Socialist Worker

Matthew Herbert: music that punctures the illusions of the system

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 2123

Matthew Herbert

Matthew Herbert


There’s Me And There’s You is the latest album from composer and jazz musician Matthew Herbert – and it’s his most explicitly political work to date.

The album’s cover art features a mock petition that declares, “We, the undersigned, believe that music can still be a political force of note and not just the soundtrack to over-consumption.”

The songs cover themes including the Iraq war, the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay, Palestine and climate change.

Matthew spoke to Socialist Worker about why he had decided to address these issues in his work. “I believe that as musicians our role is to be storytellers – and these are the most pertinent stories around at the moment,” he said.

“The war in Iraq is in the news virtually every day, but it’s almost absent from music and art. I feel that we’re living very much under an illusion at the moment, and it’s part of my responsibility to try and puncture that illusion.”

As with much of his previous work, There’s Me And There’s You makes heavy use of sounds culled from “non-musical” sources – doors closing, matchboxes rattling, the bleeps from a newborn baby’s incubator.

Pulses

These peculiar and at times sinister pulses and twitches nestle alongside jazz vocals and conventional instruments such as trumpets and guitars.

This technique – influenced by the “musique concrète” movement started by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer in the mid 20th century – is designed to give the songs “structural integrity”, says Matthew.

“It’s about actually using a sound directly associated with something, rather than a musical abstraction,” he says. “It creates a documentary or factual skeleton that you can to hang an emotional response around.”

Matthew’s 2005 album Plat Du Jour – about the politics of food production and distribution – used samples associated with food, including the sound of a Chieftain tank driving over a picnic.

This time Matthew has decided to take his palette of sounds in a “more explicitly political direction”.

Some are symbolic – the rattling matches and incubator bleeps represent the people killed in the war in Iraq.

But others are directly about politics and power. The doors slamming were recorded secretly in the Houses of Parliament, while the track “Yesness” features the voices of 100 “people of power” saying the word “yes”.

Invitation

The album’s artwork includes copies of letters from Gordon Brown and the Queen declining an invitation from Matthew to be part of the “yes” project.

Both couch their rejections in bureaucratic convolutions that avoid using a certain word beginning with “N”.

“I liked the fact that they couldn’t bring themselves to say ‘no’ directly,” says Matthew. “There’s a particular language of power they use that obscures their real intentions.”

What’s perhaps surprising is that all these sonic experiments are woven into a such a smooth and familiar form – the swingtime jazz sound.

“I like the metaphor of the big band,” says Matthew. “It’s a kind of version of how I think society should be. Everybody plays their part – if the trombone plays a D instead of and E, it changes the whole harmony.”

Many of the swingtime influenced tracks bristle with bitterly satirical lyrics and intent. “I wanted to reclaim these sounds that have come to be associated with decadence and luxury,” says Matthew.

“I can’t bring myself to do a straight old-fashioned number. I’m not interested in pastiche unless it’s for a political or artistic purpose.”

There’s Me And There’s You by The Matthew Herbert Big Band is released on 10 November by Accidental Records. The band will play songs from the album at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 November as part of the London Jazz Festival. For more details go to » www.matthewherbertbigband.com


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Tue 14 Oct 2008, 18:24 BST
Issue No. 2123
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