The Music

By Matthew Herbert

A new album - that's a book -


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.

In some ways of course it is the ultimate cheat - a chance to describe the world on a colossal scale as I hear it, 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.

It is also a discipline freed from physical technique - I don't have to actually record or edit the sounds. With gifts such as these, it it should try to be then an excessively ambitious record, and one I should never make. As such, consider this a promise that no matter who asks, I will never try. Whatever value it has is likely to be in its unreachability, its invisibility and its impossibility. Furthermore it neatly bypasses the idea of a perfect venue, performance, recording or iteration. The only performance of the piece that can exist is in each individual reader's head, each rendered entirely differently and as a consequence, aside from the words themselves as score, there is no definitive version. 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 actually sound like. I can guess of course, but who knows what sounds the Queen really makes in the bathroom? Or 1129 alarm clocks going off in Bangladesh at the same time? Pay attention to the numbers - they are important (1129 is the number killed in the Rana Plaza collapse). It's a journey into the unknown for both author and reader, but the clues are everywhere.

Crucially too, there are rules involved in the writing of it. Firstly, no traditional musical instruments, no lyrics or singing - it is an instrumental work in the history of the symphony. Secondly, everything that happens in the book could be happening right now - it may be fantastical, but it can exist. Assad needs to sleep like the rest of us, and, if we had the patience and permissions, we could bury mics deep into 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 sounds different to 77 Iraqis. It's not clear then what this book should be marked under. The publisher 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 out 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, crutch or transcendent, it's also a microscope and a photocopier.

This book then, is my attempt to describe a few things at once: a new form of music, an idealised form of music, a way of listening, a perfect representation of something in my head, and of course all the stories in the world that the piece attempts to convey. 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, spinning on the floor of the poorly lit, open shower cubicle in Sonapur worker's camp, knocked over by one of those delirious cleaners showering at the end of the night shift, where we get to hear the rhythm of a civilization, 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 musicians have unknowingly waited years for. It's time we started listening again.

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