„There are billions of types of silence“

A Symphony Of Noise: Matthew Herbert. Copyright: Rise And Shine Cinema
Foto: Rise and Shine Cinema / Matthew Herbert

Did you ever wonder what an apple sounds like, what noise a fried trumpet makes and how to sample a pig? The documentary „A Symphony of Noise“ invites us to experience the inspiring world of sound artist Matthew Herbert.

Mr. Herbert, how would you describe what you do?

I don`t really know. It changes all the time. About three years ago I decided to call myself an artist. But that sounds a little pretentious because music is an invisible art form and it floats above. Last year I`ve finished my PHD so I called myself a composer as well. There is such a revolution happening in music. No one describes it like that. Music used to be a form of impressionism, you wanted to make a piece about a pig and you had to imitate it with an instrument. Now you can record the pig!

In 2005 you released the manifesto “The personal contract for the composition of music (incorporating the manifest of mistakes)“. One of the rules: No pre-existing sound! Why did you release it?

In my life there are two things happening. One is the artistic process and the other part is the everyday logistics of being a professional musician. For example, I am DJing on big saturday night parties and I want to play the sounds of plastic bags, melting icebergs, student protests and cars on fire. The audience isn`t always ready, what it means to suddenly hear new noises. So it becomes a real struggle, on the one hand I`ve been given the keys to the universe, but on the other hand I wasn`t really ready to know how to deal with it. I wrote the manifesto to remember the liberation and not to be pulled back to the status quo. You don`t need to use the drum machine, or synthesizers, that`s not the revolution! You can now make drums out of sounds of the Oktoberfest or a car crushing into a wall. That`s where should be with your focus!

I want to play the sounds of plastic bags, melting icebergs,

student protests and cars on fire

… and you also published the book “the music. A novel through sound”. What is it about and why did you publish it?

It is about the world as I hear it. As if one could remove ears from one’s head and send them around the world to hear oyster being shucked at the same time or every corrupt judge going to bed at night one after another. The end result is a description of a record I’ll never make.

Your research on sounds began years ago. What was the first noise you`ve discovered?

I worry it’s too biblical, but my first noise was the sound of biting into an apple in 1999. It was a really strange noise. A year ago I recorded an apple again and slowed it down and then I realized: it sounded exactly like the tree falling down I`ve also recorded! It`s the same thing. In both cases, the fibers pull apart. It feels like looking down an electro microscope. You suddenly hear the world in a complete new way. It’s like you hear time stopping.

What was your most surprising discovery?

It was probably when I tried to record 25 000 chickens hatching on a commercial chicken farm. They are the same breed, the same age and they hatch exactly the same second. I was expecting the incredible sound of little bird beaks inside an egg, but actually all you heard was the sound of a bird multiplied by 25 000 and the fans that kept the room at exactly 99 degrees. An unpleasantly boring sound. I was expecting it to be the sound of life emerging, but of course there is nothing romantic about raising chickens. They are raised in horrible conditions, they have never seen daylight, they live 30 days and then they get killed. I thought I was gonna witness the beginning of time, instead it was unpleasant industrialized farming I`ve heard instead. Initially I was really disappointed, but music is also a form of documentary and I`ve discovered the real story! It was very moving, but it took me three weeks to really understand the implications.

I thought I was gonna witness the beginning of time

The one-pig-album from 2011 is about the life of a pig until its death at the slaughterhouse and the meal afterwards. PETA had critized the cruelty of your act. Was it an act of provocation?

Yes, definitely, but I absolutely reject the idea that what I did was cruel. I was just there to bear witness to this pigs life. I didn’t kill it. This pig was a farmers pig. It didn’t belong to me. It was born to be eaten. If PETA found the idea of witnessing this pigs life cruel then I think it tells you more about them then it tells you about me. One of the things I loved most about this record is that over ten years later we are still talking about this pig! If I hadn’t have done this record , nobody would remember the life of this pig. I still feel very positive and strongly about it. I thought, PETA would be pleased, because people can get to hear what it is like to be a pig and how short their life might be.

So what does it tell us about PETA?

I have a real problem with PETA anyway, I find that they have a very romantic idea of the natural world which I totally don’t recognize. Their logo is this fluffy bunny in a sort of WHITE vacuum. I live on farm where you see all sort of things like chickens attacking mice. Even the mother of the pig first tried to kill it because she didn’t know what it was. In the natural world is so much friction between life and death. It’s not black and white in the way they represent it. That’s not my experience of it at all.

Is silence also sound?

It is. There are billions of types of silence. The silence, when you are waiting for the light of the traffic lights to go green, the silence in the end of a beautiful concert just before everybody starts clapping and there is also a new silence which is the silence of life which should be there, but isn’t anymore . There are less birds then there were a year ago. Every year swallows fly to South Africa, in spring they come back. Only one third of the swallows came back to my farm. Next to my last house, there was a beautiful tree. All the birds used to sit in the top of the tree. My next door neighbour wanted to build a house on the property, so they chopped the tree down, but it was impossible to build a house there, so the tree could have stayed up. There is horrible silence, where this tree with all this life used to be, but is no longer there.

Why do you live on a farm?

I couldn’t take the sound of the city anymore. When I started to listen properly to all the sirens, it became really upsetting and difficult to live with. I don’t like living in England right now. I don’t like the sound of life like everything is going normal in this country, because it is not. We are in a crisis and we have been in a crisis for a while now. I was in Berlin recently and I found it quite sad to be in Berlin. You don`t really have a really awful government like we do, you don’t have Brexit and the place sounded more optimistic too me and it felt like there is more vision. But of course Germany is not an utopian place.

Before Brexit you had formed an international “Big Brexit Band” and produced “the State between us” about what it means to be British. What was the message behind that?

I felt and I still feel European, I`ve been to Berlin a hundred times more than I have been to Birmingham, where my mum was born. I`ve spent my whole adult life in Europe working, sharing ideas, falling in love. How is Brexit making our lives better?
It was the wrong question asked at the wrong time in the wrong way and the answer was wrong as well. I wanted to be part of the conversation. I wanted to create some kind of document, I wanted to express solidarity, I wanted to say stand up for the things that I think are important like values of compassion, values of collaboration, love, kindness, openness, creativity and decency. Over two years I had a thousand people playing music and singing in the big band. We all have very different opinions, its not a cult. When we wanna survive as a species we have to work together and if not we don`t gonna die separately. The biggest test to that is climate change, Brexit is just a side show.

As soon as you fry something it becomes British

You`ve also deep fried a trumpet , when you recorded this special album. Why did you do that?

First of all it’s a bit ridiculous and I think being British is a bit ridiculous. The English flag with the red cross has a French tradition behind it, our patron saint St. George is actually from turkey, the fish served as fish and chips is often from Iceland , the potatoes are often not grown in the UK. The soon as you scrap the surface, there is almost nothing British! So it was just me showing the absurdity what it means to be British. And there is something about the idea as soon as you fry something it becomes British. So why not frying a trumpet?

On one of your concerts you surprised the audience with the sound of your tooth being pulled out of your mouth. Did your dentist know that this moment will be on tape?

Yes. I asked my dentist to record it. He was both confused and amused. After I had my second child I had a vasectomy. I have a recording of that as well. Maybe that could be on the next record. We will see. That’s what I like about sound. You have this friction. You don’t have this friction when you play the guitar or the piano.

Is there a sound you would never produce?

I thought about it a lot. When I was in Manhattan on September 11th in 2001, I had a concert that night. I was recording on the roof when one of the towers collapsed. I was a few blocks away, so in the sound there is a moment when a few thousand people died. A lot of people talked about that sound. We have seen videos of that event thousands of times. What’s different about sound? It feels different, but is it appropriate to turn that into music? I really understand that a lot of people were very against it and I am not sure, if I should turn it into music, but I don’t know why it’s different from a video recording. What are the ethics of doing that? If you just gonna put it into a pop song and talk about your love of rabbits then it’s really insulting whereas if you are trying to create memorial of sound as there is more scope to do something sensitive or valuable. In many ways that’s what my PHD was about: trying to think about those questions. It’s something that we negotiate together.

More information

„A Symphony of Noise“ about soundartist Matthew Herbert startet on september 2nd in the cinema.
Wanna experience more: Anne La Berge talks about why she uses a flute as a synthesizer