Matthew Herbert lives in a house that’s just been converted and renovated, and like the pioneering sound artist he is, he’s been listening carefully to the noises that it makes. As his own Accidental label releases ‘Herbert Complete’, the comprehensive collection of his house-oriented works recorded between 1996 and 2006, Herbert took the time to tell us about the bangs and whirrs that soundtrack his actual, bricks-and-mortar house.
1. The radiator in the upstairs bathroom has some air trapped that we can’t seem to expel just by bleeding it. About 8pm each night, it plays a really loud, pure tone that resonates through the whole house like a trumpet. It will go on continuously for over 10 minutes if you don’t go and sort it out.
2. The builders cut off the air vent for the drains a little low and the top of it sits just next to the parapet of the bedroom roof. When the wind blows across it, it sounds like a low flute, down about 4 octaves. It’s eerie and wonderful.
3. When it’s particularly stormy, the branches of the sycamore in the garden rub against the top of the guttering in a kind of juddery sawing motion. It’s a pretty unsettling sound and took me 3 months to work out what was going on.
4. The master drain air vent again. This time in strong winds it judders back and forth at about 124bpm, knocking the side of the house. It sounds like someone’s having a party downstairs. This could be solved by securing the pipe properly, but I can’t bring myself to silence it.
5. The downstairs toilet has an anomaly in the porcelain. If you pass water on one particular part, it plays a B natural, if you move your, ahem, stream of fluid half a centimetre to the left, it plays a C. One finds oneself playing simple melodies on the pan.
6. Having renovated the house, we couldn’t really afford things like proper curtains and consequently had to put in cheap poles with metal curtain rings. now when you pull the curtains, it makes the most incredibly unpleasant screeching of metal on metal. It’s a catastrophic design flaw. Bizarrely I’ve grown to love it, because hearing it usually means I am putting the children to bed and not waiting at a train station in central Europe on my way back from a show.
7. Not being able to afford fancy light shades, we decided to invest in fancy light bulbs instead and leave them bare. They are beautiful to look at but when dimmed low make a loud and discordant buzz. I’m left in the constant dilemma as to whether to have lower, more sympathetic lighting but with this irritating fizzy buzz, or have painfully bright light and no noise.
8. Our back gate is out of sight from the house, but I hung a cow bell on it so you can hear when someone opens or closes it. The bell I found though is handmade and roughly forged. Amazingly, it has the loudest, clearest tone of a bell I’ve heard of that size. I love hearing it ping so elegantly in the evening as I know it means my wife has returned home from work.
9. When the kids have finally gone to sleep, there’s a moment when I’ve just started to relax downstairs, and there’s a weird triplet thud from upstairs. Rather cruelly on my part, it’s a favourite sound of my youngest child falling out of bed. He doesn’t have far to drop, and we’ve strategically placed things to break the fall, but it does mean an excuse to steal a squeeze before tucking his confused and bleary body back in to bed.
10. Finally, the greatest luxury of the house is that the boiler is in a little room of its own, accessible only from the outside. We are free from that whoomph as it comes on throughout the day, or that annoying moment on winter mornings, when the whole house is woken by the boiler coming on for the first time at 6am. Bliss indeed.