Electronic musician Matthew Herbert explains why his new work will feature imagined sounds, recorded on paper

Much of music is so busy soundtracking the status quo that it has lost its evolutionary urge

Matthew Herbert
Tuesday 03 November 2015 18:13 GMT
Music under the microscope: Matthew Herbert
Music under the microscope: Matthew Herbert

Initially it was my inability to play the piano like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, or later like Bill Evans or Thelonious Monk. Then it was my failure to orchestrate like Ravel, or to have mastery over a deep, elongated melody like Mahler. Even when I was writing dance music, there were always other people making more detailed programming, or bigger kick drums. It wasn't until I got to grips with the sampler that I found a way through: here was an instrument unlike any other, a democratic tool.

Crucially for an electronic instrument it was as close to a blank slate as I have seen in a studio. Suddenly, anything was possible. Anything that made a sound was music. At first, my imagination couldn't process the absurdly vast potential of the instrument and I just recorded things immediately to hand: toasters, bottles, kitchens etc. I slowly realised that, freed from the limitations of hardware, we now have a chance to listen to the world in a way that has never been possible before.

Much of music is so busy soundtracking the status quo that it has lost its evolutionary urge. Faced with the chance to make music out of an A&E department or out of a guitar, music continues to choose the path of least resistance. One of the roles of music is as storyteller; and, at a time when we face a number of existential threats, it seems wilfully narcissistic to defiantly ignore this; so the idea I first had 20 years ago, to write a description of a record rather than to make one, suddenly feels more urgent. I'm running out of time to do it all in practice, so it's time to return to pen and paper.

In some ways, of course, it is the ultimate cheat – a chance to describe the world on a colossal scale, without having to leave the room or be hindered by issues of access, bureaucracy, personal danger, money or political interference. I only have to write about the sound of the slap on the wall made by the hand of a girl kidnapped in Nigeria when she woke up this morning, or the sound Assad's head makes when it hits the pillow tonight – I don't have to be there. I am free.

The book raises an interesting issue, too, about the role of composer, since there will be so many sounds in the book that I have no idea what they sound like. I can guess, of course, but who knows what sounds the Queen really makes in the bathroom? Or 1,129 alarm clocks going off in Bangladesh at the same time? Pay attention to the numbers – they are important (1,129 is the number killed in the Rana Plaza collapse). It's a journey into the unknown, both for the author and for the reader, but the clues are everywhere.

Crucially too, there are rules involved in the writing of this book. First, no traditional musical instruments are allowed, no lyrics or singing: it is an instrumental work in the history of the symphony. Second, everything described in the book could be happening right now: it may be fantastical, but it's possible for it to be happening. Assad needs to sleep like the rest of us, and, if we had the patience and permission, we could bury mics deep in landfill to hear all the children's toys in Kent with battery life left in them make a noise. We could mic up 77 Norwegians to hear them walking to church, and I'm also assuming it would sound different from 77 Iraqis.

It's not clear, then, what this book should be marked under. The publishers reckon it's fiction, and I can see their point, but every sound described will have happened at some point, so that also makes it non-fiction, a documentary of sorts. That feels exciting to me, the idea that music could be classed as non-fiction. I once made a record that followed the life of a pig, from birth to plate; and when making and performing that, it was impossible not to see it as a significant shift away from the idea of music as an elusive, invisible, emotional vapour that hangs around musicians, speakers and headphones. It doesn't make it better, just different. Music isn't just decoration, a crutch or something transcendent: it's also a microscope, a satellite and a photocopier.

Recently I have realised that the only definition of music that makes any sense to me is that music is rhythm. It is only when you hear, or put, one thing after another, whether it be another sound or silence, that it becomes music. It's when you put the sound of 20 or 30 rotary cleaners buffing the marble floor of the Palm Hotel in Dubai at 2am next to the sound of a hollow plastic paint bucket used as a stool – a stool now spinning on the floor of the poorly lit, open shower cubicle in the Sonapur worker's camp on the outskirts of the city, after it has been knocked over by one of those delirious cleaners showering at the end of the night shift – that you get to hear the rhythm of a civilisation, an era, a vision in decline.

The fact that music can now be of these things, and not just about these things, is the liberation for which musicians have unknowingly waited years. It's time we started listening again.

Find out more about Matthew Herbert's book at unbound.co.uk/books/matthewherbert

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