the Buddha’s body of perfect karma and non-discrimination, but as the imperfect body of my own imperfect karma, a constant struggle as one good thought destroys a thousand years of evil karma even though that good thought will be lost and must be regained.

In composing music with such a strong indeterminate nature, I am forced to listen with a non-discriminating mind. I cannot be sure what will happen, and I cannot change it once it does. All I can do is look to the future and attempt to steer my instrument towards harmony. For me the practice of music is the practice of Sambhogakāya, so labeling my music as Retribution Body seemed appropriate. (And, it sounds cool. Always an important part.)

Could you talk a bit about your musical background?

I started playing saxophone when I was around 10, and guitar when I was 13. Thinking back to my teenage years in a small Rhode Island town, I spent many afternoons with my guitar hanging in front of a very loud amp, turning the knobs on my stompboxes and listening to the sound change. At that point, I had no idea that was a valid thing to do with an instrument, clearly you were supposed to play songs. So I did. I learned all my chords and everything was OK.

After high school, I attended the Sound Recording Technology program at UMass Lowell. The glut of guitarists in the world had driven me back to sax. At Lowell, I encountered the avant guard music scene for the first time, both early practitioners like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, but also the post-industrial electro-noise scene that buzzed around Deftly D’s High Voltage Circumcision show on WJUL and RRRecords. I gigged around a bit with an industrial rock band called Phantom Power (about a year after anyone cared about industrial rock bands) and a noise-jazz band called The Nyqusit Theorem (an ensemble where the crushing social anxiety of all the members seriously limited our performance options), but I was mostly buried in recording and production.

The next 10-odd years I spent as a mastering engineer and not doing anything very interesting musically, with the brief exception of a few gigs with a much louder noise-jazz band called Ring of 17. A few years ago I saw a friend rolling a cart stacked five feet high with synthesizers our of his studio. When I asked him what was up, he said “Hardware is dead! I’m doing it all in the box now! I’m getting rid of all this crap!” I looked at the stack and said, “How much for the ARP?,” he tossed out an embarrassingly low number, and there it was. This was right around the time that my Zen practice was becoming serious, and the ARP and Zen hooked up into what became Retribution Body.

You play a very lovely and somewhat unusual synthesizer. How and when did you become interested in modular synthesizers? What are some of the more unique features of the Arp that you play?

When I took Sound Synthesis I with Paul Lehrman at UML, he taught the class more or less as a history of electronic music. We started with the theremin, the Teleharmonium, and the Ondes Martinot, went through Musicque Concrete, and eventually got to modular synthesizers. That day we showed up to class and sitting on the desk was an ARP 2600. I immediately fell in love with it and used it every chance I got. A decade later when I had the chance to own one, I grabbed it.

I think there are two stand-out aspects of the ARP 2600: First it is semi-modular. There are dozens of internally patched connections, so it is fully playable with no patch cords. If you want to use it like a Moog and just toss up a sound and play it with a keyboard, you can. Most connections are also brought out to patch points, and you can route anything you want to anywhere you want. Having the prewired bits saves a ton of cords, as the normals are well thought out and generally very useful.

The other fantastic thing about it (that modern manufacturers have lost) is everything has tons of modulation inputs with attenuators. All the oscillators have 4 FM inputs. The filter has 5 audio and 2 CV inputs. The VCA has two audio inputs, two CV inputs, and everything on everything has an attenuator. To get that with most modern modulars you would need a half-dozen mixers, and it’s the biggest thing I miss when I’m not using the ARP.

What musicians, artists, etc particularly influence or inspire you musically?

IRON MAIDEN! Seriously. It was the first concert I saw, my dad took me and my two best friends when I was 12 or 13. It was a life-changing experience. More recently, SUNNO))) and Boris really invigorated me by showing that there is an audience for painfully slow, deep, loud music; I doubt I would have bothered putting out an album if not for them. Steve Reich is big, especially Violin Phase. The film Koyaanisqatsi with its Philip Glass soundtrack. The whole Boston minimal / noise / avant garde scene; Boston is such an artist-hostile town, and it gets worse every year. Seeing so many fantastically talented artists keep playing and recording and doing great work and the people who keep coming to the shows means the world to me, both as a fan and a performer. I’ve been listening to a ton of OM lately, their show at the ICA was probably the best concert of the year for me (and Lichens knocked me on my ass at that show, as he does every time I’ve seen him). I went to a Zeroplan event at Wire Sounds last Saturday that was fantastic. I have absolutely no shortage of inspiration.

Are you currently working on any recordings, live performances, or other projects that bear mentioning?

I record constantly, at any giving time I could put out at least two albums of material if I thought there was a demand for it (though 2 albums of GOOD material might be trickier). There’s been a bit of talk about pairing me with a dancer for a Zeroplan in the future, I’m really hoping that flies. I’m building a Whole New Synth so I can leave my ARP safe in the studio instead of tossing it in the back of a cab to get to gigs. I’m really trying to find gigs in Greyhound range of Boston (touring is rough when you don’t drive), if anyone reading this is booking them.

-Susanna Bolle


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