Tag Archives: Matthew Herbert

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.

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.

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?

Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, One Room

One Room
Matthew Herbert
Metropolis New Music Festival
8 April

The Melbourne Recital Centre’s Made of Music commission asks musicians to engage with the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and the hoop pine from which it is made. Using technology developed by the Vienna-based artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, data about the ring width, colour and texture of a slice of hoop pine is given to the composer for sonification. Inspired by the ephemeral nature of live performance, Matthew Herbert’s response to this brief was to sample previous recordings made in the hall and combine them with harmonic material derived from the hoop pine data.

Dressed in white dress shirts and bow ties, Herbert and his four musical helpers triggered fragments of piano, strings and winds with an electronic drum kit, hacked game controller and a contraption using a sprung cord for pitch modulation. The origins of most sounds were obscured by the short sample time and processing, though faint echoes of choirs, traditional Chinese instruments, bells and an infamous cougher from a Ravel concert came through the mix. The ensemble grooved and glitched through a series of percussive and ambient atmospheres before driving to a booming finish with the help of what sounded like a mighty double bass sample. The harmonic material played on a piano melded smoothly into the sometimes late-romantic, sometimes ambient-jazzy soundscape.

One Room is the first and least political of Herbert’s three concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The remaining two, The End of Silence (12 April) and One Pig (13 April) will see similar operations performed upon very different sound sources: Sebastien Meyer’s sound recording of being bombed by a pro-Gaddafi plane in Libya in 2011 and the twenty-week life cycle of a pig. Over the next two days I will be exploring Matthew Herbert’s musical rationale in these pieces and taking a look at his self-restraining “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes).”