Matthew Herbert: The Politics of Othering

“I’ve completely failed here tonight if that’s what you think I’ve said about my work.” – Matthew Herbert, 23 January 2018

There were a lot of mixed messages emanating from the stage at last night’s “Matthew Herbert: The Politics of Listening” event at the British Library, but one thing was certain: Herbert does not like his work to be questioned.

Herbert was joined onstage by Frances Morgan, a music journalist with The Wire, and Polly Russell of the British Library’s Oral History department, ostensibly to discuss the political and ethical issues involved in using field recordings as the basis for electronic music. What we ended up with was a discussion of Matthew Herbert’s provocateur’s oeuvre, a body of work that, when viewed through the lens of his own clumsy defences of it, reveals what appear to be at best deeply colonialist tendencies and, at worst, outright racism, misogyny, and a borderline inhumane lack of empathy.

Consider this list of the works discussed, alongside Herbert’s commentaries about each piece:

“There’s Me And There’s You” (2008): Herbert discussed the album’s track that includes recordings of Palestinian protestors being shot and killed by Israelis. Herbert did not make this recording, he says he acquired it via the British Council. He sampled it and included it as background sound for instrumental music played by The Matthew Herbert Big Band. He expressed disdain that several reviewers claimed it was “a silent track, a performance of Cage’s 4’33””; this statement of Herbert’s made little sense, and appeared to be a clumsy attempt to describe the track’s reception as having been, for the most part, ignored by critics.

“The End Of Silence” (2013): Best described by the text on the album’s Bandcamp page, this album “takes the idea of a single sound source to its logical conclusion by utilising only one five second audio recording as the sole source for the whole album. Matthew was emailed a recording made by photographer Sebastian Meyer during the battle of Ras Lanuf in Libya on 11th March 2011. In the brief recording, a pro-Gadaffi plane can be heard approaching, a whistled warning, a shout and then, as if from nowhere, a bomb. It is this recording that makes up the entirety of this record.” Herbert expressed disdain that someone criticised the work by saying he should have donated money to the families of the bomb’s victims instead. His response to this was twofold: he first said that this was an album of experimental music so therefore there was no money to be made from it; secondly, after revealing Meyer’s claim that the victims of the bomb “were probably Al-Qaeda,” he said “So I’m supposed to fund terrorism then?”

Unused Crematorium Recording (date unknown): Herbert described making a recording in a British crematorium of the sound generated by the process used to break down a human being’s bones during the cremation process; as he described it, this process involves putting the bones inside what appeared to be a washing machine with no water, along with hunks of graphite, which pummel the bones to dust. He claimed he made the recording “by accident” and then decided he could never use it as source material for a project because the sound was “too disturbing.”

“A Nude: the perfect body” (2016): An album made entirely out of recordings of a single naked human body. Herbert began describing the album by saying it was the sound of “any human body” and that its age, race, and gender were unimportant. He then, in the next breath, revealed that the first hour of the album is an unedited recording that the model he hired for the project made “while she was asleep.”

“One Pig” (2011): Herbert summarises this album as sourced from recording the entire life of a single pig, from birth to slaughter to being eaten. It was criticised at the time by PETA as using animal cruelty for enjoyment. Herbert’s defence of the piece included stating that he doesn’t believe music is “only enjoyment”, as well as responding defensively to PETA by saying “Why aren’t you criticising all the people who don’t make albums of the sound of pigs being killed and eaten?”

Herbert’s defensive explanations for the first three projects reveal a deep-seeded colonialist attitude that borders on racism. He finds it immoral to use a recording of the sound of the post-death disposal of the body of what can only be described as a “proper” British person, yet has no qualms using the sound of the precise moment that nameless Libyans and Palestinians are actually being killed. This is a textbook example of othering – and his insistence that his use of these sounds “raises awareness” of the political situations involved (in a post-internet, 24-hour news cycle world, no less) is so beyond laughable as to be downright offensive. Herbert claims no one buys his music so he shouldn’t have to pay the bombing victims, yet somehow insists his album also generates awareness – you simply can’t have it both ways, Matthew. Those statements are utterly incompatible arguments.

PETA’s criticisms of his work seem to cut too close to the bone for Herbert; his nonsensical comments regarding the “One Pig” album point towards yet more evidence of his ability to utterly detach himself from his subjects and treat them as an other which is his to manipulate and profit from. When he revealed that someone had said to him that they wished he himself would be murdered and eaten, the audience at the British Library groaned and tsk-tsked, and we were asked to believe this was an outrageous statement that victimised Herbert the innocent composer. Yet by his own description he pursues projects that are controversial – and if he was truly interested in drawing attention to the cruelty behind pig farming, it would stand to reason that Herbert would not have joined in eating the dead pig himself.

When asked by Polly Russell of the panel why he didn’t just record his own body if the identity of his “nude” project’s subject was truly irrelevant, Herbert’s body language became even more affectedly squirmy than it had been the entire night – he assumed the physicality of a small child who had just eaten peas for the first time while claiming that recording his own body was far too egotistical for him to even consider, and that it was artistically more interesting for it to be someone else’s body – in this case, the body of a nude female model. His unwillingness to locate this work within the painfully obvious art historical context of the female nude and the male gaze reveals a deep hypocrisy, a gutless inability to acknowledge the voyeuristic quality of the work that calls to mind the creepiness of Robert Pattinson’s vampire breaking into the house of Kristen Stewart’s schoolgirl to silently watch every time she dozes off in 2008’s Twilight. This is not objective observation of an anonymous human body, this is a white male objectifying a woman model’s naked body as the muse for his alleged genius.

The evening concluded with a performance of Herbert’s unnamed September 11th piece for laptop duo. Somehow this piece – sourced from field recordings he made while in Manhattan on September 11, 2001 – required two performers on laptops to trigger the playback of, I’d say, roughly about five mostly unmanipulated field recordings. Its cloying preciousness – along with Herbert’s contrived “health and safety” warning that we were free to leave the room if we found it too disturbing – was offensive politically, philosophically, and aesthetically. He introduced the work by claiming he hadn’t felt comfortable doing anything artistically with the recordings until now, and that colleagues had warned him against it as well – but much like his inability to explain why it was okay for him to use a naked woman’s body as source material for his art, he never explained what breakthrough had happened, or what had changed politically or culturally, that suddenly allowed him the agency to use these recordings to create his art. Instead, he chose to remain silent.

Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Herbert’s statements. Perhaps he really is the victim of unfair attacks on the ethics of his work. But if he is, Herbert completely failed to convince me of it last night.

6 thoughts on “Matthew Herbert: The Politics of Othering

  1. rparmar

    So, it was a discussion of politics and ethics in which the artist refused to engage with the politics or ethics of his work? Sounds horrendous. Have been blissfully unaware of this person until now.

    1. John Post author

      There were attempts to get to ethical discussions, but they were primarily in the form of “I did this intentionally controversial thing and some people didn’t like it – what’s the deal with that?” There was a lot of dancing around the idea of ethics, but it was primarily defending the work from criticisms that had been made in the past by journalists. I found the defences knee-jerk and simplistic, and the morals questionable. I wasn’t aware of much of his work before this but knew him by reputation, and the impression I was left with after the event was that he enjoys making provocative work but doesn’t enjoy being criticised for it.

    2. John Post author

      I also think that the event could have been vastly improved if it had included at least one other artist working with field recordings – there are so many in London, but preferably it would have been someone like Kate Carr – so that the evening could have focused more on a general discussion of politics and ethics rather than issues related to only one artist’s work. Plus, this topic is admittedly far too nuanced and complex to be adequately covered in a 90 minute panel discussion, especially when there were so many different projects being discussed. There simply wasn’t time to unpack any of the myriad of issues the work raised adequately, which I’m sure contributed to the quality and detail of Herbert’s answers.

  2. matthew herbert (@matthewherbert)

    for the record, i wish to comment on the inaccuracies of this blog post.

    you accuse me of not liking having my work questioned. yet this public event was set up precisely to question all sorts of ideas around some of the difficulties i’ve discovered whilst working with these kinds of sounds. i didn’t do the event as promotion, but to engage in public dialogue.

    in relation to the palestinian sounds, these were collected and sent to me by a palestinian living and studying in the west bank. someone at the british council helped to put us in touch. if you have an issue with me using them, then you should consider also taking it up with the palestinians that recorded and sent them to me.

    in relation to my comment about payment for the sounds on the end of silence, i said that it was very complex and since the people who died may have been members of al quaida, had i made some kind of payment, i may have found myself inadvertently funding terrorism. it was not a straightforward transaction and i never presented it as an open and shut case.

    in relation to the crematorium recording, i did not say that the reason i did not use the sounds was because it was too disturbing but because i did not get consent, and i was in a position to be able to get that consent.

    in relation to the nude record. the model is more than one person and more than one gender.

    in relation to the pig record, you can read a dialogue between me and peta here you will see it’s a lot more nuanced than your description.

    the piece of music around 911 you describe was in fact more of a radio play as i said on the evening, and was in fact an 8 minute sketch of a work that is nearly an hour long.

    the reason i gave the ‘health and safety’ warning as you describe it was because someone in the audience had PTSD as her father had died in 911 and wanted warning before we played the sounds.

    if there was squirming from the stage it was because as i said at the start of the evening, it wasn’t supposed to be an evening about me but about the ethics and difficulties of working in this area. i was very aware that discussions of my work were dominating the conversation and this was not the intention or purpose of the event.

    it is worth noting that you are quick to accuse me of misogyny yet nowhere in your piece is there a mention of the three credible, brilliant women on stage who were not only extremely eloquent on all of these complicated issues, but were pushing me on many of the topics you raise.

    finally there is something particularly mean-spirited about attending an event called ‘the politics of listening’ where there was a forum for audience members to raise their concerns or to contribute to the discussion, but instead choosing to remain silent and write a hate-filled inaccurate article about it from the safety of your laptop afterwards.

    matthew herbert
    jan 2018

      1. John Post author

        Who edited (or chose to not edit) the recordings? Who decided how the recordings would be packaged and released to the public? Who chose not to mention any of this at the public talk? Take some responsibility for what you say and do. So many of your counter-arguments are essentially “someone else did this, it can’t be my fault.” If you’re going to be a provocateur, own it. Don’t pretend you don’t realise what you’re doing.

        And I think we’ve discussed this enough, what with the entire evening’s twitter spat you started with me the night this was published and now these follow-up comments a day later. Let it go.

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