Published Jul 08, 2013Matthew Herbert has never been afraid to make things challenging for himself, or for his audience. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the British electronic composer has built a reputation on ambitious works strongly guided by high concepts and experimentation. In addition to ground-breaking downtempo house releases as Herbert and a reworking of late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler's tenth symphony, he has recorded under numerous aliases including Radio Boy, Wishmountain and Doctor Rockit.
Adding more arrows to his already full quiver, Herbert was recently appointed Creative Director of the BBC's prestigious Radiophonic Workshop and this summer sees the debut of The Hush, his first audio-visual theatre piece, at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.
In recent years, Herbert has been pushing the envelope even further with a series of conceptual electronic albums released under his own name. For his One Pig project in 2011, he built an entire album out of field recordings of a farmed pig, telling the story of the animal's fate from birth to plate. His new album, The End Of Silence, is a three-suite work of instrumentals based almost entirely upon a single audio snippet of a bomb dropping on a Libyan rebel camp, as captured by war photographer Sebastian Meyer.
"If you look at the One Pig record," says Herbert, "I'm responsible for every single noise on that record. In contrast, this one is about something that is received third-hand and processed out of context." As per his manifesto, written in 2000 — Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes) — there's no programming, drum machines, synths or FX factory presets on the album. Instead, the three parts of The End Of Silence were stitched together from three days of improvisational sessions in rural Wales. The band utilised a range of sample-triggering instruments, including a custom device built by band member Yann Seznec using motion controllers repurposed from a Gametrak golf simulation game.
Herbert's aim was to see how far he could push musical material based on a single sound source, in this case a clip a mere five seconds long. "In many ways, this whole album is about distance," Herbert explains. "For me, I guess it's a series of questions and meditations on the horror of this moment. A way to amplify, and almost apply a delay to it, so that the echoes don't go unheard."
Two important threads in Herbert's work are the use of unique sound sources and creating content-led compositions. The End Of Silence is an often uncomfortable listen and while being in some sense an anti-war critique, it manages to steer clear from being obvious or didactic. "I think nobody could deny the violence of the bomb exploding but ultimately we know that wars are bad and that bombs kill people. There's something else there that's worth exploring, which is about freezing time in a way and trying to work out what the function of music is."
Removed from the specifics of the actual event when the bomb was dropped by pro-Gaddafi forces, Herbert explains that the main point he is trying to make is that we need to learn to listen as a society. "We should listen more carefully — that's always been the overriding message of my work. It's about trying to put my mic in the shadows and the dark corners and see what's there, because quite frankly, I'm bored of listening to drum machines and I'm bored of listening to guitars."
For Herbert, recorded sound carries an often untapped visceral power. "This is one of the great liberations for me about how music can now be political instrumentally as well as lyrically. When you're trying to digest the horror of a distant war in Libya or Syria or something, I think the sound helps to carry an emotional weight that is often absent from words and pictures." As the original audio clip is passed around, processed and removed from its original context, thus diminishing the signal, in some ways it is also intensified due to its placement in a foreign context and the curiosity it inspires.
Herbert's recent work is in many ways a continuation of what he started as Radio Boy with his album The Mechanics Of Destruction. "The Radio Boy thing was a real breakthrough for me. That was sort of my version of a punk record." On The Mechanics Of Destruction Herbert destroyed symbols of globalisation such as a McDonald's Happy Meal and a pair of Gap jeans, using the sounds of their forced deconstruction as the basis for a suite of abrasive tracks critiquing globalised consumerism.
But that somewhat literal, oppositional approach soon wore thin for Herbert. "There's an element of activism that's really important that says 'This is wrong, let's do something about it,' but there's a predominance of violence in our society and a predominance of a male version of the way to be political and a way to react. I think there's another really important part of activism, which is about stimulating the imagination, about seducing people into listening to stories that they might not want to hear, about trying to engage people's imaginations, rather than just batter them over the head with it."
In an age where politically-charged music seems very much out of vogue, to meld high-concept and musical innovation with political and social statement seems like a bold move. "I think it's very difficult now because I think the idea of music has changed enormously. It's a soundtrack to consumerism, designed to placate us and tell us everything's okay. There's also a lot more to lose now in terms of how music's sold," says Herbert. "If your art's not seeking to change anything, the implication is that you're happy with the status quo and I think that's political in and of itself. All our gestures are political, it just depends how much care we take to frame them in particular ways."