British electronic composer Matthew Herbert enters the stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall and takes a solemn stance in front of the mic before setting his nose to it, snorting with such relish that his heels leave the floor. A sample is taken, looped and layered to form the ground from which the rest of the arrangement is built. Part of Herbert’s manifesto is to utilize only new recordings; to generate sound material that is completely unique to each composition without the use of drum machines, synthesizers or preset effects. One can only imagine how this mode of production forces you to listen to the world in a different way, and to an artist at the top of his craft such as Herbert, it would seem that anything and everything becomes a playground of sonic potential.
One Pig seeks to ‘retell the story of one farm animal from birth to death and beyond’, seeing Herbert making multiple trips to the sty of one anonymous pig to make recordings. Though Herbert was prevented access to the abattoir, subsequent butchering, cooking and eating of the animal also became opportunities for sound making. Further to this, a drum crafted from the pigs skin provides percussion, and less subtly, a handsaw is taken to bone and amplified during the performance. Though this sounds crude, and is at times so absurd as to illicit laughter, at no stage does it feel like a gimmick. Instead, the whole thing is so thorough in its conceptual approach and faithful in its realization, that what could have become forced and contrived, feels loaded with meaning and to that end, ritualistic.
Herbert’s music embraces the aesthetics of failure; accidents are propagated and deconstructed to reveal unexpected beauty. The most challenging of sounds, including those of the creature’s phlegmy nasal cavity are worthy of dance, the approving audience nodding their heads to every grunt. One Pig would not be so misplaced at a discotheque, save for the five men in white lab coats of which one is jamming on a curious instrument that looks like a pig pen. Otherwise known as the ‘styharp’ and specifically designed for the occasion, it is made of a series of strings, each rigged with a pick-up mic feeding back to a laptop. The strings correspond to different pig samples and are responsive to the difference in tension and movement applied to them. Designer Yann Seznec stands at its helm and gives such a physical performance that he takes on almost primal qualities while shifting his body about the pen.
It’s hard to imagine 45 mins of pig sounds being belted out through a domestic sound system, and the album of the same name released on Accidental Records late 2011, doesn’t do the work justice. Live, though, One Pig becomes an avant-garde happening; a locus of action, commemoration and celebration. There is an element of tribal hysteria in the track leading to the animals’ imminent slaughter, where a frenzy of snorts and squeals become enmeshed with the industrial churning of an unstoppable machine. The frying of a pigs tail at the end could be seen as a final sacramental act. As the hall fills with the heavenly aroma of bacon, taking us full circle from nose to tail and back again, Hebert laments sweetly, “A simple life is all we need”.
Matthew Herbert’s One Pig was out on Accidental Records October 10, 2011.