At this year's MUTEK electronic music festival in Montreal, British producer Matthew Herbert will be bringing two very unique and unrelated live shows to Canadian audiences for the first time. The first is "One Pig," based on his 2011 album of the same name where the 41-year-old collected sounds while following a pig's short life from birth to dinner plate.
The other, "The End Of Silence," couldn't be more different. It's an entire album based on one five-second sample of a bomb exploding in war-torn Libya that he and three collaborators contorted and stretched using hacked golf video game controllers. He later found out that two people had perished in the explosion, which dramatically changed his perception of the project. "The End Of Silence" will be released on June 24.
Herbert will also perform a DJ set at MUTEK, for the first time under his Wishmountain moniker, although during our Skype conversation he still wasn't entirely sure what that set would entail beyond avoiding using drum machines as much as possible.
Does each show require its own different mindset?
I think they do. The pig show is like a portrait, and "The End Of Silence" is like a landscape. "The End Of Silence" is made out of one five-second clip of a bomb exploding in Libya — so understandably it's intense — and you have all sorts of moral, political and social responsibilities to consider. You're making music out of a moment where people potentially died, so it comes with a huge set of different pressures. Also, I wasn't there. With the pig record I recorded all the sounds myself, so I can vouch for every part of it, I'm retelling a story I know very well. With "The End Of Silence" I'm sharing sounds of an event where I wasn't present.
Where did you get "The End Of Silence" sample?
It was from Sebastian Meyer, a war photographer in Libya who was recording as he was taking photographs. He was feeling a bit jaded of war photography that never seemed to capture the terror of being in one of those situations, and then he accidentally recorded himself being bombed by this plane and that felt to him more real and more terrifying than any of the pictures he took. He emailed it to a friend of his and that friend forwarded it to me.
Did you speak to him about it?
I did, although I deliberately didn't ask for too much. We read about these events around the world everyday: explosions here, tornadoes there and factory collapses, and all we can do is imagine what it's like, but there's something about sound that cuts through that and suddenly puts you in that place in a way that imagery can't. On a purely selfish level I wanted the music to be about how sound punctured my first-world bubble — that privileged way we receive news, where we're never in any real danger. It wasn't 'til I finished the record that I spoke to him more in-detail about it. I have a one-hour conversation with him that I'll probably make public. It was extraordinary: it turns out two people were killed in the explosion, and possibly a third, and I hadn't known about that before making the record, and it made me feel very strange and not entirely comfortable.
Would you have not made "The End Of Silence" had you known people had died?
I don't really know the answer to that yet, because I only found out about it last week, so it takes a while to process that. I probably would have sought permission from the person who recorded it because they were there, and sought advice from them, and asked if it should be turned into music and what things I should be taking into consideration. It's interesting for me because it's a area music has never been in before. War photographers and documentary filmmakers have this issue all the time, about permissions, responsibilities and ideas of artistic freedom versus individual rights, but in music we've never had that before.
What did you do with the sample?
We chopped it up into tiny fragments. We did this thing called granular synthesis, which is a way of pausing the sample. We took a golf game controller from the '90s — a pair of gloves attached to a golf tee with strings attached to it and you pretend to swing — and we cut the gloves and took it out of its box. Then we hacked it and got it to control whatever we wanted it to, which in this case we used it to trigger the samples, and as you pull the sample you're scrubbing through the sound, like moving forward a millisecond at a time. The faster you pull, the faster you go through the sound, so if you yank it you can go through the sound in one second. If you pull slowly, it could take six hours. When you start to break it into pieces it becomes almost irrelevant how big they are — they become like subatomic data in musical terms — and you enter some peculiar places. It was strange trying to play the sound of a bomb on a classic piano — it wasn't entirely up to the job.
How do feel about "One Pig" these days now that it's been out for a couple of years?
I'm very proud of it. Not necessarily about the music, but I'm proud we're still talking about a pig that would otherwise have just been bacon and sausages, and his life would have been forgotten. I don't really talk about this much, but in the background you can hear my son, who was somewhere between 18 months and two-years-old at the time. He would come up with me when I was recording sounds, and you can hear him in the background, this tiny little voice, he can't form his words properly. Now he's six, and my son has grown up from that period as well, so it feels like a very particular time in my life, and the entire life for that animal.
At MUTEK, well-known local chef Martin Juneau will be cooking pork on stage while you perform. Why a nice meal and not something more grimy?
Part of our rider is we'd like a chef that would be sympathetic to the ambition and tone of the performance. The thing for me is my pig was always going to be killed for meat, so when it came to being eaten I wanted every bite to count. It would be a real waste if I raised this pig only to give it to some dude who just burned it and it had to go in the bin.
How has the reaction been from audiences who not only get to see and hear you perform "One Pig," but smell it too?
Pretty varied actually. Someone came up to me who had been a vegetarian for 20 years and said after the performance was ready to eat meat again. Some say they'll never eat meat again. For many people who grew up in the city, they've never even seen a pig before, let alone have its whole life laid out in front of them like that. For me, it's weird trying to explain what it's like performing while someone next to you is cooking bacon, while I'm playing the sound of pig's head dropping on a plate, or his blood dripping into a bucket.
And do you still eat pork?
I've pretty much stopped, but today I ate ham for the first time in a very long time. It's very difficult to look at a sausage and not hear an oink.
For more information on the MUTEK festival go here.
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