Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, One Pig

Matthew Herbert, courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre
Matthew Herbert, courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre

One Pig is an album made entirely from sounds recorded during the 20-week life of a pig destined for the table. Remarkable in concept and powerfully brought to the stage by Matthew Herbert, Sam Beste, Tom Skinner, Yann Seznec and Hugh Jones, the concert proved disconcertingly enjoyable in its remixing of one pig’s life and death.

The centrepiece of the concert is a two-metre-square “sty-harp” made from four rows of cords tied to four microphone stands. An electronic drum pad, a keyboard and two laptops are stationed around the sty-harp. A musician enters and takes a handful of straw from a hay bale downstage. He rustles it into a microphone, sending plumes of dust billowing up into the spotlight. Looped and layered, the hall is set alight with warm prickling sounds. Another musician enters, adds a few loud breaths to the loop, then pulls off half the hay bale and begins spreading it around the sty. As Herbert enters the stage he contributes a snort to the ambient loop. The whole band put on white lab-coats before Yann Seznec ducks under the fence of the sty-harp and puts on a lab-coat with “SEP” emblazoned across the back, indicating the month from which the recordings we are listening to were made. He is to be “the pig,” at least for so long as it is alive in the performance.

Triggering samples by pulling, pushing and striking the wires around him, Seznec is part raver, part boxer engaged in a hopeless fight for survival. As Seznec explains on his blog, the mechanism behind the sty-harp is the obsolete GameTrak controller for the XBox and PC. The device, which resembles a retractable clothes line, uses a piece of wire on a sprung spool to track the direction and distance of a joystick from a base station. Though clever and simple, the technology became obsolete with the advent of computer vision systems like the XBox Kinect and infra-red game controllers. With two wires per GameTrak, Seznec hacked six GameTraks to provide the four wires needed for each side of the sty-harp. He connects the potentiometers of the GameTraks directly to an Arduino, enabling access to constant MIDI data from each wire. This data is then used to gesturally control different parameters of a sample, be they volume, speed, pitch, or an effect envelope.

A fascinating instrument to watch in action, the theatrical power of the sty-harp was demonstrated when all five members of the band entered the sty to slaughter the Seznec-pig. With a tight spot light on the sty, the band climbed one by one under the fence and stretched wires into the air, producing a high tremolo of static. They then lowered their wires in unison, causing the tremolo to fade out, leaving only a raw recording of the pig snuffling and oinking. At once they stripped Seznec of his white lab-coat, revealing a red coat underneath. The lights came back on the rest of the stage, revealing chef Jesse Gerner of Anada, The Aylesbury and St Ali North sharpening a knife behind a hotplate and plates of pork.

I have to confess that I am uniquely unqualified to write about meat; apart from a recent foray into seafood I have never eaten it. Jesse Gerner would do a better job reviewing a concert than I would reviewing a steak. Despite wrangling with the ethics of leather (I recently had my old tabla sent to me and such an agglomeration of twisted, cured leather can scarcely be imagined), I have never consciously excluded, or abjectified, meat from my identity. It was just a habit I never bothered getting into. It is perhaps for this reason that I was so moved by the sound of an organ animated by a mixture of pig’s blood and air that played as the thick smell of cooking pork wafted over the audience. By contrast, I was horrified at Herbert’s transformation of the roar of a falling bomb into a flute-like tone in The End of Silence.

Why would I allow the sound of the organ to resonate with me emotionally on the one hand and set up a wall to the flute-tone on the other? It could be because of a discrepancy in the value I attribute to human and non-human life, a discrepancy I would not reject outright, but would be surprised by the size of. It could also be because of the scarcity of “tone” in the concert, the sounds of pig-life consisting mainly of almost-pitchless noises. Or could it be because of the difference between a body and a weapon? The sound of a weapon implies an action that could be taken or stopped, demanding a response from the listener. The sound of a body implies a deed already done, the passive evidence of violence. This is exactly what was missing from One Pig: The sound of the weapon. Either that, or the sound was unrecognisable to me, hidden in the pitchless clangs, rumblings and rustlings of the pig’s life.

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