Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, The End of Silence

Matthew Herbert
The End of Silence
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 April

The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre is full of smoke. A pole in the centre of the stage radiates wires to a semicircle of microphone stands by the musicians’ stations including an electronic drum pad, a keyboard and two laptops. Matthew Herbert, Sam Beste, Tom Skinner and Yann Seznec walk on stage in black shirts. Herbert informs us that every sound we are about to hear is made from one six-second recording made by photojournalist Sebastian Meyer of a pro-Gaddafi plane bombing a town (Ras Lanuf) in Libya in 2011. Herbert and his band take their seats and trigger Meyer’s recording.

You can find Meyer’s original recording on his blog. There you can also find a photo of the bomb exploding, which was projected at the end of the concert. As a photojournalist, Meyer tries to communicate the experience of conflict, its noise and movement, to those who were not there. As he says on his blog, the silent stillness of a photograph is an imperfect medium for this task, whereas a sound recording captures the inarticulate suddenness of war, its chaos and sheer, brutal volume.

The last echoes of the raw sample die in the smoky hall. In fact, Herbert loops the few seconds of the bomb falling and exploding several times before fading it out. The task of journalistic communication done (assuming, following Meyer, that the task of photojournalism is to provide as unmediated an account of an experience as possible), what could Herbert’s intentions be in continuing? As I have written earlier, Herbert’s “One” series consists of sounds with ethical implications and ethically “neutral” music united by the technological medium of the sampler. Just as we cannot ignore the origin of the Ras Lanuf sample, nor can we ignore that Herbert’s music is fundamentally dance music to be enjoyed.

The crackle of the distorting tail end of the sample fades, leaving a desolate hum ringing in the hall. Cicada-like chirps punctuate the space. Seznec pulls on the wire running from his station to the central pole to pitch-shift samples from the roar of the bomb, creating layers of swelling white noise.

One becomes aware of a high-pitched tone in the recording. Is it somebody whistling? Does it come from the bomb itself? At a lower pitch it sounds like a scream, that of a woman or a child. It is repeated higher, lower, like a stain on each stretch of white noise triggered by Seznec. From this abstract plane the raw sound of the bomb comes back, threatening the safe enclosure of processed sound.

Skinner plays a pulse like a heart-beat on the electronic drum pad. Then, at once, as if by reflex, the band starts a little head-rock. Beste flicks his head back as waves course through his body. The others gently swing their heads from side to side. More smoke billows into the blue spotlights as Herbert sends two shockingly loud samples of the bomb crashing through the auditorium. The pulse breaks down and a series of gut-moving rumbles assail the audience, rattling the doors of the hall, before breaking up into glitchy static.

The next episodes reference Herbert’s micro-house roots with a menacing industrial flavour. The sample is transformed into metallic squeals, crashes and gong-like tones. A percussive sound like a 44-gallon drum is teased out of the sample  (Ras Lanuf is based around an oil refinery). At times the screaming whistle returns. “Cracks” are lit up in the walls of the hall as the set builds to a thrilling, rhythmic climax. The sounds break apart and all that is left is a low hum. Herbert coughs once and pushes his chair back. A couple of short bows and the photograph of Ras Lanuf fades up on the back wall.

Herbert leaves it up to the audience to determine the relationship between the Ras Lanuf sample and the music. As the program reads, “[o]n first hearing the recording is terrifying, but at the end of the program once Herbert has finished mixing, layering and manipulating the sounds will you still feel the same way?”

There is no doubt that Herbert intends to be critical of the former Gaddafi regime because he says that the Ras Lanuf sample “punctures the safe veneer of distance” between us and the “atrocities committed by dictators in the Arab world during the Arab Spring.” Nevertheless, there is nothing in The End of Silence, neither its militaristic dance beats nor its eerie ambience, to suggest that it is not a paean to the war plane, a song of thanksgiving to pro-Gaddafi forces. We could very well say that it follows in the futurist tradition of praising the power and majesty of the noise of war.

For my own part I reacted differently to the different instruments on stage. Herbert’s exploration of the sonic properties of the original sound seemed to me like an entirely appropriate exercise. He works through the sound like a traumatic event, though purely sonically. I cannot pretend that the force of the sound relates at all to the physical and psychological impact of the original bomb on somebody in Ras Lanuf. Seznec’s tactile manipulation of the sound using the wires strung about the space was similarly interesting as it explored the gestures appropriate to that particular, abstract sound. The visceral pleasure Seznec took in stretching and bending the wires, however, seemed grotesque. A percussive sound may be made from any sample whatsoever and so Skinner’s rhythms seemed completely superfluous. There were moments of unmistakable beauty where a breathy, bass-flute-like tone was played by keyboardist Beste. Those I liked the least.

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