Matthew Herbert – Sounding off

June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, January 24, 2009.

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Via objects, artefacts and field recordings from war zones, the Matthew Herbert Big Band is reimagining swing music as an unlikely form of political activism, writes Dan Rule.

YOU would never suspect that a beep could mean so much. There seems nothing special or unique about it. It is just a beep, a recurring electronic pulse.

It plays out beneath a mournful, orchestral jazz composition. Gentle peals of piano, woodwind and brass swell and retract in drifting harmony. A smoky female vocal rises, lilting atop the arrangement. It belongs to young London singer Eska Mtungwazi. “Simple maths gets harder when you’re older,” she phrases tenderly. “Minus one is easy when you’re young.”

Still, the beep continues. Its frequency ebbs and flows, forming

a light buzz. Its pitch tilts slightly higher and lower, until all else fades. Just the singular, repeated electronic blip remains.

The song is called One Life and it is the 11th on the Matthew Herbert Big Band’s recently released album There’s Me and There’s You. While beautiful in its own right, it isn’t until we consult the record’s liner notes that the composition — and the blip — takes on anything near its true meaning.

As the notes reveal, the recurring pulse on which One Life is built isn’t just some random noise, but a snapshot of life — a document of one life saved and thousands upon thousands extinguished. “One beep taken from the alarm system of my premature son’s neonatal special care unit,” writes Herbert. “Each beep represents 100 people killed in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003 to October 2006.”

To the 36-year-old — who will perform at Hamer Hall with Mtungwazi, an eight-piece band of British musicians and the cream of the Australian jazz scene — music exists in an ambit beyond mere aesthetics and expression. It is documentation, it is reference and it is politics.

“To have a microphone recording is an incredible power,” he says, chatting over the phone from his home in London. “I can point it towards Gordon Brown or I can point it towards myself.”

Herbert is an anomaly in a music industry that increasingly thrives on reductive notions of genre and market niche. Since bursting onto the electronic music scene in the mid-’90s, he has released a library of highly political works under countless guises — Herbert, Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy and Wishmountain, to name a few — as well as producing and remixing artists as divergent as Bjork, Yoko Ono, Quincy Jones, Roisin Murphy and Dizzee Rascal. Using objects, field recordings, electronics and traditional instrumentation and arrangement, the British composer, musician, producer and activist creates music that transcends its own supposed form.

“I think that we expect too little of our music in terms of politics and activism,” he muses. “I feel like I’ve got this enormous power with music, and that I should use it wisely and carefully.”

It’s a rare perspective, especially for someone working as a big-band leader. No matter how far you trawl its history — from early ensembles such as Benny Goodman and his orchestra, Count Basie and Dizzie Gillespie, to contemporary acts such as the Mingus Big Band — swing and big-band music have conjured notions of glamour and celebration rather than overt politics.

Herbert’s compositions directly subvert this mould. If you’ve read the liner notes to There’s Me and There’s You in some depth, the album comes to resemble the archives of a political documentarian rather than the recordings of a jazzman.

The list of sound sources and field recordings that underscore the record’s flourishing swing tunes includes a Royal Bible from 1953, 74 condoms being scraped along the floor, 72 US presidential campaign pins from 1978 to 2008, 100 people of influence saying “yes”, the cremation of one anonymous human body and the rattle of matches recorded in the corridors beneath British Parliament in which each match represents 100,000 people killed in Iraq.

“There’s no real friction in mainstream music and no talk of what’s really going on, like suicide bombings … Considering that music is one of the ways we express ourselves and our lives, certainly if you were to look back from 30 or 40 years away, it would be fair to conclude that everything was going OK,” he says with a laugh.

Herbert grew up with music, learning classical piano and violin from the age of four. It was about this time that he also “inherited” his sense of activism. His mother’s family were pacifists, while his paternal grandfather was a conscientious objector during World War II. “He went to trial and was beaten and lost all his friends and had shit posted through his letterbox … I never really got to talk to him about it, which is one of the biggest regrets of my life.”

Perhaps the most affecting example of this sensibility on There’s Me and There’s You is in the hushed, creeping woodwinds of Nonsounds, for which Herbert asked Palestinians to contribute recordings of their favourite and most hated sounds. The results are beautiful and harrowing.

The brush of a farmer harvesting his crops and the crow of a rooster over a Ramallah morning provide the underlay to the tune’s overture. By its end, we bear witness to recordings of Israeli soldiers enforcing curfew, torrents of gunfire and, according to the notes, Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian and international protesters against a wall.

“To me, you’d be very hard-pressed to depict that event in music in a conventional sense,” says Herbert. “But because the sound is a recording of the actual event … it takes on a much bigger significance. It is actually documentation.”

But is Herbert’s music really succeeding in such objectives when it is so reliant on explanatory literature? Indeed, shouldn’t good art translate via its own means? Herbert argues that neither art nor music exists in a vacuum.

“Music doesn’t just come from this context-free realm,” he says. “When you think about it, it’s an essential part of art history and appreciation and art criticism to engage with the material. If you went into a gallery you wouldn’t know whether a picture was the Queen or a prostitute if you didn’t really look and read about it.”

Herbert frames his work with the big band in terms of “a seduction”. “Some of the records that I’ve made as protest records can be quite aggressive or unpleasant or confrontational, and erring towards that more violent side of protest,” he offers. “As I get older, I’m trying to avoid that more and more.

“By using something like swing music, I’m trying to seduce people into listening to something different, or seduce people into a particular sound or recording.”

Indeed, although Herbert’s work is rooted in politics, in another sense it’s his passion for sound itself that really drives him. “I mean, we just haven’t even begun to explore sound yet,” he urges. “When you consider that we have no way of listening to what 1984 sounded like, you know, what cars sounded like and what ticketing machines on the trains sounded like, which birds were in the fields — there are no references for that.” He pauses. “And that’s what I want to create.”

The Matthew Herbert Big Band plays Hamer Hall, the Arts Centre, tomorrow at 8pm. Tickets $68/$58 concession, theartscentre.com.au, 1300 136 166 and Ticketmaster outlets.

There’s Me and There’s You is out through !K7/Inertia.

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