Somnambule - Writing About Music

Goodbye Swingtime by the Matthew Herbert Big Band

Goodbye Swingtime is a collection of music which arguably represents a landmark in the interaction between jazz and digital manipulation. It weaves together a complex array of signifiers in a fascinating work which sees Matthew Herbert achieve a new level of political expression while dissecting and piecing back together an almost forgotten musical genre – big band swing jazz - using contemporary music technologies.

Swing developed as a coherent style in the 1930s fostered by the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Duke Ellington et al. It was a music characterised by strong dance rhythms, simple repetitious riffs and sophisticated solos. At the beginning of the second world war, a decade or so after its inception, Glenn Miller came to dominate Western popular music with his own brand of Swing jazz.

Miller’s style emphasised unity, discipline and forward motion. His music highlighted the efficient interlocking of orchestral segments which contributed to a cohesive whole rather than provided any significant room for a soloist’s potentially wayward voice. Allied to this was a frequent feeling of wellbeing at once sentimental and surely of particular comfort to many of his listeners at a time of deprivation, fear and sudden death. Disciplined activity, a restriction upon freedom and an acknowledgement of the need for fellow feeling characterised both Miller’s music and the needs of wartime governments for a unified populace. With the cessation of international hostilities, Swing’s popularity waned and was succeeded by the more individual voices of singers such as Frankie Laine, Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. However it has persisted in the background, the soundtrack to a certain form of conservatism and nostalgia. In 2003 Matthew Herbert, an artist previously known as a politically conscious tech-house producer, added a new chapter to the development of the genre by premiering his own big band swing recording.

Goodbye Swingtime practices an overtly politicised postmodernity (which to some might be something of an oxymoron) by treating swing jazz as a commodity whose structures and motives are both open to question and available for redeployment at the service of new ends. Swing meets Herbert’s electronic sampling and the result is akin to a Ballardian carcrash which manages to remould the bodywork of both vehicles into something less standardised and consequently much more interesting. Part of the genius of this treatment is the subtlety of the changes effected, though the alterations are much more significant than the cosmetic garnishing applied by the inclusion of djs and laptop artists in most jazz ensembles. Another contributing factor may be the degree of trepidation felt at the prospect of meddling with an already complex artefact created with the involvement of experienced musicians. As Herbert writes on his website (

“... I take a live feed from the band and process it through my equipment, adding live samples taken from the band as they are playing and trying to fuse the two together. It's an exciting and scary process and one that can only improve as the gigs continue.”

In concert some time after the release of the studio recording it’s fascinating to hear the loosening up of form and increased playfulness as the band gains confidence in dealing with and responding to Herbert’s live sampling interjections. There is something meddling and respectful, intrusive and unsettling about the experience which might perhaps be likened to encountering a deceased grandparent resurrected using cyborg technologies.

Instead of adding musical soloists (the limited space for instrumental improvisation is maintained in the studio recording), Herbert’s sampling - embodied in unsignposted loops, disjunctive intrusions and sudden becalming atmospheres - proves disruptive to Swing’s traditional motivic force. It substitutes a recursive, uncertain atmosphere for the anticipated air of security and bonhomie. The listener is consequently unable to sit back comfily and indulge in an extended nostalgic fugue. After all, at any moment something might happen to trip up expectations deliberately established by the compositions and their arrangements. Instead the listener is put upon extended guard and forced to pay attention to proceedings. The music, particularly in live performance carries a real sense of a large machine in danger of breaking down or going out of control. This threat of danger and disruption serves to revivify the comatose corpse of the Swing band genre like a kiss from a suspect prince. The happy ending does not materialise however. Instead the princess staggers around, confused and fearful:

“Everything’s changed... please don’t swallow me.”
(Everything’s Changed)

The juxtaposition of old fashioned and modern also recalls the underlying menace of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, which portrays a society bound by outmoded wartime manners while subject to and complicit in systematised state brutality. Herbert’s engagement with Swing at the beginning of the new millenium serves to imply the state of international conflict the world is currently experiencing. Because of the media commodification and resultant collusion in this situation the present level of conflict has come to be treated as an unpleasant, but sanitised necessity. Herbert’s reinterpretations of Swing’s mores may be compared to those movies found on the internet of Bush and Blair which have been edited to make clear the subtext of their speeches.

Ultimately the intervention of sampling stands as a direct analogue of the political intentions of the work. However the subtlety of that analogue and the ability of the music to stand independently of the political message makes that message much more powerful by allowing the listener the freedom of choice to engage at a single or multiple levels (rather than being frogmarched into its service like a 17th century naval recruit...)

Another of Goodbye Swingtime’s strategies, continued from previous Herbert releases is the deliberate deployment of ‘significant’ samples, such as the sound of the turning of pages of Noam Chomsky’s Rogue States, the typing of an address for a website monitoring US involvement in South America, etc, etc. This technique is also practiced by electronic duo Matmos most prominently on their 2002 release To Cut Is To Cure, composed predominantly of the sounds of plastic surgery. The technique perhaps finds its precursor in Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th century portraits whose human likenesses were achieved by the compositing of fruit, vegetables armour, animals, etc. The jury is still out on whether this practice carries an enriching, resonant value or is self-conscious, distracting and unnecessary and the response is after all for the listener to decide.

Matthew Herbert’s political stance raises many issues. There is the potential issue of preaching to the converted or the opportunity for subversion in the choice of musical vehicle. Might a track from Goodbye Swingtime find its way into the hearts of the conservative via the radio schedules? And if it did, would it produce anything more than a satisfyingly ironic smile for those in the know rather than any real debate? The example of Bruce Springsteen’s protest song-cum-Republican stadium favourite Born In The USA may be salutary in this regard. Another issue is whether the concert hall is an appropriate context for the dissemination of politically conscientious anti-war viewpoints. After all, the one-way nature of concerts doesn’t allow for real debate and it does tread uncomfortably near to the format of a propaganda rally. Such concerns are of course not unique to Goodbye Swingtime, but may be raised about any politicised music. On the other hand there is clearly an urgency to the present situation and a need to consolidate opposition and raise awareness. Ultimately Matthew Herbert is to be applauded for communicating an overtly political message in such a politically neutered medium.

The cover of Goodbye Swingtime shows a pixelated rainbow arching over the silver silhouettes of skylines and people. The rainbow appears to emanate from what might either be a mutant disco light or an explosion of some sort. The ambiguity is surely deliberate. The album’s title can be read both as a wish on the part of the artist to depart from complacency and as a rallying cry to those who would object to the status quo.

With thanks to John Chacona

Colin Buttimer
December 2003
Published by Me