Interview Matthew Herbert

Das Treffen mit Matthew Herbert fand am 5. Mai 2010 im Soho House in London statt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs ist Matthew Herberts CD Mahler Symphoniy X.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

Do you think it is meaningful for musicians with a background in popular culture to deal with works of the classical tradition?

Not necessarily. I don't. And I think it goes the other way as well. I don't think it is always meaningful to have someone from the classical tradition to go the other way as well. I don't think it is. With the greatest of respect to Deutsche Grammophon there is always a commercial element as well which is that classical music is really struggling to reach a new audience and it needs to find a new audience, otherwise the commercial pressure will become too great on it. And I don't always like the consequences of it. You know, I did a remix album for Blue Note and for Verve I contributed a track. And it was really interesting. For the Blue Note one everybody went for jazz/funk, the late 60s/early 70s period. And it was a very narrow perspective, everybody just put beats behind it and just updated it by that. And I found it a very unartistic approach to it. But I think that there is something valuable to it, otherwise I wouldn't have done it. And they asked me a few years ago to do it. And I said, I would love to do it, but I can't think of what to do. And it has taken me three years to figure out what to do. But the thing is, for me, that Mahler didn't have a recording studio. So that is the thing I can bring that is different. So I think I have that to contribute. I don't think I have much to necessarily contribute to harmony or melody, because that feels like something else. But I do have a studio and a computer, and I think that that is an incredible liberation for musicians. But as I said, if I didn't think there was something meaningful there, then I wouldn't do it. But generally the answer is obviously: no, not always.

The classical tradition is very much at home within the bourgeois realm, and that is a problem of the avantgarde, wanting to be revolutionary, but being caught with the music life of the bourgoisie, so to say. Pop culture on the other hand has liberated itself from the bourgois culture. Well, let's just assume that for the moment being. So working of works from the bourgois culture is penetrating this other realm. I wonder why that is important. There are many projects trying to transgress these worlds. There is a certain ideology attached to classical music and also to the works of Gustav Mahler.

That is ten things in one. I do think that pop music is the new bourgoisie. I do think pop music is the most conservative in many ways because it has the most freedoms, and yet it chooses not to really embrace those freedoms. You know, for me, when you talk about pop music coming in or into elite circumstances, liked they have crashed the palace. But what do you do when you get in there? Everybody sits around and drinks champagne. No one writes anything on the walls. You know what I mean. No one really messes with it. But I also think that we can ourselves into too much of a mess thinking about that, because so many of the distinctions that we think are important are created by capitalist version of society which creates these distinctions between pop music and classical music. For example, when classical music or some aspects of it would have been free, but it moved into the concert houses at some point, and that was when people could be charged for it and get paid. So Frank Sinatra as well introduced strings not for artistic reasons, but for all sort of reasons, for union reasons, for getting into certain venues. For example, as a listener I like to listen to whatever, dubstep, hiphop, and then I might listen to a Brahms piano piece the next. Yet that doesn't seem to be, certainly in England, maybe it's different in other places, but there is no real meaningful representation of that experience in a wider context, there is no magazine that I could pick up that has hip hop alongside Brahms in an meaningful way. That is also seperated out. So I think we can overstate those differences too much at times. But I think the biggest problem for me really is the artistic intention and quality, so much of what we do is just not good enough. I would say 80 percent of pop music, maybe more, is rubbish. But then if I turned to some classical music to use a short phrase, contemporary classical music, music written now for orchestras and things, I find a lot of that completely pointless and it doesn't have a relevance to my life as well. It doesn't express what my life is being like. I see music, music in general, a problem with music that we have become very complacent about the idea of music. So I am making a record at the moment made out of a pig. I was there for its birth and I went up every two weeks to record its life. And then the idea was to record his death. But I wasn't allowed to record his death, because of the stupid laws in this country. And then there will be some sort of feast or something like that, but basically this is a year long project. But this record is being condemned by PETA, which is an animal rights organisation, said that they were disgusted by the idea of turning this pig's life and death into music. Which was amazing to me, because I hadn't written any music yet. They hadn't heard what I was going to do. But I found it very thrilling possibly for the first time in my professional life, where just the idea of a piece of music was difficult for some people. And I love the idea that music still has that power to break through those doors. I guess it is parts of what Dada was, the sudden juxtaposition of something absurd next to something more functional or something. I feel that we have forgotten about the power of music or given in to the idea that music is just something that we consume like Coca-Cola or Heineken.

Sometimes music runs into doors instead of opening them. This pig is being kept for meat production?

No, because you can't get access. So it is a good pig. It is a pig being raised by a local farmer. But for me that is part of the story itself, that you can't get to see the food that you are eating or that you are being asked to eat. That is absurd.

We should maybe talk about the Mahler. I thought I would maybe not have to ask this question, but I guess I do: Why did you choose this piece?

I think it is a legitimate question. I think it has, like most basic questions, it has a lot of answers, but I just felt like the elephant in the room with the real composer of the symphony, I felt like for me I guess the pinnacle of the classical achievement in many ways is the symphony. We can talk maybe a lot about that; maybe I'm wrong. But for me in some ways when I think of classical music I think of a big Beethoven symphony or something like that. And indeed when I asked Deutsche Grammophon what was their most recorded piece, it was Beethoven's fifth symphony, which they had 40 or something recordings of. So one idea I had was to take all 40 recordings and put them all aside, but I couldn't do this for business reasons, I couldn't get the permission and things. So I was looking at symphonies. I like Brahms' symphonies, his third, his fourth. I like some Shostakovitch stuff and Bruckner as well, but I feel like Shostakovitch for example is rooted in a very particular time in Russia. And you can feel him struggling with very particular structures, man-made structures around him. And out of all of that Mahler feels the most, it is a bit of a cheap word, but it feels the most universal in the sense that, I got this from reading some biographical elements, which was: he was never really interested in the day to day life of local politics or anything like that. He converted from Judaism into Catholicism just to get ahead. He just wanted to do his music, and he was obsessed by music, and music was driving him, and I feel like he was searching for some meaningful expression of something divine, but he can't stop himself from expressing the struggle for that as well. Bruckner he describing what he thinks is the divine. Mahler you feel like is trying to figure out still, so the music comes across as a very human experience. And I feel that has worked well over a hundred years. And it is interesting that Mahler has become more and more popular in a way, and now he is the most performed, in this country anyway, the most performed composer symphonically, by the orchestras. But in the end the deciding factor was that it was unfinished. Because the Adagio he did a lot of work on, so it could be exactly like it is or it could be completely different. We don't really know. But there is enough doubts, there is 1 percent doubts, enough for me, that is like instead of having to kick down the doors it is like giving you a key, the combination to the padlock, the code to get you in. So I think that is really crucial, the fact that it is unfinished, because I feel, to answer your first question, it legitimises the process.

I hadn't even thought about that. The symphony is so charged with his death and the retreat and the unhappiness and his illness, that the unfinishedness of it kind of disappeared to me. We do have to talk about you touching ...

... the great Mahler.

Yes. The notion of the masterpiece is always a problem. It is more about the strategy. There would have been many approaches. You could, like on Bodily Functions, just have cut it up and use the sounds and make something completely new out of it. A dance track with sounds from this recording. But for some reason you turned it into a piece of concept art, I have the feeling.

God, I hope not. (lacht)

Well, at least you decided not to touch it a lot and instead just add a new angle to the piece or personalise your listening. But you didn't want to take it apart.

It's like a jumper. You pull one thread and the whole thing collapses. It is a very complex system, symphonic writing, you know. It takes a lot of listening to even understand the shape, let alone understand what he was thinking at the time. In particular because it is unfinished, you don't know if melodies would be, so for example the theme towards the beginning, and it returns, and each time it returns he never finishes it. It always runs out of steam. It is always: "No, I just can't." Because it is unfinished you never know if he was going to complete that. And the other thing, let's not be shy about it, there was not the budget to get an orchestra to replay it. Although I did look into that for a short while. I think it comes down to the guiding principle of why would you do this in the first place. What do I have that Mahler doesn't. And because he is a better melody and harmony writer than I will ever be and a better symphonic writer than I will ever be, there is no point in competing in that sense. Or inserting. I would feel arrogant.

You could have added beats.

But then beats are driven by machines, and there is nothing mechanical about a performance like this. Just the fact of these different Adagios. One might take 20 minutes, one might take 35 minutes to play, in terms of if you listen to a Haitink version as opposed to a Sinopoli version, which this one is. But the thing that I have that he doesn't have is, I have a recording studio. I have microphones and recording equipment ...

... which are machines.

Which are absolutely machines. But I think that that is really important because there is a real movement in electronic music and studio music that considers machines to just be facilitators for repetition. So for example people don't take samplers to sample things, they take samplers to make beats. When I say sample things I mean the world. They tend to sample other music. So for example electronic music now basically means synthesis. It means synthesisers and drum machines. And electronic music doesn't mean all the music of the world seen through the possibilities of a machine. It means quite a narrow thing now. And certainly if you listen to dance music, I mean dance music is just drum machines and synthesisers. And this is one of the reasons why I think that it is incredibly conservative and the new bourgeois. It has a very low ambition in a way. It is happy to accept the world as it is. It is not really seeking to challenge the world and the listener, I think. But I have this recording studio and I think that one of the greatest pleasures of being alive now and working with a recording studio, it is so easy now to go and record somewhere else. So not only do we have the studio, but we can leave the studio behind as well. And I think Mahler was very much locked to his pen and paper. In the beginning you hear someone pacing around the room where he wrote this. The claustrophobia is very intense.

This is at his house?

Yes. The first sound you hear is the door opening.

And the birds were there as well?

Yes. It is very interesting because they crows.

I thought you had put it in there on purpose.

No, no. It is a coincidence. This is why my job is great. This is what makes my life so exciting, because basically, my wife was pregnant and I couldn't travel to Toblach. And I didn't want to fly there, because I am trying not to fly for the environment. And I didn't want to fly for one hour there and come back. So someone who lives there near did it for me. I just said, can you go there and just record it. And there is a bird song in the Adagio. (singt) Well, I think it is birds, anyway, with flutes, and Mahler loved long walks and things. So it is very much the countryside. So I started to record literally outside the cabin, and I part of me was really hoping that I would hear the same birds that Mahler was copying. But it was a crow, which is so perfect, because a) it is about death. And then I was reading that whilst he was writing Das Lied von der Erde a crow comes crashing into his hut, being chased by a hawk. So I had the two: the bird of prayer and the bird that came pressing in. Now the story is told a ten different times, and the bird is different every time, but the first one i read said it was a crow. And again, just that coincidence that there is crow there for me, you don't get that coincidence from a drum machine. You don't get that from a plug-in. You get that from risk and from being open to the experience. And for me that one little moment is one of the most exciting moments on the record. It is such a small moment. It is nothing really. But it is a detail that reinforces other aspects, it all starts to link in. And instead of a modern recording studio, the first thing it does is, it closes the doors. "Sh, everybody be quiet." It doesn't let the world in. So it is almost a new manifesto for me. I am only going to record outside or sound outside the studio and bring it back. Like a film. You don't see film makers recording the edits. They go out and they bring it back.

For me you weren't opening the studio but you were opening the concert hall.


That is a concealed room.

One of the best reactions I have had for the record was a journalist I spoke to last time, on the phone I think, saying that he was listening to it on the bus on headphones, and because some of it goes so very quiet the distinction between the music and the outside world almost vanishes at times. There is a dialogue between the two things and there are coincidences, and for me that is how I hear the world and that is what I am interested in, because – that is part of a longer conversation that becomes more of spiritual one, but – I feel that was very exciting to me, that breaking down the border between something. Like you say, an expression of something in many ways very elite and very closed and very distant, and bringing it right here. And in a way that was what I was trying to do, I was trying to find a way to measure the distance between me and Mahler. Like trying to leap that 100 years, across that 100 years, or acknowledge that 100 years have passed, not through stylistic things, not by saying, OK, it is 2010, so I am going to do a dubstep beat or something like that, because that seemed utterly banal in comparison. But it is about acknowledging the distance and acknowledging the space and acknowledging that I am alive and he isn't and also acknowledging the fact that everybody who was supposed to hear this music has died as well. So it is like a loss, so many things have gone. I felt it was really important to quietly stand alongside it somehow, and saying: "This is me listening to your piece of music 100 years later."

I asked myself, what makes it interesting to listen to this instead of the original, and I have the feeling the CD is actually more about listening than it is about music or as much about listening as it is about music. And it felt like Being John Malkovich, "Being Matthew Herbert", listening with your ears and getting access to this piece through your head.

There are even sections where you are listening to me listening to the piece of music. And in a way that is what I mean about the 100 years and that gap and everybody being dead, is that one of the things I did is that I took it to a crematorium and played it out of the speakers of the crematorium. You know, we think that a crematorium is about death, but in many ways it is about the living because the dead have already gone, really. And the speakers are pointing toward the audience, they are not pointing toward the dead.

These are the speakers that are used for ceremonies.

Exactly. But they are there for the living. And that is really interesting about music, we use music in so very particular ways now and it is accompanying so much of our live, and why do we play music, when people die. Robbie Williams is very big apparently at crematoriums. The idea of "What music would we play at our own funeral?" What would we request to be played? That is a difficult one. But it is very much for the living. And it is about the listening experience. It is a selfish thing rather than for the person who is gone. They don't give a shit. You could be playing God Save the Queen. But then, of course, when I turn up at the crematorium I have to start thinking about where I am going to put my microphone. Well, I put it in the audience first. And towards the end of the piece of music I said, well, I want to convey a passing or a journey on, so let's move the microphone closer. And then there is this curtain, these curtains, they are motorised. that are a very clear symbol of passing between life and death. OK, let's put the microphone behind it, and then you hear the tck-tck-tck-tck, the little tops of the curtain, you can't hear them from the front, but in the back you hear this noise. So the microphone starts here, moves there and then goes behind the curtain, and then it goes into the urn. We had this urn with a little picture of Mahler inside, again, it was just a small detail. So it was put there and the microphone goes inside, as if ashes could hear. If you are at a crematorium you are just recording things from a different perspective and imagining a continuation of some of the themes and stories that you doing, and then you bring it back to the studio and start to give it shape and give it order. I love that freedom that you have. It is such an important musical freedom. It changes in perspective the idea of location, the idea of what we are listening to could be Mahler walking around his hut, pacing, trying to write a piece of music. So in that way I feel like we are listening to him as well, we are listening to the process of writing the music as well. And I would hope that in doing that that we would reexamine what we were talking about in the beginning, about the classical – what did you call it?

A realm?


I don't remember.

Well classical music. You had another way of saying classical music, the conventions of classical music. In a way by enjoying the process of listening again or listening in a new way, that could be a gentle challenge to those things. The biggest problem for me is the assumption of privilege. So in London we have two, maybe three opera companies, and yet it is the same audience going around, and it is all subsidised. Well, we should just have one. Let there just be one opera company. Either that or they have to go out and do it outside, engage with people. It is too safe. And a time politically when the world is a mess, I think we don't need safe anymore. We need action.

You mention the crematorium, recording at his house, playing the viola solo at his grave – for me there is an irony to all of this, playing with the fetish of the dead master. Is there this irony?

There is, and there is also a playfulness to it as well, which is a bit cheeky. But I think it is not entirely clear to me how everything fits together still, because it's a very difficult piece of music to listen to, because it is 40 minutes long. And so when I was mixing it I would get to about 25 minutes in, and the computer would go ts, and I would go "fuck". So you would go back to the beginning and listen to it again. And you would get lost, and it became very intense. And there are some bits that I took out, because it got to intense. When I went to the crematorium I was invited backstage and there is a thing called the cremulator which grinds down bones, so after something has been burned there are bones left and they put it into something like a washing machine and these bones going round with some stones in it to grind it down. It was the worst noise I ever heard. I had this in the beginning and made a beat out of it, in the middle, where it kicks off, just a little, a blast, a modern blast. I put it in there, and because I knew what it was it was really and deeply unsettling. I felt that I had gone somewhere in the process that was too dark really, because this was a person. And my mom died 16 years ago, and if I knew that someone had taken my mom's bones and chop them up and make them into a beat, I would not be very pleased. But it did make the piece incredibly intense. And I think that that is one of my functions, to set up circumstances and to sit back and turn the microphones on and listen to the results. It is like the record made out of food, Plat du jour, I went to record 25.000 chickens being born or 3.000 people biting into an apple, but I have never heard these sounds before, so you have to go into it with an open mind and open ears and submit yourself to the process, when for example suddenly a crow appears in those recordings in the beginning. I think there is something about setting up those situations whereby you take some of the ideas to their logical conclusion, and then you assess later. And I feel that with this piece I am going to be assessing for the next 20 years, I still don't entirely know what I have done, or I don't have all the answers, but I know why I did them and why it is in the order that it is. But it is always a struggle for people, especially journalists, with my work about meaning, about how much meaning you attribute to these things and whether the knowledge of that meaning has an impact on the listening experience. And that is something I spend hours talking about with people, and I haven't resolved it in my own head. But I think that's what I like about recording, again, because you are a witness rather than a maestro or some great master who is in control, who has all the answers. I don't have all the answers in the same way that Mahler can't have all the answers, the same way Obama doesn't have all the answers. Life isn't like that. It shouldn't be like that. We shouldn't expect it to be like that. So, for example, I just asked Peter, who did the recordings at Toblach: Can you record that thing with the grave? Will you go to the grave and record the viola part? And would you put the mike down on the grave so that if Mahler was alive he could hear it from there, and you take what comes back. In a way it is about undermining the idea of some grand authority. Setting off into ten different directions at once and seeing how far each of them gets. And then turning around with all you good mushrooms you have been picking and then come back and make a soup and see what you have got. And I love that. I love that process. I love the idea that I have created something that I don't have all the answers for and that I don't understand all the parts of. I did a track on Scale where we set up an answer phone message and we had people from around the world leave noises on the answer phone. And I asked to not tell me what they are. We had around 180 people or so call up. So there is 180 people in the world with more information about that track than me. I totally don't know what the noises are or what they are made from, and I think that that is such an exciting thing on a social level, on a political level, on an artistic level, it just breaks down those artificial barriers between the artist and the audience. And again, capitalism has a very reductive and very unconvincing version of an audience. They are called fans, as though everybody has the same response at the same time and that is just not true. I might listen to this piece of music and I might choose to feel differently about it on Wednesday, or I might listen to it as a 10 year old and then again as a 100 year old. And my audience might be someone who loves Mahler and it might be someone who has never heard Mahler or it might be someone who works in a crematorium and recognises those noises. Or it might be the person who works in Toblach in the museum and recognises the building. I don't think there is such a thing as an audience, with a body like that, with me as the artist set against that body. I feel it is much more human than that and much more fluid. We should be equal in this process.

You mentioned the bit where it becomes, I don't want to say dancy, but it becomes something else. Is that for you a moment of liberation?

A little bit. I feel like that is a flag on the top of a mountain or something. You have climbed up, but it is just a small flag. That feels to me like a little musical blast from the 21st century. And it is all made from these sounds, there is nothing else at it. And it feels something like, if he would write it now, he might be thinking of some incredibly discordant techno or something like that. Maybe not.

It is like a marching band passing by.

Exactly. A snapshot of another world. And also it is the point where my voice is the loudest. But I didn't feel comfortable standing there, so I wanted to come in and go "roar" and then go out again. Those moments I could talk about for another two hours, because for me that raises all sorts of questions.