Matthew Herbert – bombs to bodies

The incredibly talented Matthew Herbert is the brains and talent behind The Chorus, a unique installation at the incredible This Is A Voice exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection. In an exclusive interview, he discusses the value of music, the creative process, and why he decided to make a ‘nude’ album.

Matthew Herbert is a creative powerhouse; a man who’s critically acclaimed work effortlessly crosses the borders between genres as though he exists in a creative Schengen Zone, where everybody is able to move effortlessly between dance music, esoteric electronica, classical works, political and moral statements, ambient grand projects and art installations such as The Chorus which is part of the incredible This Is A Voice exhibition at London’s Wellcome collection.


Talking to Herbert about how he created the The Chorus (which you can read here), an installation that could peak with as many as a million people singing a single note each, we were fascinated by his creative process, and wondered what inspires him and how does he make this beautiful, non-traditional music?

“It is very much the story that comes first,” he explained. “I decide what story I want to tell and then search for a sound that is appropriate for that story. The idea has to come first, otherwise it is a bit of a trap; if you just do something because you like the sound of it then you might as well just play the piano or French horn or whatever. It is not just about pleasure. Music has been hugely devalued in our lifetime.”

This seems like a strong statement, particularly coming from the world of Hi-Fi where music is an all consuming and vitally important part of what we do, but if you think about it music, and poor quality sound, is pretty much everywhere. Even Marks & Spencer recently announced that they were getting rid of it in their stores, partly because people wanted a break from it on the high street.

“We have devalued ourselves as musicians by just churning it out,” Herbert tells us. “There is so much music. Every week there are 1000s of new albums and we have to accept that it is a form of waste now – just like bagged salads – and as musicians we are responsible for that as much as anyone else.
“Someone told me that over 50 percent of the tracks on iTunes have never been downloaded, and there are over 4 million songs on Spotify that have never been streamed once– although I haven’t been able to verify that!

“So when I start the process of making a new piece of music the first question I have to ask myself is: Why am I doing this? Do we need another piece of music? Maybe we have got enough!”

If the challenge is to create interesting, different, unique pieces of music than Herbert is certainly meeting it head on. Spreading out from his popular – although never populist – dance roots, recent works include the interactive exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, a breathtaking re-working of Mahler, a new dance album in 2015 and a complete record in book form.


The Music – a book
The Music is something quite unique, a new album with every sound described in precise detail in a book, but never recorded and never performed.

“It was incredibly liberating. And it solved a lot of technical issues,” Matthew told us. “I could say I wanted to record the sound of every MP in the House of Commons mowing their lawn, but then not actually have to do it. So in my head I may have an idea of how that will sound, but then one MP may live next to a motorway, so you would end up with a lot of motorway sound in there. You just don’t really know what you are going to get when you get there. One of the sounds in the book is of yogurt pots in a supermarket going moldy and fermenting, but recorded from inside the sealed yogurt pot. I didn’t need to work out how to technically do that as I can just describe it. So yes, it was very liberating.”


One Pig – a life
Herbert has been described as a ‘sonic prankster’, but while there is certainly a fun element to much of his music, there is more often than not serious point being made as well, which provides extra depth to music that is already engaging and highly listenable on the surface!

“I have been making music for over 20 years and people will always have something to say about you – and a different opinion on what you are creating. For example, some people may think that making an album about the life of a pig is a bit of a prank, but to me it is a big deal.”

And make an album about the life of a pig he did. One Pig is a powerful piece that uses field recordings to document the 20-week life of a pig right up to the moment of its slaughter.

“In America 490,000 pigs are killed every month. I’m not a vegetarian, so this isn’t a point about eating meat, but we absolutely have to start treating these animals with more respect. It is symptomatic of a wider issue with the way we treat the environment, animals and each other.

“If someone wants to only focus on the funny side and doesn’t want to think about where the bacon comes from, that’s their decision.”

Process of composition
The political element of Herbert’s work is often at the forefront, even though because of the instrumental nature of the albums it is never quite as in-your-face or straightforward as the medium of lyric based recordings.

“For me, one of the most complicated records I have made is the End of Silence, which is created from a single recording of the sound of a bomb exploding in Libya. Three people died in that explosion, but I didn’t know that until after I had made the record. We don’t know who these people were. The person who was there and did the recording says they could have been Al Qaeda because of where he was and who was in the area. So maybe they were responsible for deaths of their own or maybe they were innocent civilians. So it is much more complex in the way that war is much more complex than the simple concept of good versus evil.

“And because it is an instrumental work it allows us to think very differently. So you may interpret the sound one way, but someone who may have been bombed may have very different feelings about it. Music allows you that freedom; it is open to interpretation, whereas lyrics are what they are: they are clearly someone’s views.”

The process
Developments in recording technology have inspired Herbert throughout his career, and continue to do so. “What interests me about working with sound in this way is that it is more a documentary rather than a fixed set of ideas,” he told us.

“It’s a huge profound and fundamental change in music; music can now be made out of things whereas before it has been about things. Previously, if you wanted to make a piece of music about a bomb exploding or a pig’s life you would have had to use musical instruments to imitate what they sounded like or how they felt about it – whereas now you can use the real sounds. This is an important shift.”


A Nude – the perfect body
So what next for Matthew Herbert? After The Chorus ends its run in London, the installation travels to Australia before other stops around the world. And his next release takes him to new more intimate areas – an audio ‘nude’.

“I was thinking about stories; thinking about what is a nice transgressive noise. And then I realized I hadn’t listened to someone else’s body before in any detail. Never heard anyone but my wife sleeping. So the new record is a nude; in the tradition of visual art it is a series of ‘poses’ recorded over a few days in a neutral space. It is a body doing what a body does eating, sleeping, washing, going to the toilet. It was quite a challenge, and to my knowledge it is the first instrumental record that requires an 18 certificate.

“It feels like another milestone in sound, and the value of listening.”

The Chorus is part of This Is A Voice, which runs from 14 April to 31 July 2016 at Wellcome Collection located at 183 Euston Road, London. Entry is free.

A Nude (The Perfect Body) will be presented as an album and will be exhibited in the future within a gallery.

You can read further conversations with Matthew Herbert here.

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