The plan, in essence, was to follow the government from 23 June 2016 to 29 March this year, and make a piece of music out of Brexit. Matthew Herbert removes his fingerless gloves and cap, and orders a double whisky. His relative normalness makes it strangely hard to ask him how he comes up with his ideas. A maverick composer who once headed the Matthew Herbert Big Band, he’s remixed Björk and Quincy Jones. Curious celebrities attach themselves to him, periodically – the last one was Shia LeBeouf.
Eight years ago, at the Royal Opera House, I watched a performance of One Pig, Herbert’s work composed from the lifecycle of a farmed pig, recorded from its first squeals to its death throes. Musicians dressed in lab coats stood in a “sty harp” like a mini boxing ring, dramatically pulling strings that triggered the pig’s recorded voice. The posthumous animal squealed a plaintive, proggy solo as though playing a cosmic guitar, as the final scene – the eating of bacon on stage – was prepared. The point had been to make people connect to the process of the pig’s life and death on a deep level. Peta didn’t like it – but as Herbert points out, we are still talking about that one pig, eight years later.
A Remainer who thinks that climate change renders all our concerns meaningless, Herbert begins The State Between Us – which features more than 1,000 contributors from across the EU – with the sound of an 180-year-old German oak tree being felled: a way of measuring this current phase in Britain’s life against something more permanent. Two years ago, his intention had been to make political field recordings. He put together a “delegation” to go to Brussels alongside David Davis, for instance: “You can’t just have David Davies going to Brussels on his own, there are other people in this country,” he deadpans. He publicly put £100 into Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment fund in Ireland – “Just taking part, you know.”
But as Brexit unfolded, the hope of having a coherent process to track, or satirise, slipped away from him. “Halfway through, my record was a complete mess because the government was a complete mess.” As the psychological fallout of the vote took hold, his soon-to-be epic work came to mirror the conflicted emotional state of the nation.
“I thought, do we try and involve the Leavers?” he says. “So I set up a Leavers choir.”
What track are they on?
“No one turned up!”
He doesn’t take it personally. “If the right tried to make a record with 1,000 musicians,
it would be shit.”
The State Between Us is a celebration of – perhaps an elegy to – modern Europe. On “Moonlight Serenade”, ghostly snippets of Glenn Miller and a Second World War bomber are spliced with 2018 sounds from Yemen. There are modern recordings from the First World War trenches of Italy, and of a swimmer, Emma France, crossing the English Channel (a sound “so lonely and pointless”). In “Fish and Chips”, a trumpet is deep-fried in a chip shop in Grimsby. In “Backstop (Newbury To Strabane)”, two friends of Herbert walked the length of the Northern Irish border, recording what they heard. And in “The Words”, based on the text of Article 50, someone cycled round the edge of Chequers with his recorder on. Security can be heard telling him to get off.
The idea, Herbert says, was to combine many individual stories in a chorus of dissent. “Brexit is someone telling us a story. And the people telling it aren’t to be trusted. I know someone who voted for Brexit because of bendy bananas, a story that Boris made up 20 years ago. If we don’t tell our own stories and only engage with this one, it becomes like Trump. There will be a time, believe it or not, when Theresa May isn’t prime minister…”
Recorded sound will outlast the politicians, if not the process of leaving. The album will be released on 29 March, even if there is no deal. There are performances scheduled – but no one will know the mood, or how to play it, until the day of the show.
“I need to move on,” Herbert says. “We on the left have got to get better at telling simpler, more compelling stories.”
This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam