Somnambule - Writing About Music

Matthew Herbert ~ Plat Du Jour

Music, despite – or perhaps because of - its abstraction is a medium uniquely suited to a spectrum of activity. Most of it aims to entertain, some to stimulate. Only a relatively small percentage appears currently to be overtly political in the sense of intending to raise people’s awareness of issues. Little of that small percentage, regrettably, is given space in the mainstream media. After a number of years as a composer of various forms of dance music under pseudonyms including Wishmountain, Dr Rockit and Radio Boy, Matthew Herbert’s practice has come increasingly to question the status quo. He’s utilised creative sampling as the basis for, rather than embellishment of, his music. At roughly the same time as Matmos began to explore similar terrain, Herbert started to combine traditional acoustic instrumentation with field recordings of everything from a mouse trapped in a wastebin to the domestic clink of cup and saucer. Herbert’s highest profile release to date, 2003’s Goodbye Swingtime saw him utilise the big band tradition to question the absurd ‘war on terrorism’.

Plat Du Jour takes aim at a different target, this time round it’s the food industry. The bleeding forms of the package design are attractively colourful, but the accompanying text reveals that the bright oranges, pinks, blues and greens are in fact chemical food dyes and treatments.  Pinky Carmoisine found in swiss rolls, marzipan and blancmange is banned in certain countries and not recommended for consumption by children, bright yellow Tartrazine ditto, and so on. The centre pages of the booklet recommend ‘Avoid supermarkets’. Although largely a studio construction, Plat Du Jour enlists the skills of a number of Goodbye Swingtime’s contributors who perform on a dozen free-range eggs, empty mineral water bottles and pickle jars. Elsewhere field recordings appear of pork sausages, 30,000 broiler chickens, 24,000 one minute old chicks in a commercial hatchery and the sound of a tank driving over a meal made to the recipe of UK celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson, who produced the welcome meal for Bush’s visit to Tony Blair to thank the UK prime minister for his support in Iraq.

After digesting all that information, it seems almost spurious to ask what the music actually sounds like. Initial impressions are of a messy cacophony suffused with a curiously childlike sense of  innocence. Further listening reveals the reverse: an organised set of pieces replete with melody, form and the aforementioned sharp intent. Gradually the teeming, ceaseless activity of the thirteen tracks begins to become challenging.  The wealth of sonic detail becomes increasingly chilling as their origins become clear. Which is the same as the cover design. And the same as – probably – what you’ve just eaten. Food for thought.
Colin Buttimer
October 2005
Published by Signal To Noise magazine