“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.