Essay: Matthew Herbert’s musical shell

The experimental artist made his latest album from a 10 second field recording of conflict in Libya, but what is the significance and consequence of doing so?

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, the Italian avant-gardist Luigi Russolo wrote his Art of Noises manifesto, now one of the most celebrated moments in the history of experimental music. In it, he argued that the domain of musical creativity should be extended to cover all the noises of modern life: “We will have fun,” he wrote, “imagining our orchestration of department stores’ sliding doors, the hubbub of the crowds, the different roars of railroad stations, iron foundries, textile mills, printing houses, power plants and subways. And,” he went on, “we must not forget the very new noises of Modern Warfare… We want to score and regulate harmonically and rhythmically these most varied noises.” In June, UK composer Matthew Herbert will release an album called The End of Silence, which is constructed almost entirely out of a ten second sample of modern warfare recorded in Libya in 2011: distant gunfire, fighters whistling a heads-up, a pro-Gaddafi jet approaching, and a bomb landing close by. It might be what Russolo would have wanted, but what is the significance – and consequence – of doing such a thing today?

Matthew Herbert – making both more explorative music as Matthew Herbert and house under the moniker Herbert – is well known these days as the guy who makes music from surprisingly sourced samples. He’s been doing it for at least fifteen years. Using pitch- and time-shifting and an array of electronic effects, Herbert (and anyone else, really) can spin microphone-recorded samples into dense and detailed music, orchestrated, harmonised, rhythmic and melodic, often beyond the point where the original sounds are no longer recognisable. His 1998 breakthrough album Around the House was mostly constructed from kitchen utensils, 2001’s Bodily Functions was derived from sounds produced in and around the human body, in 2005, Plat du Jour sourced its sounds from a number of events to do with the food chain, from production to eating to sewers, and included a collaboration with the British establishment’s favourite sci-fi food wizard Heston Blumenthal.

Lately Herbert has been setting his ears on more sensitive subjects. His last album, One Pig, is made from samples of the life and afterlife of a farmed pig, from its birth to its death and to a meal attended by Herbert and friends at which the pig was finally eaten. Herbert used the animal’s blood and remains to make instruments which featured in live performances and on tour. The project prompted controversy and reached the news, eliciting censure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a vicious Facebook campaign. Herbert responded articulately and persuasively – the work was not making gruesome, amoral “art” from the butchery of a living being, but rather was a disquieting and arguably necessary look behind the veil of a system in which living beings are industrially created and slaughtered for our consumption. I found listening to the album interesting and affecting, both in the wide range and complexity of music within it and in the thoughts and feelings it provoked. As much as the cynical side of me wanted to write the whole thing off as a extension of Herbert’s tediously predictable method into ridiculous, sensitivity-stunted extremity, I honestly couldn’t. Without being unduly sensationalist or shocking, it was literally a look at, as they say, “how the sausage is made” – fair play.

This time, I’m not really so sure. The sound on which The End of Silence is based was recorded by photographer Sebastian Meyer, working alongside rebel forces in Ras Lanuf, on the 11th of March 2011. The full recording can be found here, along with Meyer’s photograph of the moments after the bomb’s impact. Like One Pig, The End of Silence can and might well be painted as scandalous, and with relatively good reason. Not because such brutally raw empirical evidence of warfare is automatically too serious a material for art or music – artist Jeremy Deller brought a bomb-mangled car from Baghdad to museum visitors very effectively. Not because it disrespects troops or even victims (it’s left unsaid as to whether Meyer’s impact had any), since the shocking truth is often what is needed to change minds and force action to help such people. It’s because The End of Silence is such a passive, distanced, and ultimately banal response to an intensely active situation.

One Pig was an active response to a passively accepted and invisible (inaudible) system, and as such was revealing, even satirical. The End of Silence… is almost voyeuristic.”

One Pig, alternately, was an active response to a passively accepted and invisible (inaudible) system, and as such was revealing, even satirical. The End of Silence, composed with Herbert doing his usual thing at such a considerable remove as it is, is almost voyeuristic. In the album’s press release, Herbert said of Meyer’s recording, “here was something that rendered [The Arab Spring] real. It turned the virtual world back into the visceral”, adding that he hoped to explore what was so affecting about the sound. For Western onlookers The Arab Spring was indeed one powerful image, sound and video after another – water cannons firing on protesters kneeling for prayers, armoured personnel carriers driving into people at high speed, lone individuals shot in the street, the demolition of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, the final broadcast of Libyan video-blogger Mohammed Nabbous playing continuously with his wife’s announcement of his death. Yet there is a difference between witnessing these things and taking the step of responding to them, and in that Herbert only explores his own reaction, his ever-predictable, frisson-courting response – though certainly not an invalid one – does feel lacking.

The End of Silence consists of three parts, Part One (24 minutes), Part Two (10 minutes) and Part Three (18 minutes). After the initial introduction of the sample, the monotonousness, minute detail and abstraction of Part One suggest the internal structure and manufacture of the bombshell, as if we had been shrunk to the size of a flea and transported inside it to witness a factory of violence in slow motion. Soon the explosion itself starts showing up repeatedly, untreated. Like a blinding white flash on videotape, the sound exceeds the headroom of the audio signal (one might aptly note that the sound is ‘bigger’ than Meyer or Herbert’s recording of it). This results in immense distortion, like the sky being screwed up like a piece of paper. Each time, as with the nausea immediately preceding each episode in an endless session of vomiting, you dread its arrival when you begin to hear the rebels whistling in warning, and flinch as the explosion re-actualises again and again, by far the loudest noise in the album. In Part Three, the whistling is weirdly inflated to become a plaintive flute ensemble, part of an almost beatless cloud of complex but largely opaque audio information.

Unlike many of Herbert’s most famous albums, The End of Silence was recorded in a jam session for which samplers containing different aspects of the sound were given to three other band members. This might be why the album feels particularly unfocused in comparison with his previous releases. The press release tells us it was recorded from the comfort of a hillside barn near human-settlement-come-broadsheet-Sunday-supplement Hay-on-Wye, from where Herbert mixes into the album the sounds of the English countryside beyond the barn doors; a move that demands to be read as some kind of tragic, apologetic irony rather than a naive insensitivity.

We’d have decent reason to wave our arms and despair that while Herbert is in Hay-on-Wye deconstructing and analysing one datum point to have travelled back from the Libyan civil war, it is Libya that, though no longer a warzone, is urgently in need of re-construction. The End of Silence’s press release didn’t say anything about any of the proceeds going towards the restoration effort, towards rebuilding whatever the bomb’s impact might have destroyed where just under an hour of electronic improv from Britain won’t suffice. The album’s fascination with the sound of modern warfare does little to address the human story. Shortly after Russolo called for the inclusion of such noises into art in his manifesto, he quoted his friend the futurist poet Marinetti at length. Marinetti, who had been a war correspondent in the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish war in Libya, was poetically responding to his experiences in the Bulgarian trenches of Adrianople with a text that would later become his famous Zang Tumb Tumb, rabidly imagining the conflict as a conventional musical performance:

diameter 1 kilometer Debris of echos in this theater of laying rivers sitting villages standing mounts recognized in the audience Maritza Tungia Rodopes 1st and 2d rows loggias groundfloor boxes 2,000 shrapnels gesticulation explosion zang-toumb white handkerchiefs full of gold toumbtoumb clouds-gallery 2,000 grenades thundering applause Quick quick such enthusiasm pulling hair very black hairs ZANGTOUMB-TOUMB war noises orchestra blown beneath a note of silence hanging in full sky captive golden balloon controlling the fire.

Five years later, and anticipating Herbert’s latest album just as much, the poet Wilfred Owen’s response to the sounds of mechanised warfare was not so exuberant. He wrote in Anthem for Doomed Youth that there would not, for the First World War’s victims, be “any voice of mourning save the choirs, – / The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.” Owen often transmuted the sounds and sights of warfare into beauty and art, but always ironically. Coupled with Owen’s and many other war poets’ recurring references to the English countryside, this is one way to appreciate Herbert’s overlaying of the Libyan conflict with the sounds of Hay-on-Wye. Curiously enough, another, more plaintive and nostalgic Owen pastoral poem begins with the Herbert-esque, Marinetti-echoing line “all sounds have been as music to my listening”. Perhaps the most telling context for Herbert’s album comes in the form of Owen’s brutally sarcastic poem Apologia Pro Poemate Meo (‘In Defence of My Poetry’), which contains the verse:

I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Now of course, The End of Silence certainly wasn’t obliged to be sentimental or rhetorical with the sonic information it communicates. Herbert is not obliged to be Wilfred Owen. As Herbert has clearly appreciated, the century since Marinetti has, with some help from Owen, conferred enough pathos onto a ten-second recording of warfare that little else needs to be said. Thus it was wise of him to keep the music cold and abstract – to have whipped up drama or heavy-handed cinematic negativity would have been tacky to say the least. Instead of making the sample a metaphor for warfare, he keeps it as a metonym of it. Like a metaphor, a metonym is a figure of speech that substitutes one thing for another, but unlike a metaphor, the exchange is mere substitution with an associated concept (i.e. the US film industry with “Hollywood”) rather than an illustration of similarity. In many ways, Herbert’s metonym, just like Deller’s car wreck, is more chilling than any poetic analogy.


The End of Silence press shot.

But ultimately, it still begs the question: why make a record like The End of Silence out of the sound at all? The answer to that might be that that’s just what Matthew Herbert does when something piques his interest. Because after the modest intrigue of hearing the concept and the story behind the sounds, the elephant in the room is the resulting music itself. With One Pig as one possible exception, it’s fine but underwhelmingly conventional, whether it’s aping disco or even experimental noise, and not as texturally or emotionally substantial as we might have hoped. This may well be mainly because we experience it only as a poor comparison to the aesthetics of Herbert’s process itself, and the concept that initiates this process. Bit by bit since Around the House, Herbert’s concepts have been increasingly outweighing the music in gravity, the sonic causes have been outshining the musical effects. Were it not for the crushing, visceral intensity of its having sampled a real-life aerial bombardment, the music on The End of Silence would be interesting and sufficient, rather than what it feels like – as if it’s missing something, not living up to something.

Herbert is one of the most noted experimental composers in the UK, if not the world, because his interesting methods capture the public interest. Since this is a very rare scenario, this is very much a good thing, but though his poetics are noble, Herbert ends up capturing this interest in much the same way that the Young British Artists did – look, I’ve made a sculpture of my head out of my own blood, imagine that, look, I’ve put my actual bed in an actual gallery, imagine that, look, I’ve blown up a huge picture of a bleeding wound in someone’s head, imagine that, look, I’ve put a shark in a tank and now it’s staring right at you (you’re safe, mind), imagine that. Without attention-grabbing art like this, London might not have its hugely popular Tate Modern gallery, but when the YBAs drew on the expanded possibilities of twentieth-century art to do nothing more than address the traditional expectations and taboos of polite society, they were doing nothing more than being reactionary.

“Rather than progressing from the world of music into the world of sound, as Russolo argued should be done, Herbert does the exact reverse, regressing from the world of sound into the world of music as we already knew it.”

In the same way, it’s reactionary of Herbert to use the tools of noise music, Russolo as its grandfather, to do little more than recreate pre-existing musical style by other means. Rather than progressing from the world of music into the world of sound, as Russolo argued should be done, Herbert does the exact reverse, regressing from the world of sound into the world of music as we already knew it. His music too often offers little more than do those paintings by proto-YBA artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo of human figures constructed out of recognisable non-human components, most famously, yes, culinary ingredients. The effect is a little titillating, the technical achievement is admirable, but to really discover the power and possibilities of line, colour, shape, composition, emotion, humanity and the nature of reality, you turn to Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, El Greco and Brueghel.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong or artless about this technique, it’s just that when faced with a subject such as modern warfare, it feels so hollow. Listening to Herbert’s albums, we soon discover that the sounds he so notably sources do not magically convey some deep, essential secret about themselves into the music, still less when they become more and more unrecognisable. Though Herbert is right to find the sound of Meyer’s bombshell visceral, there is nothing automatically powerful about sampling the one dimension of sounds exclusively and entirely for his constructions. So while we might discover something about war when we first hear Meyer’s sample, and something more as the unprocessed sample threatens to invade the rest of the album, sooner or later we’re merely wading into superfluousness. If the comparison between Arcimboldo and Rembrandt shows us that art can be so much more intense than the reconfiguration of pre-given forms, that sculpture is not merely made out of stones, that poetry is not merely made out of ink, Herbert’s music shows us that no matter where they might come from, music is not just made out of sounds: music is made out of changes, patterns, gestures, sympathies, the warp and weft of difference and repetition.

Nearly a century ago, Wilfred Owen wrote a poem, A Terre that was both a portrait of soldiers after conflict and, in its opening line, the first review of The End of Silence: “Sit on the bed; I’m blind, and three parts shell.”

Illustration by Emma Shore

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