Matthew Herbert and the Empty Instrument

Image courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre
Matthew Herbert. Image courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre

An interview with the DJ, composer and Creative Director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Matthew Herbert is always interesting to read. He may question the role of factory settings in a sampler, describe the musical potential of a pencil, criticise the volume and redundancy of music on iTunes or define the bpm of his plumbing. He has also formulated some of these attitudes into a loosely prescriptive “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes),” found on his website and in his concert programs.

Alongside these technological and musical pronouncements are ideas about the political or ethical engagement of his music. The album One Pig (to be performed live at the Metropolis New Music Festival on 13 April) is sampled from the 20-week life cycle of a pig destined for the table. The soon-to-be-released End of Silence (Metropolis, 12 April) is based on a recording from the war in Libya in 2011. What is the relationship of these two bodies of statements and how do they come together in his musical works? In Herbert’s albums, music and ethics function like the two independent hemispheres of the brain, with the technology of the sampler acting as the corpus callosum making them appear as one walking, talking, contradictory being.

Herbert’s statements on technology show how the sampler clarified his relationship to music on the one hand and found sounds on the other. In a recent interview, Herbert described his Damascean encounter with the Casio FZ-1, a sampler with a microphone input. Instead of using the prefabricated sounds of the sampler, he recorded himself biting an apple:

“I pitched it down three octaves or so and, for the first time, I heard the world slowed down. I heard a noise that was way more engaging on a philosophical level than anything I’d ever heard before. […] I suddenly realised the sampler was an empty instrument. If you write music on a piano or a French horn, it will always sound a certain way – like a piano or a French horn. But the sound of the apple wasn’t like anything else I’d heard. I realised the sampler was just a tool. All it says to you is, ‘What do you want to do with me? What sounds do you want to make?’ With the sampler, I could make music with the world.”

A musician could just as easily have fetishised sound and said that the sampler was purely a tool for its exploration. On the other hand, they could have ignored the sampler’s microphone all together and focus on its musical properties. Herbert’s realisation that the sampler was an “empty instrument” both opened the way to his ethical engagement with pigs and jet fighters and allowed for his exploration of electronic music in night clubs and on the radio. As his biography states, Herbert’s ethical relation to sound is about bringing the sounds of the darker, problematic corners of the world into visceral contact with the listener:

“When everything I read politically and watch and hear has been absorbed, there comes a point where you must feel it viscerally. Otherwise you are closed to the horrors of it and thus closed to the possibility of action, closed to the idea that you could make a difference or could have prevented the outcome. This internalising of the struggle, the friction, the melancholy I feel should be at the emotional core of the work. After all, I am making music and not writing a newspaper article. But with the invention of the sampler, I can now explicitly root my work in the literal, critical present. I can describe the real in the frame of the imaginary.”

However, one rarely experiences horror when listening to Herbert’s music. One feels uneasy listening to a drum made from a pig you just heard being born. However, this unease requires the knowledge of what you are listening to in order to be effective. Divorced from its context Herbert’s music is eminently listenable. Instead of bringing horror to our speakers, Herbert’s music is gently thought-provoking propaganda.

You might say that the musical side of Herbert’s work does not follow the full consequences of its ethical side. Then again, would you want it to? Would we like another Survivor from Warsaw (or in this case,  A Survivor from Woolworths, or A Survivor from Ras Lanuf) where music strives to be the equal of its subject?

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