The avant-garde sound artist talks Life in a Day, the problem with YouTube and pig music.
Electronic pioneer and avant-garde sound artist Matthew Herbert has gone under many guises during his eclectic career. Most recently however, he was selected to create the score to accompany experimental YouTube collage documentary Life in a Day. He recently took time to talk to LWLies about an array of different topics ranging from YouTube itself, his problems with iTunes' lack of chronology and the process of crafting an album entirely from the sounds of a pig.
LWLies: How did you come to be involved in the project?
Herbert: I did a record called 'Plat Du Jour',which was a record made out of food, and I know that Joe Walker, the editor, had heard that. I had recorded the sound of 3,500 people eating an apple at the same time and things like that, so Joe had known my work and I think it became a happy coincidence in the end. I think the other thing as well, and it might be a little bit early to state this but it’s probably an important thing to state, is that at the beginning of the process it was a pretty small production and was really an experimental artwork, so it wasn’t so much of a big commercial concern as maybe the producers might have viewed it later.
So it wasn’t conceived as a big cinematic project to begin with then?
Oh, absolutely. I mean first of all we had absolutely no idea what sort of images we would get back. We had no idea what the take up would be and also because I asked people to send sounds, I had no idea what they would come back like, so it was a bit like committing to going on holiday where you have no idea where you were going to land and whether you were going to need snow boats or a bikini. It was just a case of submitting yourself to the process.
And when it came to the scoring process you say you didn’t know what images you were going to be given. Were you asked to interpret a theme or a mood or were you able to use the visuals as a reference point?
Well I was very lucky to be involved right from the beginning really, so I saw a great many clips, many of which didn’t even make it in to the final film. Pretty soon you had a really great sense of the kind of work that was going to come back, and also which ones were the most successful, personal, unassuming and emotional ones. It was very much a case of trying to find a kind of rhythm for this music to accompany the images because one minute you’ve got an image of a Russian guy jumping out of a window and the next minute you’ve got an image of a dead body being dragged out of the Hudson River.
The only connection was that these things were filmed on the same day so the connection didn’t come from the material. There was no continuity and no editing at that stage yet and what I was asked to do initially was come up with an arching piece of music that could help join those pieces together. It was pretty abstract at that stage but I know it helped Joe put the images together. I took some of the audio from some of the clips and I took a tempo of 120bpm which is the tempo of a clock ticking and because we hadn’t edited anything yet I thought we should pick something universal and something that would tie in to the theme of the film. The song you hear Ellie Goulding sing is very close to the demo I did right at the beginning.
You’re renowned for experimenting with samples. Was it quite exciting coming in to it not knowing what sort of sounds you were going to have access to?
I was extremely excited because over the years I’ve tried to work with large numbers of sounds where people could submit them. The problem was that the technology hadn’t really been good enough. I first asked people for sounds in the mid-'90s when we set up a PO Box number and people sent in cassettes or minidiscs, so we would end up with 10 or 20. At the end of the nineties I set up an answer phone and asked people to send in sounds and we ended up getting around two hundred but that was just telephone quality. With the advantages of the Internet and obviously having a name like Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald attached, we knew that we would hopefully end up with a few more entries. Eventually we ended up with 2,500 different recordings, so being able to work on that sort of scale was really exciting. And for me it was the next stage for trying to listen to sound in a different way, but it was very crucial that we gave shape to that sound. If you ask people to take a photograph of anything you’re going to get all sorts of things back and it’s going to be very difficult to unify them, so we made sure that we asked people for the same set of sounds.
We asked them to clap once and we asked them to breathe in and out and sing high notes and hold them for as long as they could. And the last one was send us your favourite sounds, so for me it was quite a deliberate attempt to take control of part of the process but also to surrender part of the control entirely to other people. Quite a few people sampled musical instruments like a single note on a piano or a guitar or a harmonica and we had loads of drummers too, so when it came to putting together an actual score, I was able to make a little YouTube orchestra of sounds sent to us by people. I just had this really strange feeling sat in my studio, where someone had sent in a single piano note, which I played in to my sampler, then I could play the piano. And it suddenly struck me that that was this stranger’s piano, which I was sat in my studio playing from the other side of the world. So those are some pretty new experiences that you end up having that you couldn’t possibly have had years ago.
The '465 People Clapping' track is probably one of the most interesting tracks on the album.
Yeah, I’m pleased to hear you say that because for me that’s definitely the most interesting piece because you hear all those different histories and the different way you can hear all the different recordings and different rooms, mediums, the formats. You can hear so many different variations in such a short period of time and I like the idea as well that you’re slightly asserting yourself as an individual, you’re saying 'That’s me, that’s my clap' and yet you’re part of a pattern that’s ongoing. For me that was really very, very exciting, but as it became more of a film then there’s more of a kind of commercial imperative to make and you make music less experimental.
And the tracks that made the cut on the actual soundtrack do feel like a huge departure from what you’re known for. Was that down to studio pressure?
I obviously can’t talk about that stuff too candidly but I think there’s still a very clearly established tradition of a certain kind of orchestral sound being use. When the images are so disparate and so splayed out from such different sources the music was going to have to hold people’s hands a little bit through that process and that certainly became clear from the producer’s point of view. It wasn’t my film after all. If it was my film then obviously I would have done things different and ultimately I’m working for someone else. In the end the producers even brought in Harry Gregson-Williams to do something more conventional.
Did you have much contact with Harry at all during that process?
No, I didn’t have any contact with Harry. He was brought in towards the end of the process and it was very much about fulfilling I guess a kind of richer sound and a more traditional sound.
Speaking of slightly less traditional sounds, you’ve just done 'One Pig', an album composed entirely from pig sounds. Was this just a natural progression from your interest in creating music from everyday sounds?
Well I think it’s just an inevitable part of what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years, which is turning sound into music. A huge revolution has happened where up until about 15 years ago, music was impressionism. If I’d wanted to write a piece of music about this phone call I would have to try using a musical metaphor. I don’t even know how I’d begin to do that. But now I can take a microphone and record it and use the actual phone call and turn that in to music, so there’s this shift from impressionism in to documentary, and that’s a revolution in music. Part of that revolution is that music can now be life and death, so for me I was very interested in the idea of a musical biography, from birth through life to death and beyond. A human’s not really possible so I started thinking about animals and pretty soon I ended up coming back to pigs because they’re so divisive.
Some people hate them, some people love them and culturally they seem to be a signifier between the civilised and the uncivilised. We have so many rude words for pigs and yet we rely on them so much in our society. They’re absolutely everywhere. You probably come in to contact with a pig 20 times a day without really realising it. So for me it was just a fascinating animal that we understand so little about and yet we rely on so greatly and so it just struck me as being a logical thing. Obviously it makes noises and that’s what I do, I turn noises in to music, and I liked the idea of listening to a pig differently and listening to it from a perspective rather than a perspective of what functions it has in society.
It’s certainly one of the most terrifying things we’ve ever heard.
[Laughs] It’s not supposed to be that. Other people have told me it’s neutral. Somebody told me it’s not. It’s really funny; I guess it depends on your relationship with pigs and the natural world. But it’s amazing to me how little contact you actually have. I mean before this I thought to myself when the last time I actually saw a pig in the flesh or spent any time observing one was. It’s incredibly limited from a metropolitan perspective. It serves as a metaphor to how little we understand, or how little contact we actually have with the consequences of our decisions, or with the resources that make up our everyday life.
You’ve made music out of some really strange objects and situations before, but was this even more creatively inspiring for that reason?
Well I think it was much more challenging than inspiring. In many ways this record is a biography, but it’s very difficult because I don’t speak the language of the subject, so you’re very much guessing as to what the pig is trying to communicate itself, and it’s certainly not communicating with me. It wasn’t bothered that I was there. And yet at the same time I felt as though I had a moral responsibility towards it as well. I had a previously difficult experience in a much more serious way on my album 'There’s Me and There’s You' where I asked Palestinians to send in their most favourite and most hated sounds and their most hated sounds were things like tanks crushing houses and people being shot by soldiers. So for me there’s a huge moral, artistic, political and social dilemma about what you do with those sounds, how you treat them, what function of music you create and what possible benefit it can have by being turned in to music.
So you tend to think forward to the context through which you want people to hear something?
Yeah, I mean there’s no correct way of listening to it. You know, you don’t necessarily have to know all the stories to listen to it. After all, it’s still music and I want it to be able to function as music and for it to be emotional and engaging. But for me, there’s a real problem in that context is stripped away from so much of our life. You go on iTunes and you can’t even search by date. There’s no sense of chronology to iTunes at all. It’s just a sort of plateaux, and for me that’s a very soft form of fascism where you divorce historical and relevant context from something and just leave it standing alone as a product, and music for me is a process. And that was the best thing about working on Life in a Day and 'One Pig', which I was doing simultaneously. It was great just finding oneself immersed in the process where you didn’t know what the outcome was going to be and that for me is the greatest luxury of creating something because so many of the outcomes are so predictable these days, whether it might be from the sounds used or where they might be heard.
What’s your response to YouTube generally? Do you view it as a positive collaborative tool?
I think my biggest problem about YouTube is the fact that it seems to be the place for people to listen to music now. It’s become a huge music library now and it’s wonderful for the ability to go and reference something, but I feel sad that it now has to be accompanied by visuals. So actually in the last year or so I’ve felt it necessary to go back and create videos for songs that I wrote some ten years ago that didn’t have videos.
So you feel that sound should stand on its own then?
Yeah, I absolutely think that because the image is a tyrannical beast. If I play you the sound of a car you might think of a blue Peugeot when it’s actually a green Renault and I might imagine a yellow Ford Cortina, so you get 10,000 people in a room and you maybe get nine thousand different ideas about what that car looks like or where it was. Is it parked in a drive or in a garage or is it on the road? Whereas if you show someone a picture of a car, that’s it. It’s the end of the interaction. As an audience member you’re not implicated in that interpretation. Your imagination’s not engaged in a round way. It’s just a very two-dimensional experience. So for me I feel that sound and music have a huge advantage over the visuals. It implicates the audience much more directly in the process of interpreting the work.
So has your experience on Life in a Day made you rethink working with film?
No, I am going to make a film. I’m beginning the process at the moment. I’m making a feature, a musical about sound and that’s going to be my next thing. But I think the thing that I really enjoyed from working on Life in a Day and the thing that I think was really extraordinary was being able to hear multiple sounds from multiple people and being able to sort of compare them side by side. Like the clapping track, there’s another sound that is not on the soundtrack where we layered all the favourite sounds on top of each other and it’s the most extraordinary sound I’ve ever heard it just sounded like ants devouring a carcass or something it’s such an extraordinary, violent consumptive noise and for me that was the highlight of working on that. And that touched on the possibilities of what that would sound like.
Are you going to incorporate that collaborative aspect in to the film?
Well I won’t be collaborating with anyone on the sound but that approach of sourcing sounds from other people and from implicating the audience with their own work is extraordinary and an extremely exciting prospect and for me, one of the slight low points of Life in a Day was seeing how it was necessary for Kevin to have to trim down this very expansive vision to a much more contained 90-minute vision that you can see in the cinema, with nice music and nice sound. For me it was at its most engaging in its rawest form but that couldn’t possibly work in a commercial sense. But I feel very privileged to have witnessed the film when it was in a rawer state.
In a sense, do you feel that maybe cinema wasn’t the best platform for it?
I thought cinema was good for it actually because cinema’s a shared experience and there’s something very different about watching the film in an edit suite. I remember first watching the complete edit, which was three and a half hours long, on my own in the edit suite surrounded by computers. Seeing basically the same film in a cinema with 600 people was a completely different experience. So I think cinema was the right home for it, but I think it would be great to be able to see a longer version or to see it extended on a different format maybe with the ability to remix it, something like that.
Life in a Day is available on DVD October 21.