Field Recording, Politics and Music: An Interview with Matthew Herbert

MATTHEW HERBERT

Matthew Herbert is a clear example of someone in the constant search of originality and new perspectives around sound. He has published over 25 albums under various nicknames, has collaborated with important artists in the electronic music scene and has also worked in films, performances and other projects, such as BBC’s New Radiophonic Workshop in which he is currently creative director.

His search of unique sounds (evident in his manifesto) has make his use of sampling field recording very special, gradually getting more sophisticated and profound, not just in terms of technical procedures but in other senses, as political, cultural and social contexts (check out his ‘sonography‘). A clear example of that is his latest album “The End of Silence”, published last year in his own label Accidental Records, a release work is based in one single five-second recording of the sound of a bomb explosion  that happened during the battle of Ras Lanuf in Libya on 11th March 2011 and was captured in audio by photographer who sent the recording to the Herbert. The album is a clear reflection around the boundaries between sonic archiving, audio documentary and the lack of referential aspects around field recording, creating a bridge between political perspectives, philosophical ideas, contextual approaches, aesthetic perspectives and musical pursuits.

Other reliable example of such convergence are other works such as the controversial “One Pig” which was made from field recordings taken during the life of a pig from birth, growing up, to when was killed and eaten by humans. Also other albums by the artist, such as “Plat du jour”, “The Mechanics of Destruction”, “One Club”, among others, maintain those relationships, where field recording is both used as a musical source and also as a way of shaking the notions of a particular political or ideological aspect.

I’ve known the work of Matthew Herbert for a while, and that progression of his work and the exploration of such perspectives towards field recording caught my curiosity, so I arranged an conversation with him some months ago in order to talk about his visions towards field recording, composition and the role of sound/listening in today’s world. Below is the result:

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How was your first contact with sound and how has it evolved to your interests nowadays?

I grew up with television; that was one aspect of it. The other was that my dad was a sound engineer at the BBC, so he was very particular about hi-fi quality, although he wasn’t a purist, but he liked sound to sound right, he wanted everything to sound quite neutral. So much of it was really just about technology, like portable tape machines in the 70s. You were able to record yourself, that was shocking for me in some ways, to suddenly have those possibilities in your life.

The thing that really changed everything for me was the sampler, because I was interested in sound but I was too busy trying to make music. And when I got my sampler it allowed me to find new sounds, for example to slow sounds down and speed up others. This was around the middle and the end of the 80s and it was this shift where suddenly you can make music out of sound directly, it was an incredibly new and surprising, and original and seemed like a door opening into a new world.

I wonder if that initial connection with the sampler was related to your interest and work with field recording.

Yes, but field recording came slightly later because the first thing that happened was like “hey, the whole world is a keyboard” and in the 80’s keyboards were things like the Yamaha DX7 which was very successful and was really hard to program. It felt very hidden and strange but not in a very exciting way: you felt just being a consumer playing the DX7 because you have these buttons, hundreds of presets and it was hard to be original with these sounds. The thing with the sampler was that it has no sounds, it was empty, and it was encouraging you to put your own sounds in it, which was amazing, a revolution really.

So I started just hitting the things around me, all my early records are made from sounds recorded in my house, and then minidiscs recorders were invented and I started to record sounds outside my house and my studio to put them into the sampler. Before that it was not really possible to record sounds easily and quickly and I couldn’t afford DAT portable recorders/player.

The arrival of field recording to the creative environment also affects other frameworks rather than just the aesthetics. For example the cultural contexts or the political possibilities of using sources captured in the field, which is in fact very implicit in your work, mainly in the latest ones. What would you say about that?

That was also a bit later. It sounds a bit weird but I didn’t really make that connection with the political side of things. It wasn’t really until I made an album called “The Mechanics of destruction” where I was sampling Starbucks frappuccinos and McDonald’s burgers and things like that, where I suddenly realize about these things around me that I don’t particularly like (specially how they were changing our landscape, our brains, our bodies, our geography and our history, etc.). And so it was like a protest, like a punk record to sample all these things. It was a real breakthrough for me, but it took me a long time. I first started recording sounds in the middle of the 80’s and it took me around 15 years to realize the really powerful political act that is in a recording. Because it has a really huge power: where you point your microphone that’s the story you tell.

How do you see the future of sound creation? What do you think is the next point in this field of sound creation you’ve called “an era of sound”?

I think I’m trying to do it. I think there’s something really important about provenance. There’s something about provenance that I think it’s becoming more and more important in sound, something to deal with authenticity. Since there’s a huge problem in our understanding of sound in the moment we haven’t started to access it properly and the majority of sound in our public life is bullshit, like for example a Hollywood film or TV show, sound is non-sense, is not the real room, the real person, the real footsteps, etc. And so I think the future or the next evolutionary state in sound has to deal with provenance, with authenticity, with education, with listening, basically. We need to do some fundamental listening; I think we have a real problem with recording sound, since much of it is absent from nature. For example, the sound I hear the most is the sound of a fridge, whether I’m in my house, in an office or a hotel. There’s some sounds of this machinery that keeps something cold and I listen to that sound more than birds, for example.

I think we need to create a kind of healthy framework, a way of measuring some of these noises and a way of searching out meaning. I really think we have to go back to year zero, we have to start again because we have so many microphones and so many recordings between us and yet we don’t have a solid structure to work within and we don’t make explicit our reasons to record and understand how we record, why we record, etc. At the moment I feel we act the way many photographers do, just going around and taking photographs driven by the desire to take a photo of whatever we think that pleases us but actually I think we need to create more comprehensive analysis and more comprehensive assessment of how the world actually sounds, start to find a way of measuring that.

And would you think one way of looking for that provenance and authenticity is actually doing something like what you have put in your manifesto, about limiting yourself in order to find new routes of work?

Yes. In the last record I did, “The End of Silence” I made everything from one five-second recording and it’s amazing because I’ve listened to those five seconds around ten thousand times now and I’m still learning something from it. Every time I hear it I learn something different or I hear it differently or I have a different perspective of it, and I know it so well, even the tiniest little parts of it, and still it contains huge volumes of information. It feels like picking up a little bit of something from the floor and then looking at it under a microscope and realizing that there are things living on it, and then if you go further with the microscope you realize there are molecules, and then atoms, and if you keep going you realize there are protons and if you keep going down you will find a lot of stuff in the gaps between the protons. So putting restrictions, it’s like a liberation. Instead of putting a straitjacket or defining borders it becomes an act of liberation because I suddenly start to explore it differently and know about the place, where it comes from and what surrounds it. 

Talking about those compositions in “The End of Silence” I wonder what led you to use that recording at the first place? Because you didn’t recorded it, right?

Right. A record like “The Pig” took me around one year to gather all the recordings and have hundreds of sounds. And this time I wanted to do something which could be a reflection of the recording process, in which sometimes we take something real, record it and make it unreal. So in this case, Sebastian, the photographer who made the recording, talked to me about this… He uses to take photographs in war zones but he feels that the camera can’t actually capture the real thing; it’s like a trick. It doesn’t feel authentic somehow and yet when he made the sound of this bomb falling, it felt more real than any photograph he had taken. And for me, I live in a very comfortable life here in England and my life is generally quite safe and I have a huge amount of privileges and yet we have these wars waged by the government in my name to get into other countries like Afganistan or Syria, etc. and we just tend to see images, or maybe films or reports or something like that but we don’t usually just hear sound from there. And when I heard this it really closed the distance between my life and privilege and that kind of danger some other person must be in, in another side of the world. So for me this record was all about trying to understand that second-hand experience, and see if I was able to find something real or true in that recording, if that was legitimate, meaningful, important, or just a fault.

I felt that sound offered me an experience I didn’t have before. I think the next recordings I’m going to make I think should have to go somewhere more risky, to record noises and maybe actually making the recordings myself again rather than relying on other people.

chickens_03Is there some relation of those concepts with the transformation processes you did over the material? since it also shows the huge amount of possibilities you have by using just a couple of seconds of a recording.

Yes, it seems to me that in this digital world, everything is in excess, you know? I now have ten thousand photographs I’ve just taken in my phone, just with my family in the last five years, it’s just crazy and I’m sure I would never had taken such amount if I was using a film camera. We sort of treat the art of recording as something very disposable, as something very quick, as if it has no consequences, and actually like that there are consequences. So I think there’s something about the act of recording for me that I feel should become more precious again because nowadays it feels too quick, it feels too easy and one of the reasons why I stopped doing more field recordings as well, because I had this huge library of recordings that I never listen to. All I did was to collect. And I realize this is because now you can transfer the recordings easily to the computer, not as minidiscs some years ago, which was more difficult to transfer the information to a computer, but even with those, I have a huge collection of minidisc organized in titles and so on, but I don’t listen to them anymore… so now I try to record from decisions depending on the project: I decide what to record and what not to, and I go out and go for it. I now just don’t walk around and record anymore, because I’m interested in getting something more precious out of the recording. 

That also makes me think about the new BBC Radiophonic Workshop, since it comes in a point where technology, interests and possibilities are very different than when the workshop was active several years ago. I wonder how have you managed to do that.

Yeah, I think it’s a completely different thing now. For me a lot of the work of the Radiophonic Workshop was to deal with synthesizers and actually I think the big new frontier is about sound, and sound and music. The way the Workshop is remembered the most is because of the synthesizers they made and the strange sci-fi noise that they created, but actually I think synthesis is kind of over, I mean there’s nothing surprising texturally with synthesizers anymore. I think they still sound amazing but I just don’t think they can sound surprising. At least I have not been surprised by synthesizers for many years and I think sound has the capacity to surprise every single second you listen to it.

I think something like the Radiophonic Workshop nowadays has to deal with something new and different, something related to collaboration, it starts to be a space to think in new forms, where we just don’t write music but also where we maybe do live shows or computer programs or education projects or books or whatever. We try to make more of that. Nowadays music is cooking, architecture or your journey to work, or music is design, a newspaper article. I don’t think we’re really good at describing music itself because it has changed fundamentally. And I think that’s part of Radiophonic Workshop’s goals, to think of new ways of framing sound and attract people to listening in different ways.

I think that would be directly connected to what you were saying about listening, its importance and the way we can connect to sound. I think creating routes to this kind of new or challenging ways listening or making sound that is not common is pretty radical and important, don’t you think?

Yes, I think we’re making so much stuff and nobody is really listening anymore. Music is finished; music is over. There’s always great music out there, and I think today there’s extraordinary music to listen to and extraordinary musicians and experiences. But as a form, it is over; it’s just killing time to wait for the next thing to come along. And so much music is starting to sound a bit silly these days, so repetitive and conservative. And it is extraordinary when you consider the revolution that has happened in music, that we can make music out of anything you want. And so many people are still picking up drum machines and guitars and of course you can still make great music out of that and I still use guitars and drum machines some times but when I do it, I realize it’s predictable and unsatisfying, and unimaginative and lazy. And there’s a much more profound possibility in front of us which is that it is possible to make music from anything.

So would you think this a kind of spiritual change?

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s spiritual and with that political, philosophical, I think it’s social and fascinating in many aspects. I think it’s really interesting for me to know where my music may be heard, so you wouldn’t play “The End of Silence” in a dinner party, you would really want to play it in a bar, you wouldn’t necessary played it in the stereo system at your home. So where do you listen to this music, how do you listen to it? And it’s maybe something you don’t ‘enjoy’, but it’s something about having different experiences, like in film, where you have these categories of non-fiction, or fiction, or documentary. It could be applied to music as well, but we don’t really have it yet, we just have “fiction” in a way, or artificial stuff. So I think we need some new definitions as well, we need to realize that music doesn’t mean the thing it used to and we listen differently now. One of the big changes is that we look at music, so much of it is on YouTube now and that makes you always sit in front of some visual image or film, instead of just listening.

I wonder how do you think this experience of deep, active or profound listening is related to storytelling with sound and how from that point, the process of composition or organization of sound affects the way we listen and relate to sound itself in more liberating or open ways.

I think it’s difficult because we can’t just apply one process. So for example when I did that record made out of a pig it seemed very logical to me that in terms of storytelling I should start with the birth of the pig and finish with the pig being eaten. So it seemed very logical and straightforward to tell that story and put sounds in the order I recorded them, but of course there’s other ways to do it, so the sound and the context of the narratives is dictated by the order. I think sound has the potential of telling all sort of stories in fresh and original ways but I think we need to start from the beginning, as I told you before regarding the “year zero” thing. We need to try to tell stories in quite simple ways, to start with, just to introduce ourselves to the idea of how we listen to noises and how we extract stories from them, particularly if we don’t have any context. You know, one of the really big questions I always get asked is “how do I have a relationship or experience with a sound and a story if I don’t know where it comes from”?. And it always felt to me like a very defeatist position.

You can realize what that sound is not, it’s not an electric guitar, it’s not an explosion or a Coca Cola bottle. So, you can start eliminating a lot and actually we’re sometimes very lazy and clumsy listeners, so if we don’t recognize the sound immediately, we tend to think we can’t not work out what’s that sound about. But in fact we can, if we listen closely, we can work out about the kind of material, the room where it is, etc. But that depends on the duration and what’s going on the recording itself. A recording can tell you a lot of information from which you can think a lot of things. But as I said before, I think we need to start from zero and find new ways of telling the stories in a simple fashion, just for educating ourselves in the process. Because I think a lot of the time we’re just doing recordings but not really thinking how it could be received, how could it be done and what it could mean. We do it because it is good, amazing, but it needs to be done in an almost scientific approach that brings us some structure to the act of recording and the act of listening, otherwise we’re just going to fail because we’re trying to run without first learning to walk.

Would you think that could be found reflected in the evolution of technology itself? Because the tool is nowadays very powerful but the mind using the tool is not necessarily open or conscious to the possibilities or just about the meaning and the reason of the process we can made.

It does feel to me that we have all these tools but we don’t have the philosophy for it. So we don’t have a period of real reflection. For example, one question I like to give students or places where I give lectures is “why do we need to make more music?”… We don’t need any more music. I can guarantee than in the next 24 hours I can find a piece of music that can get close to any other piece you can possible describe, so why we need more music? So I think we need to be more careful with sound and think about it, why are we doing it, what are our goals with it; it’s a process of stopping and listening, very simple but very radical.

That would lead us to the final question… about this concept of silence. I wonder how do you relate to this notion and specifically talking about your last album, what’s the importance of the “silence” word in the title of it. 

You can think for example about the silence before the bomb, which is for many, scarier than the sound of the bomb itself. And soldiers talk about that, the tension between boredom, silence and action and terror.

For me, silence becomes a very spiritual thing because of course we know full silence doesn’t really exists and we are really talking about is about “quiet”, but even the sound of yourself, the sound of something in the distance or even if you stay in a place where there’s no airplanes, you’re suddenly aware of the sound you make in the grass with your feet. I think it’s a very spiritual position because it immediately places you in relationship to everything else. It puts you in a special position, a position of privilege which is very spiritual for me.