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.
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.
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."