Matthew Herbert: barbarity, inhumanity and the politics of hearing


Matthew Herbert

Matthew Herbert’s world of found sound and cut up techniques is examined by Getintothis’ Jono Podmore, who looks at The Politics of Hearing.

Matthew Herbert is a British musician who has often used non-musical and environmental sounds in his work: little samples strung together to make coherent and recognisable patterns.

For example making use of kitchen sounds or, on the album Bodily Functions, sounds generated by the human body.

Placing ideas and methods from the post war avant-garde like collage, found sound, field recordings and musique concrète into a digestible and familiar jazzy format has paid off for him: his biggest album to date was Scale, which sold well in the U.S, and his Big Band defrosts a popular music formation which became a museum piece as far back as the 60s.*

After expanding into Eurovision, opera and other projects on the fringes of the music business, Herbert has now taken a definitive step and moved into literature with his novel: The Music.

Despite it being his first, this novel is much more radical than his music. The conventional framework of jazz doesn’t exist in text, so he’s dived straight into deeper, darker water. Although he refers to the book as a novel, the basic characteristics that define a novel are missing. There’s no narrative, no character development, no dialogue etc.

Instead, this is ‘a novel through sound’. What we get is a series of descriptions of events and the sounds they generate. These tiny moments are dispassionately butted up to each other, juxtaposed, creating another value in their reference to each other. Sometimes the sounds are described as if they were a part of a musical composition, repeating, fading into each other and even with descriptions of some basic audio effects like echo, reverb and filters.

In many ways the book is a response to the technology that’s become available to us in the last century or so. Microphones themselves have existed only since the late 19th century, but the ideas of composing recordings of events into musical structures only became available with discs and tape in late 40’s. To make a collage to this extent of bite size samples is a only conceivable in a world where digital data can (and is) endlessly listed in tweet size nuggets and where our attention spans have been trimmed to fit. Making lists is what computers are actually best at and our creativity has adjusted to meet the medium.

But is The Music the product of a technologically reduced attention span, or are these moments a mastery of concision more akin to Haiku?  ‘A soon-to-lose horse whinnies on the starting line of an inconsequential steeplechase.’

The lists and juxtapositions have a news-feed flavour but they also refer to the structural literary experiments of James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon reaching its most extreme in chapter 9:  ‘Part of the sound of someone being stoned to death. Part of a car wash’

These brutal cuts and their brutal content refer to film and William Burroughs‘ cut-up technique from the 60s, slicing through text and time, reordering it to find another, hidden truth within it.

There are also entire chapters where the layout trumps the content, echoing Concrete poetry, again from the 60’s. There’s an aspect of documentary too, derived from field recording aspect of the soundworld Herbert is creating – but as ever presented in a detached way, without commentary or even interpretation.

All this intellectual, structurally dominated organisation of text may appear emotionally cold, but there’s more going on here.

Within the first 2 pages of the book we are presented with references to Gaza, the Kyoto protocol, garment workers in Bangladesh, empty Nestlé water dispensers, Chinese cocklers on UK beaches. This is where the real content of the book lies: in the politics behind the choice of the sounds/events/tableaux. They may mean nothing as individual moments but the agglomeration of their sources paints a clear picture of his world-view – it’s what he’s trying to tell us.

Despite the references to all sorts of barbarity and inhumanity, the Presto chapter, where all the sounds are derived from the food industry, is where he really wears his heart on sleeve. Food politics is clearly his thing and he almost loses his cool. The previously detached, non-judgemental placements become charged cross-references, with contemporary vegan ferocity.

Yet this emotional involvement brings us the nearest we get to tenderness in the whole book, albeit tinged with a polemic and knowing irony:  ‘A diabetic child with her ear near a bowl of Ricicles.’

Then his sense of injustice pokes through: ‘Gold taps turning, gold teeth grinding, gold lifts rising, gold pens twisting, gold handles turning, gold curtains pulled shut.’

So despite the cool, structural approach, by nature of the choices made in compiling the sounds and events, the book is inherently and overtly political.

Mental health, music and me: my very own vinyl revival

Writer John Doran recently wrote an excellent short piece for concerning the narrowing of cultural choice in Brexit Britain, where he stated that:  ‘As always, when you listen to music, it is a political act. It cannot be anything else.

For me, as a musician and producer this makes perfect sense. Choosing to listen to Frederick Rzewski or Stormzy rather than turgid major label gibberish is a political act as much as Herbert linking the sounds of Gaza with the Chinese cocklers. Deciding to live from one’s imagination and skill as a musician in a society that puts little value on creativity compared to management skills or financial services is a profoundly political act.

But I was surprised to read in comments about the piece how people objected. John was asked to explain his ‘contentious’ position and qualify it until it was so diluted as to become almost meaningless.

Accomplished singer and veteran of some of the most energetic and adventurous music scenes in the UK, Cleveland Watkiss MBE is not shy of using social media to make political points concerning all sorts of injustice. But again, comments in response to a post of his that seemed to me to be a statement of quite obvious and innocuous support for some fundamental human rights, had the scent of outrage:  ‘Such a shame you need to resort to politics on what should be a place to share good colourful pictures and memories! I actually agree with what you say but I turned off Facebook recently to get away from all the negativity, especially politics and religionPlease stick to sharing your beautiful music and pictures.’

Tellingly, Cleveland’s response to this was:  ‘I’m not in Art because of Politics, I’m in Politics because of my Artistic Calling.’  Very cleverly and succinctly put – but it seems it’s a point that only musicians need to make.

At the Barbican Gallery in London recently there was a huge retrospective exhibition of the work of American photographer Dorothea Lange. The exhibition was titled The Politics of Seeing – but what of politics of hearing? It seems that music has to justify its politics but the political content of visual art is actually a sales point. Lange’s most celebrated pieces document the disaster of the Dust Bowl, and her documentation of these events and the human cost were the centrepiece of the exhibition. The political content of her work has been exploited to almost comic extent: while exiting via the gift shop I was encouraged to buy a fridge magnet of one of her images of a Filipino worker toiling in the Mojave Desert. There’s plenty of them brightening up kitchens across the country by now.

But with music, the same people who are the target group for Lange fridge magnets are deperate to turn a blind eye to the politics of hearing.

This attitude seems to come from comfortable people. People whose comfort is built on layers of injustice – they know it and they don’t want to hear any more about it. From slavery, to colonialism, to the arms trade, to the environmental impact of their cars and their diet, if there’s a picture in a gallery that alludes to the issue they can safely walk past and file the work as “gritty”, but if it’s a piece of music they take umbrage or more often simply disengage.

One of my students was recently invited to Israel. Before he left I asked him about his views on illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza strip.

Nothing. He had no view.

So I suggested that, to avoid putting his foot in it with the locals as much as anything else, he should do a little research on where he was going, why it is the way it is, perhaps going back as far as Balfour and the terrorism that brought the state into being.


He didn’t want to know: too much data. He just wanted to have a holiday, see his girlfriend and chill. He didn’t want to know why he’d see soldiers on the street or why the police might treat some people differently to others. In our hyper-informed times it seems that some of us are desperate to not know – to switch off from anything overtly political – to simplify our lives by abdicating responsibility.

Ironically enough, this is also a highly political act. The most obvious effect being in terms of abstention. Voter turnout in the US election 2016 was comparatively high at 61.4% – but the turnout rate among black voters declined for the first time in 20 years – down 7%. The election was extremely tight and these black American voices were not heard – if they had been, then the current nightmare of isolationism, corruption and proto-fascist manoeuvring would never had happened. Trump would be back to being the minor TV celebrity that is under qualified to be.

Of course the voters themselves are not to blame, neither is my student. The blame lies with an unregulated but highly manipulated information system we’ve allowed to overtake our waking hours, and with a political system that doesn’t engage with huge parts of the population – the very parts of the population who are most likely to be effected by political decisions they have abstained from having a say in.

It’s essential to recognise the political content of so many of our decisions in our life: what we choose to eat, where we choose to shop, and the provenance of what we buy there. But equally important are our cultural choices, the music, visual arts, cinema and literature we choose changes the political landscape; creating new ways of thinking or reinforcing the thinking that informed our choices to begin with.

Which is where The Music fits in. Herbert could be accused of writing a pretentious book, after all he’s no Joyce or Beckett or Pynchon or Burroughs. But I’d rather characterise this as a bold book, and this is a time for big, bold ideas. Our culture is transforming so rapidly under the influence of technology that we need to radically rethink our cultural conventions and social structures, in order for them to survive and for us to resist the most pernicious effects of media manipulation. Artworks like The Music help us to do just that. We need new forms to cope with new times, just as culture responded to the economic and social changes of the 60s, and The Music is a bold and valuable step.

The Music: A novel through sound was published by Unbound April 2018

* By the 60s it was no longer necessary to hire multiple musicians to compete with the volume of the drummer because the invention of the amplifier made that possible for just one performer. If the drummer hits his kit harder you just turn up your amp, and as it begins to distort the sound quality matches the greater intensity.






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