Q Magazine

Guest Column - Breaking the sound barrier: Matthew Herbert on the 'first' play about noise

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DJ and electronic composer Matthew Herbert is set to take part in a new collaboration with The National Theatre in London. Taking place in their Shed space, The Hush is a new two-person production created withThe National’s associate director Ben Bower which explores the power of sound. Often creating music from every day objects, the Bjork and R.E.M. producer, explains how he created his unique new score in a guest column ahead of The Hush’s run between 17 July and 3 August.

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Music has been privy to a quiet revolution over the last few decades. For the previous hundreds of thousands of years it had been a kind of impressionism. Words aside, music has been made with the tools that have only allowed an abstracted or immitated gesture – if you wanted to write a piece of music about a pig 100 years ago, you would have had to imitate its grunt, aproximate its language and summon a melody that would encapsulate the sense of how you felt about the pig. With the invention of the microphone, tape, sampler and computer though, we can now record a real pig and turn it in to music. It is the musical equivalent of the shift in visual art from painting to film. In this sense, sound is a new material to work with, and a new sense we can explore. It’s not like we have recordings of the French Revolution to listen to or know what Roman Britain sounded like. We are only just waking up to the possibilities it can offer

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When I was first met Ben Power at The National Theatre to talk about what kind of work i might want to try and create for them, we talked about how many plays there had been about sound. Between us we couldn’t name one. Like music made from just sound rather than instruments or voices, it felt like we were in unchartered territory again. In the theatre, sound is largely seen as the enemy. The rustly sweet wrapper, the coughs and of course the mobile phone rings. Aside from the invitation to laugh or applaud, sounds that aren’t part of the play are seen as an inconvenience, as noise. Part of the guiding principle then of The Hush, the play we’ve created for The Shed, the new National Theatre building on the South Bank, is to see sound as a collaborator, an ally, an equal.

We’ve had to learn how to listen again of course, the effect of sound in the theatre is completely different to the ones I’m used to in the studio or live on stage. There is one particular aspect that is thrillingly unpredictable to play with and that is the capacity for sound to tell stories on its own without words attached. For example, if you hear a door opening then someone has either just entered the space or just left it. There’s no need to show the door. What happens though if the sound of the door is the one from your childhood home, or in my case, the heavy door to a side room in the court room of an important legal case I was involved with? Sound can quickly get you places that you could never actually ever visit or see again. Or places you never were in the first place. Smell of course also does this brilliantly, if fleetingly, but we don’t yet carry devices round in our pocket for capturing and playing back smell.

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Annoyingly, sound can be too good at this evocation and whenever we try to add words to it, the spell can easily be broken. I’ve discovered this in music too: my new record is called The End Of Silence and is made from a five second recording of a bomb exploding in Libya. There is little that I can say, particularly as I wasn’t there when the recording was made, that can get you to that terrifying place as quickly or as viscerally. We have war poetry and war photography to convey the horror of conflict, but there’s something painfully, horribly useful or unique (if I can describe it in these clumsy ways) of being able to make a worldess landscape from such momentary terror. It’s not a judgement call about whether the music is any good or not, that’s the job of others to decide, but it does feel like a new kind of expression, a new material, a new version of what music is. it certainly isn’t music to entertain, provide excapism or buy stuff to.

For musicians I do think the possibility that we can tell powerful, specific, detailed, intricate, personal and political stories using sounds instead of words means that we are potentially entering a new realm of instrumental music. Having been working for a few weeks now in rehearsals for this new theatre piece, as we once again strip away excess text and just listen, it feels like we are also working on a new kind of instrumental theatre. I just hope that we’re not trying to sing before we can talk.

Matthew Herbert@matthewherbert

The Hush runs at The Shed from 17 July-3 August. See Theshedtheatre.co.uk for full details. Tickets are on sale now.


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