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Tome On The Range

The Album That Is A Book: Matthew Herbert Faces The Music
Robert Barry , August 24th, 2018 11:06

Matthew Herbert's new album is a book – or is his new book an album? Find out in the succeeding interview + extract from The Music

Photo by Chris Friel

New book, The Music, is “definitely a piece of music,” its author Matthew Herbert tells me, but “the more I wrote it as music though the more like a book it became. In the end though, the object is just a score, a cypher. As a piece of music, though, there is no definitive version of it – only the one that exists in each reader's mind.”

Since breaking through making microhouse in the 1990s, Matthew Herbert has done many strange things, stetching music to its conceptual limits – from an entire album about the life cycle of pig (from farm to plate) to a Brexit Big Band, via reworkings of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, a rebirthing of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and even helping to found a new country. But The Music may be his most arch gesture yet.

Hardbound, 212 pages long, and published by Unbound Editions, The Music consists nonetheless of nothing but sounds – from the tiny buzz of a table lamp to “the sound of dark energy expanding“, from the mundane to near-impossible, all juxtaposed and superimposed, placed in counterpoint and in various unstable imaginary harmonies. We do not hear these sounds with our ears, but rather – as we read each sentence, paragraph, and page – with what a less ocularcentric Shakespeare might have called “our mind’s ear”.

I caught up with Herbert to ask him a little more about the project, after which there follows a short extract from the book.

As you were writing, how clearly could you ‘hear’ each of the sounds described, their combinations and transitions?

Every time I had to proof read, I had to re-read it three times in a row. Once to check the writing/grammar/syntax/meaning of it, once to check the rhythm of the words themselves as they form their own music, and the third way (which you refer to) as a music composition – listening/hearing the sounds themselves.

Tricky of course to hear many of the noises because the book is full of sounds we have no idea what they sound like: mould growing, or all the hairspray in the world.

This ability to shape the logic of these transitions and juxtapositions is crucial to its form though, so I had to be able to hear it to be able to write it.

Where did the initial idea for The Music come from?

For twenty years or more I’d been planning a piece of music called ‘The Description’ which was exactly that: a description of a piece of music rather than the music itself. A kind of reverse bit of music journalism.

It wasn’t until three years ago though that I realised it should only be made with sounds and exclude musical instruments.

In his recent book, The New Analog, Damon Krukowski complains of streaming media that they strip the “context” away from music – is there perhaps a sense in which this book, The Music (like much of your recent work), is a protest against this, an attempt to replace or reinsert the lost context?

Context is everything. Without it, we are living a version of fascism, where there is no immediate past, no history, no author, no maker. All relationships that brought the work into existence are hidden. The capacity for exploitation at every stage is therefore magnified significantly. Liars like Trump suddenly seem possible in a world where consequences are invisible and where there is only now.

Art is critical to how society holds itself together, critical in shaping the stories it tells itself. If we can’t trust artists, then who can we trust? We rely on art to describe the future, to lead the way.

If The Music is also a “manifesto for sound”, as the bumf puts it, does it supersede or compliment your previous ‘Personal Contract for the Composition of Music’ ?

Maybe so. Although I would probably read it as the definitive manifestation of the principles I tried to work out all those years ago.

What does a book like this do to the traditional division between, say, musicians who make sounds and critics who describe and contextualise them? How is a critic to respond to such a seeming encroachment?

I would hope that it collapses them entirely. I’m not convinced music criticism in this country has led to better music being made.

What's next for you?

I've been doing a few film scores, having just finished the next one for Sebastián Lelio called Gloria with Julianne Moore.

The main project for me though, until march 2019, is the Brexit Big Band that is busy collaborating with hundreds of European musicians in the hope of remaining close to Europe regardless of the actions of the incompetent, incoherent, mendacious mess that is the uk government.

The following is an extract from The Music by Matthew Herbert…


To struggle

Two white men tipsy on Scotch whisky are driving a golf cart next to a sand dune. The sound fades in very slowly as they approach the microphone attached to the existing first flag. We will also hear the soft rhythm of waves from the sea and the occasional oystercatcher. As this recording reaches its peak and the golf cart is close, we suddenly hear the sound of a tall twenty-two-year-old man living in Yuendumu, his young daughter by his side, angrily kicking a slightly deflated leather football with a wide-sounding thwack. As the tail of the sound we hear all the helium escaping from punctured Disney balloons bought for children around the world. The ball begins to soar through the air.

A sonic bomb explodes in Syria.

Beneath the hum and churn of vibrating feeders on a machine for washing sand we hear nine imported cashmere goats in Afghanistan having their throats slit, one after another in quick succession, all at the same loud volume, all slightly sped up so that the sound goes past quickly. Somebody staples an invoice to an A4 photocopy. Snap – a mousetrap goes off. Crack – an egg from a battery chicken breaks on the floor of a hospital. Click – a hook snaps onto the belt of an engineer on the top floor of a skyscraper in Seattle. Crack – the snap of twenty-four chopsticks pulled apart in Japan. The bang of claws and feathers into metal as a peacock attacks its own reflection in the passenger door of a black car. The sizzle of a cow’s rump being branded with a hot iron. A splitting-off of a huge slab of marble in a quarry. The messy clang of a handful of dead batteries into a steel dustbin. A large tree pulled over by a machine and chains with a series of birds’ nests still in it. The snap of a packet of aspirin along a perforated line. A tractor’s wheel driving over an organic yoghurt pot. A gardener unknowingly sticks a garden fork through a daffodil bulb. A pig electrocuted. We hear it thrash around until it’s dead. A toilet won’t stop flushing.

An empty plastic bottle of Evian on a beach in Ibiza is folded in half with a crumple pitched way down, so it feels like something large is toppling over.

A melodic arc, a long whine of whistles tied to the feet of pigeons in China recorded from a model aeroplane. Fading in, we hear the metallic harmonics of a shopping trolley in a river as water rushes through the wire mesh. Underneath we hear any feedback from microphones on stages right now, mixed extremely quietly. It slowly crossfades into a cello on fire in a cul-de-sac in Marseille, crackling in the heat as the lacquer melts and warps. The buzz of electric lines overhead in a national park recorded from a fibre-glass canoe. Beards being trimmed in Iceland. The spitting and spreading of salt from the back of a yellow lorry. All the hairdryers in Taiwan. Distantly, a tired fly bops against the window of a café. It’s been doing this for some time and there are longish gaps as it stops, crawls, bops, stops.

The Music by Matthew Herbert is published by Unbound Editions