Live Music + Gig Reviews

Matthew Herbert @ Royal Opera House, London

2 September 2011

Matthew Herbert is no stranger to conceptual projects and no stranger to political protest. Yet it seems that even he has been baffled by the righteous anger and controversy directed at his long awaited One Pig project, in which he has recorded and sampled parts of the life cycle of a pig reared for meat.

The animal rights group PETA, as well as many other commentators, have condemned this as egotistical and unethical, without first engaging with the substance of either this project or of Herbert’s discography as a whole. One Pig not only arrives as the concluding part of a trilogy, switching attention from human lives to the animal lives they control for their own consumption. It also follows in the footsteps of another album, Plat Du Jour, on which Herbert documented industrial food production processes.

Before the performance, Herbert engages in a very sparsely attended but thought provoking talk with the writer Tristram Stewart. Stewart is more diplomatic and reasonable than Herbert, emphasising the rights of individual consumers to take action. Herbert is much more suspicious of the power of corporations. For some, Herbert’s radicalism will be too didactic. But he talks articulately and persuasively about the way in which free market capitalism often serves to restrict consumer choice, particularly when consumers wish to purchase on ethical grounds. He also calls for the need to impose rations on some products, particularly fish. More specifically pertinent to One Pig, he is concerned with living conditions and the sheer amount of waste within the food process. By making a drum from pig skin, he is not advocating animal cruelty but highlighting the huge proportion of animal carcasses we simply discard. The project is intended as the opening of a complex debate, rather than a thoughtless provocation. Herbert strongly advocates treating animals with respect.

For the debut performance of One Pig, Herbert decorates the stage with bales of hay. All the performers wear white coats. The centrepiece of the stage is an electronic pig sty. Herbert jokes that the sty should have contained a real pig, but that the one suitable pig that could be found ‘had another gig’. Yet the sty does have a function all of its own. By pulling the cables that make up the fences of the sty, the musicians can trigger various samples of Herbert’s pig at various stages of his life. It becomes quite a spectacle when all five performers are within the pig sty, tugging at the fences in a manner that might, to some, seem quite random.

Musically, One Pig is not one of Herbert’s most accessible projects. It takes the modern musique concrete of Plat Du Jour and One Club as its starting point. Whilst those recordings were stark and minimal, One Pig is intense and aggressive as well as abrasive. There are times when there is simply a dense cacophony of sound. The experience seems to get harsher and less palatable as the months progress. At the beginning, the rustling of hay and gentle ripples of sonic experimentation seem quite comforting and soothing, but the mood quickly turns to something much more uncompromising and brutal.

For this performance, Herbert has not only amassed an impressive array of samplers and sophisticated electronic devices. He has also gathered a superb band, as good in its own way as his big band. Percussionist Alexis Nunez and keyboardist Sam Beste add colour and compelling rhythmic urgency to Herbert’s harsh sounds. These qualities help Herbert to build on his earlier foundations, and take his music to a different level.

The performance ends with something of an ironic joke. Amidst the confrontational clatter, an onstage chef has been preparing a pork dinner. As the noise gradually, satisfyingly decays, the dinner is served, Sam Beste switches to a conventional piano sound and delivers some sweet, gospel-tinged chords. Herbert falteringly sings what sounds like something of a thanksgiving hymn. It’s a conclusion every bit as provocative as all the pig squealing that precedes it.

Herbert’s music, as ever, is sonically and rhythmically imaginative. It is also stark and imposing. Melody is not a predominant feature. This will not be to all tastes and, indeed, some restlessness in pockets of a no-doubt curious audience could be observed. Yet in his insistence that art should serve a broader social and political purpose, and that musicians can also be documentarians, Herbert remains as significant a musician as we have working in Britain today.

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