Meat Is Music: A New Experimental Album Made from a Pig

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 13 2011 6:40 AM

Meat Is Music

A remarkable album made from a pig.

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The rest of the album carries on from there and winds through straight-up animal noises and parts that sound surprisingly, confoundingly musical.

Those were made by way of sampled field-recordings that Herbert programmed and had played back by collaborators on trigger-switching keyboard or guitar, so that melody (or something like it) would figure in.

They sound different enough from grunts and groans to make one wonder if they cheat the conceptual conceit, but they also help give One Pig an unsettling, almost overwhelming sense of drama as it transpires.

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For reasons of law in England, Herbert was banned from recording the pig's slaughter, but you do hear sounds of its transport to its final spot. Herbert, ever-English in the liner notes, attributes the ban for propriety's sake to "a paranoid, power-mad coven of invisibilism" that governs the processes by which most of us come by what we eat. Herbert himself eats meat but "would prefer that we ate less meat and demanded better conditions for the meat that we did consume."

Beyond that, a pair of essays in the liner notes considers ways that pigs figure into our culture more prominently than we might think. (To wit: "The list of products made from an animal that is widely scorned, mocked and ignored is astounding: leather, gelatin, lipstick, glass, fertilizer, buttons, burn treatments, heart valves for humans, bone glue, paintbrush hairs, chalk, matches, plastics, floorwax, cellophane, lubricants, insulation, rubber, footballs, car paint, toothpaste, crayons, strawberry jelly, antifreeze, shampoo, fish food, biodiesel, yoghurt, train brakes, wallpaper, matches, photographic paper, low fat butter, ice cream, medicine capsules, insulin & tambourines.")

The polemical aspect of One Pig is poignantly open-ended, a calm call for consideration more than a seething didact's screed. In that sense, sound in its purest form—good for evocation but not known to proclaim—serves the project well. In an age when the movement within media of all kinds is toward integration and cross-functionality, it's striking to be presented with just a small piece of what could have so easily otherwise become a spectacle. It leaves a lot—an awful lot—to the imagination.

There's a great old Smithsonian Folkways record from 1959 called The Sounds of Camp: A Documentary Study of a Children's Camp. It's just that—sounds of kids sitting around a fire, playing jacks, splashing in a lake.

It feels a little ridiculous to actually sit around and listen to this recording, but then, there's something so visceral, so immediate—so much more directed—in the act of hearing without seeing. A film of the same scenes would now look dated or somehow just old; recordings, save for a little hiss here and there, make it seem as if the scenes could still well be happening as you're hearing them.

Indeed, in the past Herbert has spoken of certain of his work as "akin to documentary fiction." In that way it has a lineage in a number of different media, not the least of which is radio. Some of the best radio treats sound itself as part of its subject. Take Radiolab, the popular public-radio show that tarts up talk of science and philosophy with all sorts of whooshes, echoes, and various narrative-nudging aural cues. (Co-host and musically minded post-production whiz Jad Abumrad was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for his work.)

One Pig plays in a similar fashion. It takes something seemingly plain and makes it magisterial. As Herbert himself writes in the liner notes, "I learned, once again, that the more certain one is about what one is likely to hear, the more one is revealed to not be listening carefully enough."

Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Wire, Spin, the National, and more.