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In rotation: Matthew Herbert's 'One Pig'

October 13, 2011 |  7:00 am

A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers & contributors are listening to right now...

In rotation: Matthew Herbert's 'One Pig'

Conceptual albums, like pigs, come in many sizes. A lot of the former have been bloated by prog-rock pretense, the latter by factory farming and intentional overfeeding. On “One Pig,” British electronic composer and sound sculptor Matthew Herbert combines swine and concept to create a vital, fascinating, at times brutal look at the existence of your average pig.

The conceit, according to Herbert: “To listen in on one farm animal's life, from birth to death and beyond.” The approach: Herbert bought a pig, recorded the sounds it and its environment made from birth to butchering to kitchen table, and then reconfigured what he captured month by month into nine pieces of music, one for each part of the process.

Herbert is best known as a collaborator of Björk, but over the last 15 years the musician has also taken electronic composition in fascinating directions. His “Bodily Functions” album was created entirely from the sounds of his body; his “Around the House” features dance floor-friendly minimal techno music consisting of samples of household items.

Like kindred spirits Matmos, whose work crafting full albums out of the noises of the operating room resulted in “A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure,” Herbert molds audio into tuned notes and percussive rhythms that he then builds into structured compositions — in this case, the breaths, clomps, snorts — and, ultimately, roasted deliciousness — of a pig. The good news: The end result is not nearly as cerebral as it seems — this is dynamic, nuanced music — and only occasionally as gross as you would think.

As technology has progressed, sample-sculpting has become so sophisticated that many of the instrumental moments of “One Pig” seem more musical than animal — even if Herbert did build a noisemaker using the pig's blood and commissioned a drum out of the animal's hide. Still, it's easy to forget the source material amid the multilayered beats and arrangements. That is until, say, you hear the unmistakable sound of a saw cut through bone — then transformed into a catchy, toe-tapping rhythm. 

Is it wrong to dance to the noise of the butcher? PETA would say yes; the animal rights group has denounced Herbert's recording, even though the artist has long been an outspoken critic of the meat industry. 

His stated goal — examining the moral implications of factory farming — would seem to put him on the side of PETA rather than against it. But to PETA, a dead pig is a dead pig, even if it did give its life in service of a thoughtful and consistently engaging work of art. 

Matthew Herbert
“One Pig”
(Accidental Records)


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— Randall Roberts 

Photo: Accidental Records