For my next record, I will write a description of the record rather than make the music itself. It will be divided into chapters in the same way that an album is separated in to tracks. This is that book.
Each chapter will describe in precise detail what sounds to use, how they should be organised and occasionally an approximation of what the net result should sound like. Crucially it must be able to be recorded for real given enough time, access and resources. However, I will never make the record. It will always just be a description of the music itself.
Somewhere buried in the last 100 years between the invention of the microphone, the tape machine, the sampler and the computer, music has undergone a formidable and profound revolution. Instead of making music with specifically designed instruments, we can now make music out of anything (whether it is intrinsically musical or not). Why use a violin when you can use a lawnmower? Why use a lawnmower when you can use the explosion of a bomb in Libya? This fundamentally changes the basic structures and assumptions of music as we move (painfully slowly) from a form of impression to a form of documentary.
I would like this book then to be a kind of manifesto for sound that makes this shift explicit. In that way there will be no musical instruments or lyrics described in the piece. Instead, we may read about the sound of Samantha Cameron rubbing suncream into David Cameron’s back on holiday in Ibiza, mixed in to the sound of 21,000 taxi drivers turning off their engines at exactly the same time. It hopes to challenge how we think about music, sound and of course, how we hear the world itself.
Initially it was my inability to play piano like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, then Bill Evans or Theolonius Monk. Then it was my failure to orchestrate like Ravel, or 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 from the ground up.
Crucially for an electronic instrument, it was, in the 90s at least, empty. It came with no suggestions, no presets, no built-in context - and no real history to speak of either. It was as close to a blank slate as I have seen in a studio. It even allowed you to choose your own microphone to record the sounds with, just a box whose job was to listen first, make noise second. Its only two main limitations were the size of its memory and the user's imagination. Despite these constraints, it was uncompromising - suddenly anything was possible. Anything that made a sound was now music.
Initially my imagination couldn't process the absurdly vast potential of the instrument and I just recorded things immediately to hand: toasters, bottles, kitchens etc. Slowly though, as I travelled abroad, and meandered through conversations with journalists and collaborators , I began to realise that, for music, the sampler changed everything.
And then samplers became built in to software - suddenly I could now drag and drop huge numbers of files or play 88 pianos at once or 999 people clapping one-after-another at high frequency. 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. Sifting through thousands of recordings, we can now listen to Belgium compared to Brazil, or Tuesdays compared to Sundays.
Much of music is so busy soundtracking the status quo that it's lost its evolutionary urge. Faced with the chance to make music out of an A&E department or a guitar, music continues to choose the path of least resistance. One of the roles of music is as storyteller, and it seems like a too-easily surrendered opportunity. In fact, at a time when we face a number of existential threats, it seems willfully narcissistic to defiantly ignore this change, this chance.
For those of us who have nailed our flag firmly to the mast of making microphone music - turning so-called real sounds into music - things are running away from us at an alarming rate. The ability to make music out of anything can never be explored fully in one lifetime. And so this idea I first had 20 years ago, to write a description of a record rather than make one, suddenly feels more urgent. I'm running out of time to do it all in practice, so ironically, it's time to return to pen and paper.
Philip Connor is an editor at Unbound. He wrote the following after the first editorial meeting with Matthew Herbert to discuss the book.
I'm on the bus home from the National Gallery, where I spent the afternoon with Matthew Herbert discussing his book, The Music, which he is about to finish. I’m Matthew’s editor at Unbound and this was our first editorial meeting.
thanks everyone for your patience. the book is now just one week from being finished from my side. it then goes to the editor for their comments before going in to production after that. if you have any questions about how long the next stage is where the book is actually printed and distributed, please email unbound direct.
am nervous of course but pleased to be nearly there.
thank you again…
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