Matthew Herbert (Picture: Manuel Vazquez)

Matthew Herbert: 'I feel like music should be a catalyst for change'

The acclaimed dance and electronic artist is embracing being celebrated in the classical music space.

Sam Moore
  • By Sam Harteam Moore
  • 14 Nov 2023
  • min read

‘This was quite an ambitious and tricky project to pull off,’ Matthew Herbert humbly tells M about his 30-minute composition for The Radiophonic Institute’s Estuary Sound Ark project, which asks the question: what sounds from now that may be lost do we want to share with future listeners?

Piecing together numerous sound recordings submitted by people living in the Thames Estuary alongside his own contributions, Matthew set about creating a vivid audio snapshot of the region that asks questions about our present-day society, climate change and the future of the UK. The finished composition premiered at a live event in Canterbury in November 2022, but it won’t be played publicly again until 2122 — the work has been archived and will be left untampered in a secure location for 100 years.

'When we sealed it we were like, “Oh, that feels quite emotional,”’ Matthew recalls. ‘You realise that, probably, all of us won't be around when it's opened again. That's the point where it moved from an idea on paper to something more tangible, and then you're just aware of your own mortality. My youngest child is 13, so if he lives to be 113 he might... I mean, the way he throws himself around the living room, I suspect he might not make it to 113! But he might hear it.'

Matthew also sees the time capsule element of the commission as a refreshing change to ‘the disposable nature of how music is treated now'.

'100,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify every day, and it would take a year of continuous listening just to listen to the songs uploaded today,' he says. 'So the idea you can't hear something even if you wanted to is a challenge to the Spotify model. I think the idea of making something with care that’s harder or impossible to hear feels, to me, a provocation. Naomi Klein says the only thing that we have to do to destroy ourselves is carry on as normal; the status quo is what's killing us. You can apply the same principle, although it's not life and death, to music: we've built an unsustainable model, but we're relentlessly plugging away at it. One of the purposes of art or music is to challenge the status quo and suggest alternative ways of organising ourselves.'

While anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be at the once-in-100-years premiere of Matthew’s composition is now unlikely to ever hear the piece played in full, the Estuary Sound Ark project has been nominated for Best Community and Participation Composition at tonight’s Ivors Classical Awards (14 November). Ahead of the ceremony, which is sponsored by PRS for Music, caught up with Matthew to discuss his nominated composition, being embraced in the classical music space and his memories of being commissioned by PRS Foundation 10 years ago.

Why do you think the Estuary Sound Ark project has resonated with so many people?

'I'd like to think that part of the premise of the project is to listen differently to our environment. By trying to imagine what people in 100 years might want to hear about right now suddenly makes you listen to today in a very different way, particularly things like the biodiversity crisis in terms of bird life and wildlife, as well as the flora and fauna that's around today which is likely to be different in 100 years. It then immediately becomes a project about climate change, almost whether you like it or not.

'It's hard not to think about the kind of systems and structures that we have built right now and how unhealthy, polluting and destructive they are. For example, one of the pieces I did was from a recording of every unit inside the Lakeside Shopping Centre, which is an example of a monolithic architectural space that is just there for us to buy things. Again, that's just unsustainable. It's hard to imagine in 100 years' time that the world will be organised like that — where we can have whatever we want, whenever we want, almost 24 hours a day — because there just isn't physically enough resources on the planet for that to happen. It's also not making us happy as a society just relentlessly buying things. Hopefully by imagining what people will be interested in in 100 years' time will help us rethink about where we are today, and I'm hoping that's what the Ivors judges like!'

What did you learn from collaborating with 10 young music creators on the composition?

'It was a sound-led project that involved listening and stringing sound together in a way that had a kind of musical bent or angle. What was exciting for me was that, for many of the creators, it was almost like a blank sheet in terms of technique. We had to teach them some technical stuff and [about] new software, and it was quite a steep learning curve. Because I've been working on it in this way for quite a few years, I've got different strategies and ways of working with sound, but because it was new to most of them, there was a real freshness of approach that surprised me.

'We were creating this library of sounds of the Thames Estuary that would be buried for 100 years, and we were commissioning all of these pieces. One of the participants, Emily Brewster, recorded her dog walk from her house across the fields to the sea, and it wasn't the kind of journey that I was expecting to put in the Ark that we were building. I don't know what I was expecting [to include], but I wasn't quite expecting that! But actually she recorded it from the perspective of the dog, and I think in 100 years' time that would be a really gorgeous thing to listen back to. It's funny, it's surprising, it's informative: it has a different kind of perspective. Who knows what sounds will or will not be there [in 100 years], like birds or species that will be extinct, or whether it will be underwater by that point? So something as simple as a dog walk, for me, became an elegant response to the wider proposal.'

'One of the purposes of music is to challenge the status quo and suggest alternative ways of organising ourselves.'

Your work often features ‘found sounds’, which songwriters like Fred again.. have embraced in recent times. Do you think more songwriters should look into using this technique?

'It's a real shock to me that more people aren't using sound, because it's a revolution in music. We can now make music out of trees being chopped down, a fried breakfast or a glacier melting, or whatever. I'm really surprised how little "found sound", which isn't a phrase I like, is used in music because it's an unbelievable gift to musicians right now. One of the purposes of music is storytelling, and the capacity for sound to tell stories is fundamental to the material itself.

'For example, if I gave you a microphone and said, "I'd like you to make a record about somebody," that's suddenly a real power. Who are you going to point your microphone at? Are you going to make a piece about yourself? Are you gonna make it about your grandmother? Are you going to make it about somebody in the Democratic Republic of Congo who works in diamond mine? Are you going to point it at the guy that sold you your coffee this morning? The list is endless. I think out of all those options, the least interesting from a compositional point of view is pointing it towards yourself. That's something that music and musicians for many years, particularly in pop music, have always prioritised, their own perspective about how they feel about the world. Of course that's valid and important, but the provocation [that comes] from working the sound and turning it into music is pointing the microphone away from you and figuring out what stories you're telling. What are you going to capture? In a way, it's like a mini version of a Sound Ark, in that you can capture any sound in the world and turn it into music. It tells us something about your worldview and allows you to take part in the world. That shift for me is a really profound one, and I'm still surprised that there aren't more people doing it as a fundamental part of their music making.'

Many people know you for your dance and electronic music, but what’s it been like to be recognised by the Ivors as a classical composer?

'It is nice to be recognised in the classical world a bit more, particularly because I studied drama at university — I didn't study music — so I'm actually self-taught. But the downside is that you're up against Stravinsky, Ravel and Shostakovich, rather than David Guetta! It's not that one [genre] is worth more than the other, though — it's not about value. It's about the kind of complexity and the challenges [of writing classical music], which are often much greater because it's almost always made in collaboration, whereas in dance and electronic it's something you can do on your own. It's very hard to play an orchestral piece on your own!'

How do you look back on your 2023, and what do you have planned for next year?

'I've done one of the projects that I'm most proud of and enjoyed the most this year, which is The Horse. I made a record with a horse skeleton and an orchestra that tells the story of music from its very earliest origins up to now. Going to Palaeolithic caves in northern Spain to listen to cave resonances in front of old horse drawings, drill out old leg bones to make flutes and stretch sheep stomach across a pelvis to create a kind of harp, it's been an incredibly exploratory journey. What I love about that record is that it's a giant collaboration with some extraordinary musicians like Shabaka Hutchings, Momoko Gill and Evan Parker. We stirred the bones together and were like, "OK, what would it have been like to be the very first musicians?" It was a bit like doing archaeology, as we were trying to work that out by doing it rather than writing an essay or thinking about it. For example, just picking up a horse's leg and blowing through it to establish how it made us feel.

'Looking forward, it's always tricky when you're at a time of real political friction like we're in at the moment, where the far right is on the rise and progressive values are under threat or being actively undermined. It's really hard to know how to respond to that kind of situation. We're living in a country that is in decay, so do you make music that reflects that decay and seeks to construct a critique of it, or actively take part in the storytelling around what's going on in Britain? For example, there's more food banks in the UK than there are McDonald's. So do we create a piece of music about that? Or do you create work that actually defines its own world, that's free from the kind of poison of The Daily Mail and far-right rhetoric, and actually celebrates joy, love and collaboration between ages, genres and different peoples, accepting people no matter what kind of body they have or their background, and create something that's beautiful and joyful. It's not a binary choice, but it's something I think about every day. How do I respond next? How does making a piece of music help change the world? Because, ultimately, as naive and as a bit pompous as it sounds, that's why I do music: I'm trying to effect change, even if it's in tiny increments. As I said earlier, the status quo is killing us, so something needs to change, and I feel like music should be a catalyst for that and not just a soundtrack to it.'

It’s 10 years since you were commissioned as part of PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial. What are your memories of that project and being supported by the Foundation?

'The New Music Biennial was just starting, so I didn't fully understand what I was applying for! I did a piece called 20 Pianos where we recorded 20 different pianos, including the world's most expensive piano, my grandfather's piano, Queen Victoria's piano, Mahler's piano, a piano that was brand new off the production line, a piano that was found in a skip and a piano that was found bombed out under a church in Shoreditch. I assembled all these different pianos, recorded them all and then built an instrument where you could play them. The thing that really worked about that opportunity was how building that instrument was probably more interesting than the bit of music I wrote with it! Working with lots of different people in lots of different genres and feeling part of a wider community of music makers — the other people that were commissioned at the same time so it wasn't all about you — I found to be really great. I also got to work with Heiner Goebbels at Ruhrtriennale, which was a real highlight.

'PRS Foundation plays a valuable part in supporting musicians, particularly at a time when music is so undervalued by big tech and streaming rates are so poor. 50% of musicians earn less than £10,000 a year in this country, so to be able to take risks and get that support is more valuable than ever. I'm incredibly grateful for all the support, not just for me but for other musicians, colleagues and friends that have benefited from it.'