|The latest edition of the Recomposed series has Matthew Herbert rework Gustav Mahler's tenth and final symphony. For zero" Patrick Pulsinger, who contributed to the project by recording violas on Mahler's grave, talks to the British maestro about absent birds, chords played out of coffins, and a symphony about George Bush's farm.|
As far as abstract electronic music goes, Matthew Herbert might well be the genre's greatest storyteller. Not with lyrics or spoken words, but with the way he records and manipulates sound itself. Ever since his Wishmountain and Doctor Rockit days, the British producer has been pioneering the art of sampling real-life objects as source material for his tracks. A crushed bag of potato chips, a bite taken off an apple - for Herbert each of these samples is more than an abstract sound, it conveys a context, a story and a political dimension, and serves a purpose as a medium of social critique.
Herbert's latest project is laid out as a three-part series of albums: The recently released 'ONE ONE' was in it entirety recorded by Herbert alone, including vocals and a variety of live instruments. For the forthcoming 'ONE CLUB' Herbert will be working with samples recorded by the audience of a club night at Frankfurt's Robert Johnson club, and the last part of the trilogy, 'ONE PIG', will consist of sounds recorded during the life of one particular pig, from birth to slaughter.
Soundtrack Of Despair
Besides his unique interest in recording and contextualising sounds, Matthew Herbert has worked with sizeable orchestras, most famously his Matthew Herbert Big Band. Both aspects have made Matthew Herbert an ideal choice as a contributor to the 'Recomposed' series of German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, which has electronic music artists like Jimi Tenor and Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald rework pieces from the label's huge catalogue.
As the source material of his recomposition Herbert has chosen Gustav Mahler's Symphony X, the final and famously unfinished work of the great Austrian composer. Mahler started working on the piece shortly before his death in 1911, already diagnosed with a severe cardiac disease and distraught about his wife Alma's affair with the young Walter Gropius. Herbert approaches the work's aura of death and despair through the dimension of recording and sound. He recorded sections of the symphony sounding from speakers placed within a coffin and through the megaphones of a crematorium. Additional field recordings from Mahler's composing hut further contextualise the original rendition by the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra.
Austrian producer Patrick Pulsinger contributed to the project by recording violas on Mahler's grave site on a Viennese cemetery. Exclusively for zero" he talks to Matthew Herbert about Mahler Recomposed.
Echoes From A Distance - An Interview with Matthew Herbert
Patrick Pulsinger: When I listened to 'Mahler Recomposed' the first thing I noticed was its extreme wide dynamic range. When the CD started out very quietly I turned it up, so it struck me even more when the music became really loud. Was this an aspect you wanted to emphasise?
Matthew Herbert: Yes, absolutely. The idea of dynamics has completely vanished in modern music - everything in electronic music is just loud, or you have folk-tronica and similar styles which are just quiet. It is always shocking to listen to a real orchestra, sometimes you really have to struggle to hear everything. There are 80 people on stage, but when there are just a few instruments playing, it is actually very quiet in comparison to how we are used to listening to music.
The digital format can support these ridiculous dynamic ranges, so there is some really quiet noise on the album and some really loud moments. One of the most exciting things about the project was getting to experiment with dynamics, because you don't really get to do it so much. In electronic music it is much harder to get a computer to be that dynamic - if it has beats on it than people expect it to be in certain range.
I am also very interested in the idea of distance, like the distance of a hundred years between when Mahler worked and when I'm listening to it. So I'm looking for artistic gestures that can express that distance between 20th century in Vienna and - with the parts you recorded - the 21st century in Vienna. I wanted to explore those differences, so the dynamics in way became a metaphor for that distance as well.
For instance in the piece there is a sequence of two very loud chords, and the first one I made incredibly quiet, and I played it out of a coffin as well. I consciously made that that decision, and I loved the idea that what we are listening to in the 21st century is really an echo of Mahler's intention. We are not listening to the real thing, because Mahler never recorded it, or indeed finish it. We are listening to an echo, a copy of a copy of an interpretation.
Herbert: 'We are listening to an echo of Mahler's intention' // photo: macskapocs / flickr
Patrick Pulsinger: You obviously had to work with pre-recorded material. Did you listen to a lot of different recordings of the tenth and then chose one that spoke most to you?
Matthew Herbert: I did, although the problem is for me that there isn't a perfect version. They all have their strengths - there is an amazing Bernard Haitink version, which I almost got to use, which has incredible parts. Then there's a Simon Rattle version, again with the Berlin Philharmonic, which is much lighter. The biggest problem however was the business side of things, in that we simply couldn't afford to use some versions. So in the end it came down to only two versions I could use, and the Giuseppe Sinopoli version, which is the one I chose, was a little more expressive. It was a lot slower than the others, which is not necessarily a good thing, but I think in a way, as I went on in the process that recording became less important. I felt like I could have done it with any version, and the outcome would have been roughly the same.
I was definitely interested in the tension between something that exists already and what you are going to record. When I first got the recordings from you, at the grave, it didn't fit very easily with the orchestra, because you used a very close mic field in comparison to an orchestra recordings with lots of microphones in a distance. So I did two things: I put it through a guitar amp, to give it more presence, more character. There also wasn't a lot of atmosphere, it was rather still, I guess because it was snowing when you where doing it.
It was almost snowing and it was on a cemetary, so it was super quiet.
I was expecting maybe to hear some birds or something like that...
No birds in winter, not even in Vienna... some crows perhaps!
Exactly! In the end I used a bit of recordings by Peter [Quehenberger] at Mahler's home in Toblach, where he recorded outside his composers hut, and you can hear these crows, which are the birds of death, so that was a perfect coincidence that happened. These are great challenges to have, because with electronic music is has become so easy to make music quickly, so we're not used to that sort of struggle so much.
Herbert: 'the one thing I did have and that Mahler didn't is a recording studio' // photo: macskapocs / flickr
The album is coming out on Deutsche Grammaphon, which is famous for its huge classical music catalogue. So besides Herbert fans many people who are mostly listening to classical music will hear your recomposition. Do you have any thoughts about how it will be received on those two ends? Do you think it will be interesting to both groups of people?
I would hope so. I certainly think that there's probably a lot of people under the age of 30 that have never heard a Mahler symphony all the way through, probably never live either as well.
Did you have these people in mind primarily? Were you working for them?
No, in sort of the worst kind of artistic tradition you have to forget about the audience entirely. And you have to do what's right for yourself and what's right for the music. I didn't want to recompose the melody or the harmony or the principal structure of the piece, because I didn't feel that I could necessarily add anything to that. But the one thing I did have and that Mahler didn't is a recording studio. I have no idea how the classical world will react, but I guess my one hope would be that they could begin to recognise the importance of the recording itself, because it has such an amazing potential to amplify the story in ways that are quite hard to do just with an orchestra.
So for example if you wanted to make a piece of music about ... I don't know... George Bush's farm in Texas, you could take a whole orchestra in a farm and record it there. You don't have to be confined to a concert hall in London, trying to use musical idioms, or stylistic gestures to try and emulate George Bush's Texan ranch. You can actually go out with microphone and incorporate it, and you could have a much more expansive relationship with the world of sound. Not just music, but sound.
More releases in the Recomposed series: