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Matthew Herbert

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Giving a Voice to One Pig

Posted: 08/05/11 02:47 PM ET

Sometime in 2008, I decided to make a record out of a pig. Despite having made contact with a local farmer almost immediately, it took at least another nine months before I was able to begin the project, impatiently waiting for the call to let me know a sow had gone into labour. It was the first important lesson in this whole process, and a sign of things to come, that I had unknowingly surrendered so many of my inherited artistic assumptions about control.

This is a period of musical history, after all, where one can play the Viennese symphony orchestra, or a perfectly-recorded drum kit, or trigger a snippet of a James Brown record within 30 seconds of turning the computer on. As modern musicians, we're not used to having to wait for things.

Every week or so, I'd pop up to see the pig and its family as it grew older, the pig's voice changing in timbre and pitch each week, the litter's inquisitiveness and apathy to my project providing a constant challenge to any careful plans. The first, most obvious problem, being that I was unable to instantly identify my white pig from its siblings. And, the second, that they never spent time alone, their voices blending in to one another. The one area I knew I would have sonic separation would be the end of the pig's life. Pigs can live over 10 years or so, but when farmed are usually killed around 20 weeks. This farmer keeps his pigs for an extra month.

Before I reached the abattoir, however, I started getting emails. First from an animal rights group on Facebook and then, somewhat bizarrely from PETA.

Naively, in retrospect, I was expecting to receive some kind of support from those engaged in animal welfare -- I was after all giving a voice to a usually unheard group of animals, but instead I got vitriol and self-righteous anger. This was thrilling stuff: I hadn't written a note of music, yet the very idea of this piece of music was too challenging for some. I thought music as a form had long ago sold its ability to generate serious social friction to the most switched-on corporate bidder, but here the tension was palpable. And I wasn't even in a studio yet.

We rarely talk in moral terms about the legitimacy of documentary film-making, photography or even journalism when it comes to the basic premise of drawing attention to the invisible. In music, however, we are too use to it adorning car adverts, hotel lobbies or shopping malls -- a constantly pacifying presence designed to reassure us the world is OK.

However, the world isn't OK. We are living through a time of major environmental change, the end of oil and global financial collapse. We have built a system that is perfectly designed to do exactly the wrong thing: to keep making and buying things. Animals are just another commodity to be traded and repackaged. Twenty-seven million chickens, for example, are killed every day in America, yet how many people have witnessed the conditions that these chickens are raised in? Roughly 400,000 pigs are killed in America every month, their byproducts found in everything from train brakes to tiramisu, lipstick to chicken breasts.

I believe we should be eating less meat, and we should be treating many animals with more respect than we currently do. Somehow, though, PETA and others seem to think that listening in to one pig's life and turning it into music crossed some kind of invisible ethical line. I think they couldn't be more wrong.

Here, at the end of the process, it's not clear to me whether that latent drama can still be heard on the record -- that's for others to decide. I do know that hearing the severed head of the pig drop onto the kitchen table, or the carcass becoming a bass drum, or the bones being sawn through, makes for an uneasy experience when we have heard the same body come in to the world at the start of the album. In truth, it's been an awkward experience throughout: a biography of someone who's language I don't understand, but whose premeditated date of death I knew from the start.

It has taught me once again that the front line of music feels more vigorous, visceral and powerful, knee-deep in s*** than rearranging genres in some kind of air-conditioned sarcophagus of ideas we call the modern recording studio.

This post originally appeared on www.spinner.ca.

Headshot courtesy of Socrates Mitsios.