‘Life is full of noise and that death alone is silent… nothing essential happens in the absence of noise’.
Noise: the Political Economy of Music, Jaques Attali (1985)
What meaning is in a sound? To hear the rattle of gunfire from the comfort of your stereo speakers, is our imagination transported to a distant war zone, or do we listen to such a noise as simply that, a singular audible event which fails to infer a semantic meaning outside of the situation from which it is been listened to? Instead we stare at the lifeless, cold speaker cones, bewildered at the loss of a visual source. The invention of recording technology allows us to strip a sound from its original context, disrupting the ephemeral nature of a noise and transforming the vibrations of the world into sonic subjects that can be revisited at a later date. Throw in samplers, synthesisers and the near endless potential of digital manipulation, we are able to get further and further away from the source of origin, complicating our attempts to understand a musical abstraction, to make sense of our emotional response to a transplanted sound. Does this technological chasm between a sound and its source leave us with simply a barrage of meaningless noise?
Matthew Herbert’s 2013 release, End of Silence, is a record that asks us to confront such questions, and many more, challenging our perceptions of recorded sound. Having pressed play, a hubbub of distant cheering voices and alerting whistles vie for attention against a rumbling white noise that quickly swoops into dominance, exploding from the speakers and perforating the space between the listener and the recording, before dissipating into an uneasy quiet, a sonic detritus that bubbles under the fallout of the devastating sound that hits you after only five seconds into the piece. That sound is a recording by photographer Sebastien Meyer, who captured the moment a bomb falling from a pro-Gadaffi plane hit the ground in Libya, during the battle of Ras Lanuf at the height of the troubles in 2011. What you hear in End of Silence is the noise of terror that resulted in the death of civilians, a 5-second sample that serves as the sole sound-source for the album. Over three tracks, that sample is disintegrated, contorted and mutated, exploring the depths of horror contained within, turning the explosion into a haunting beat, the whistles and cries of urgent fear as awkward melodic loops. This is Herbert attempting to ‘freeze history, press pause, wander around inside the sound’, stretching and slowing down the event in order to better make sense of it, acting as the antithesis to the ceaseless 24-hour rolling news coverage that desensitises us to the world’s atrocities. It is as if Herbert is searching for a resolving silence inside the sound-clip, a moment of quiet to contemplate the tragedy. Yet just as soon as the music lulls into relative calm, the deafening explosion returns with a cacophony of noise, an aural onslaught to reassert the terror of the sonic subject.
Recorded over three days, Herbert and his band improvised with and around the fragmented sounds that Herbert had prior manipulated, a sort of live electronic jam that maintains a human element that is often lost in programmed electronic music. In order to acknowledge the distance between the performance and the actual event, microphones were set up outside of the studio, capturing a gentle birdsong for the beginning of ‘Part 2’ that is quickly shattered by the noise of the explosion once again. Despite the safety and quietude surrounding Herbert’s studio in the Welsh countryside, the terror encapsulated in the sample remains omnipresent. A minute before the final track comes to a close, we are hit one final time by the 5-second recording which abruptly breaks into an uneasy silence that hauntingly lingers until a few digital bleeps bring it to an end. That silence is as shocking as the explosion itself, offering a poignant finish to a record that will linger in your memory long after listening.
Herbert’s musical explorations into sound have taken many tangents over his prolific career, from experimental house to big-band jazz, but with End of Silence, he appears to have crystallised the potential to utilise the medium of sound as a ‘new frontier in storytelling’. I first came to be aware of Matthew Herbert’s work via a professor’s suggestion to listen to his reworking of Mahler’s 10th symphony, an intriguing work that re-recorded Mahler’s final completed orchestral movement. Herbert instils a ghostly, haunting presence through manipulating the original sound source, as if Mahler’s aura has been stirred from the dead within this recomposition, having been unsettled by Herbert’s temporal alteration, placing a mirror between light and darkness, life and death. Mahler Symphony X was followed by Herbert’s One trilogy, a collection of albums released over two years that were constructed from utilising a single source of sound, taking as subject himself, a performance in a nightclub and the life of a single pig, from birth to slaughter. These records worked to construct a narrative through sampling, and with End of Silence, Herbert has further narrowed his scope and in doing so highlights the incredible capacity of sound to hold a vast complexity of meaning.
Yet what story is told in End of Silence? Listeners unaware of the album’s concept, the origin of its sound source, would be left feeling relatively cold to a record that is essentially a barrage of noise and fragmented bleeps. We can only take the word of the photographer, of Matthew Herbert, as to the horrific circumstances from which the album is derived, without which the powerful political value of the album would be lost. But what meaning may this album hold for those who have bared witness to the trauma of being in a conflict zone, who have heard the sound of a bomb explode? We may suggest that End of Silence has appropriated a highly sensitive subject and packaged it as musical entertainment, ultimately making music out of the sound of death from a position of relative privilege, another case of cultural imperialism making profit at the expense of lost and forgotten voices outside of the western world. Its political value becoming masked by Herbert’s musical ego that serves to dismantle the sound beyond recognition to display his prowess at sonic manipulation. However, this is undue criticism, as the album has prompted important discussion, it does force us to confront and remember the violent atrocities that occurred in Libya, and indeed in other nations suffering from similar conflicts.
End of Silence highlights the potential for electronic artists to utilise sampling to create a form of protest music that takes real sound bites of actual events as its subject, forcing us to confront surrounding issues through sonic excavation of the sample. With Herbert’s album, the instrumental, abstract nature of the music may be ambiguous in suggesting how listeners should respond to the political message, but through this ambiguity, more
questions can be asked, our ways of listening and seeing the world can be challenged as opposed to reading off an already-written script. Susan Sontag once wrote, ‘photographs are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand, photographs do something else – they haunt us’. In a similar sense, Herbert’s use of sampling in End of Silence functions in a similar manner as to how Sontag perceives photographs work in representing pain and tragedy. We are not told how to feel, yet we are forced to confront this sonic representation of violence in a way that encourages greater introspection alongside attempts to make sense of it in regards to the music’s outward reality. Through its abstract form, we can explore the subtle nuances of meaning and emotion that lie beneath the ability of language to symbolise or express, not working towards an explanation, but instead haunting us.
What is so fascinating about this piece is how Herbert uses recorded sound to construct a complex rhetoric through exploring that sample. It serves as a unique voice in the representation of modern conflict, and in many respects, the album has managed to capture a representation of a specific historical event that otherwise may have been forgotten. As a sonic artifact, it holds significant political weight in itself. But through Herbert’s manipulation of the sample we are asked, as listeners, to interpret that sound in a self-reflective manner that is eternally present, and not just as an objective historical incident. That is the beauty of sound recording and of creating sample-based music; as each time we listen, it echoes (but is not limited to) the past, whilst also asking us to re-evaluate the meaning of that sound through its present contextual frame, and to interpret its relationship to our own experiences.
You can read Noise: the Political Economy of Music in full, here.