When Matthew Herbert set out to make his new album, he did as few electronic-music auteurs do and made off for a farm. It was a remote place he had come to know in the southeast of England, in the county of Kent, and it was home to a subject deemed worthy of a project he had in mind.
Or at least it would be. First the subject had to be born, then brought up and put down as custom would prescribe. It had to be coddled, nursed, fattened, marched along in time, moved between a series of changing and increasingly confining pens. It had to be trucked off to a room where it would meet its end, enigmatically, then disassembled and later reconvened in the form of offerings like "dry cured streaky bacon" and "loin of pork with girolles."
So goes part of the story behind One Pig, a curious new album that is hard to classify exactly as an "album"—or even really as "music" in any of the ways that we tend to favor. So what is it then? It could be a new mode of art, or an old mode revisited. It could be a pop polemic, or a wordless deferral to a noisily uncertain matter of mind. Either way, it's captivating and more than a little bit cool.
All of One Pig was composed from sounds associated with a particular pig that Herbert followed around in 2009. He visited it every two weeks or so over the course of its life, with his tools of art comprising mostly just one of those big, expensive microphones shaped like a stick and covered with fur. He hit "record" and picked up sounds of various kinds, from snorts in the pen to squeals at feeding-time to the aural impressions of cows and tractors on the farm nearby. Then Herbert followed the pig into the afterlife, recording the sounds of it being butchered and later consumed at a dinner specially arranged for the occasion, where 10 chefs prepared dishes using the pig's parts and fed them to diners whose chewing sounds figure in near the end. Beyond that, the pig was given over to project-related endeavors like building a drum with its stretched skin, making candles with wax from its fat, and concocting a weird instrument that changes pitch according to the amount of air pushed through tubes filled to differing levels with the pig's dark-red blood.
In an explanatory video linked to the project, Herbert begins: "The first question I always get asked is, 'Why did you make a record out of a pig?' " You don't say! Once dispensed with the obvious oddity and novelty of it all, however, One Pig begins to broker a remarkably powerful union of medium and message that sound is especially well-suited to deliver.
Herbert has made a name for himself over the past decade working with sound in searching and divergent ways. He has collaborated with Björk (including on her new album Biophilia), rearranged Mahler from recordings held by the distinguished classical-music label Deutsche Gramophone, and issued a slew of fidgety dance records that have proven highly influential in the club-run realms of house and techno. His focus throughout it all has been to assert a place for meaning in music, especially in contexts that might seem to resist it. Some of his best-known work in recent years has been politically charged, from glitchy quasi-techno made from the sounds of wasteful water bottles to songs graced with less than suggestive titles like "The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialized Chicken."
To a certain extent, he comes across like a conceptual artist, with work that gains a lot from explication and sometimes seems more enamored of its means than its manifestations. But that's where sound does its real magic as a medium: with no pretense toward anything but utter abstraction, sound—as both a physical entity and a catch-all notion for everything we hear—can take or leave a subtext without seeming to strain or even really to care either way.
Which begins to explain some of the eerie, transporting power of One Pig. The album starts off with a disarming spell of silence until, a little more than a minute in, the sound of a single breath presents itself.
That's the pig being born, and with such a context established, the hiss of a hearty exhalation—a sound we all know but hardly hear during our ordinary routine—turns into something fit for a scene out of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.