Sunday, 21 November 2010

Matthew Herbert: newsical genius

Every so often something happens which makes me pinch myself, and wonder how the hell I got to where I am today. Last night was one of those occasions, as I went to one of the best musical performances I've ever seen as a result of my job

A couple of months ago composer Matthew Herbert approached the Guardian as he wanted to create a concert inspired by a single copy of the Guardian. We we're kinda cool like that....and the results were performed last night at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Sinfonietta as part of the London Jazz Festival.

My my, it was an absolute hoot. As the audience arrived to take their seats, we were all handed copies of the Guardian from Saturday 25 September 2010, which was the edition he had used to draw inspiration from. As the performance got underway with a piece based around the sounds of the Guardian printing presses, we were told which sections of the paper had influenced which compositions. 

What lay at every audience member's feet at the end of the night
When I initially heard about the project I had presumed that he would be using some of the big news stories to provoke his pieces, but instead he tended to focus on little random stories in the various sections, which made it even more quirky.

One piece was prompted by a small, wry article in the business section about a forthcoming auction for a Lehman Brothers sign. Herbert had bid for the item online hoping that the Sinfonietta's percussionest would then be able to 'play' the sign as part of the performance, but this hope was dashed when it sold for a whopping £23,000! Instead, a piece of music was created around the sound of the auction itself which Herbert had recorded, with the audience being instructed by the conductor to rub two credit cards together at certain points. A fantastic composition critiquing money and consumerism was the result.

Another section of the concert was based around the paper's various articles and features about food. There was even a chef on the stage cooking the recipes which had appeared in the Weekend mag that day, with the smells wafting across the audience throughout the entire evening. As a foley artist created the sounds of mould growing (to match a video being shown which had been mentioned in the paper, of-course), we were told to make paper aeroplanes out of the recipe pages to represent food airmiles. The sight of hundreds of paper aeroplanes whizzing around the RFH was magical.

The most poignant piece was prompted by a poem which had been printed in the Review section about a dying mother. Herbert set the poem to music, which was sung by Eska. It was simply beautiful.

Less beautiful, but more fun, was a composition based solely on footage from a football match that took place that day - Oxford United v Crewe Alexandra to be precise. Herbert cleverly selected a section in the match which contained very little football and lots of schoolboy altercations, with the orchestra providing the sound effects for every shove, whistle and bounce of the ball.

Wow, I could go on and on about this but I'm aware I've already written too much. Other highlights included a cover version of a Status Quo song, volunteers rhythmically building a house on stage with bricks to reflect the property articles (during which the audience jangled their house keys) and a pianist whose birthday was mentioned in the paper that day playing the intro to one of the songs. We were also encouraged to try and complete the cryptic crossword during the course of the evening, with the first to do so winning a bottle of wine.

However, I think my favourite piece in terms of the actual music was one based around a recording of an interview between Ed Pilkington and Jonathan Frantzen (the resulting feature appeared in the paper on the 25 September). Herbert spliced and remixed their conversation live on stage while the orchestra 'played' copies of Frantzen's latest book, which he was promoting in the interview. It sounded bloody awesome and deliciously trippy.

The climax of the concert was a mass audience participation piece, where each section of the audience had to use their copy of the Guardian to make various sounds, through rolling it up and tapping, ripping the pages or even blowing through it. Very enjoyable, though it meant that the venue looked like absolute carnage afterwards, with torn up Guardians cluttering every aisle. 

I cannot express enough how much I enjoyed the entire concert - it was performed with such humour and intelligence, even including when the performers bowed at the very end to reveal Rupert Murdoch's face adorning the top of everyone's heads. But I'll let you all make your own minds up about what Herbert was trying to imply with this...

1 comment:

Dream Operator said...

Just to say hi, came across your blog via checking out a Jazz venue in Greenwich, i.e. randomly. I like your writing style and enjoyed the decription of the music event. Will try to read more of your posts. Robert