Composer, DJ and electronic music pioneer Matthew Herbert is looking surprisingly relaxed when we meet straight off the set of The Hush, his latest project with National Theatre outcrop The Shed. The sun is streaming through the window as he reclines in a leather chair deep in the belly of the theatre’s administration centre.
But his calm exterior, complemented by shorts, t-shirt and a big smile, may be a little misleading. Matthew is knee-deep in one of his most ambitious projects to date, a chaotic, part-improvised play about sound.
In the last year alone, he has toured his controversial One Pig album, tackled Faust for the Royal Opera House, drafted a TV drama script, created music using field recordings from the Libya conflict and now this play.
He’s at pains to keep its finer details under wraps, picking his words carefully and talking around some of its main themes. But as our conversation unfolds, I discover the whole concept, from start to finish, has taken just five weeks to create and incorporates some pretty radical notions about the role of sound in theatre.
It’s a fluid event, part-gig, part-play and part-installation. Ever the collaborator, Matthew is working with actors, sound designers, Foley artists and theatre-makers to create a unique nightly experience which kicks off this week (17 July) and runs to 3 August.
Below, we discuss his thinking behind The Hush and explore his relentless energy over two decades that has seen him take sound manipulation in a whole new direction.
So, what’s the brief for The Hush?
Sound in the theatre, aside from laughter and applause, is usually the enemy – phones going off or rustling crisp packets or someone with a bad cough – it’s always a distraction. The brief of The Hush is to think about sound as a collaborator, a friend and ally.
In a way, it’s asking people to listen differently and hear the space differently. The fact that it’s in The Shed, which is a temporary structure, helps with that. It’s made of wood, as opposed to concrete, and it’s right in the middle of the Southbank which feels more exposed.
So there is a plot?
Yep, there is a plot but the idea for me is that sound can carry stories and you don’t need words to tell them. If we’re sat in a room and we hear a door open and close then someone has just come in or left. If we hear it again then that same person has just come back, or gone out again, or another person has come in.
We’re not used to working with sound yet. We’ve only had it 100 years. It’s such a new thing that I’m convinced it can take you places and tell you stories that words and images can’t. For example, the exciting thing about it is that the audience are implicated in a way that they’re not with imagery. If I played you the sound of some traffic, you might imagine the Old Kent Road and someone else might imagine Edgware Road and someone else might think of High Street Kensington or Paris. But if I showed you a picture of the Old Kent Road, it could only be that, it couldn’t be anything else. So sound allows the audience to have a whole variety of different kinds of imaginations and experiences.
It’s about the interpretation as much as the sounds themselves?
Absolutely. Ironically, the moment we try to pin too many words or tell too much of the story, it vanishes. Why do you need the sound if you’re going to tell us? The idea really is to try to use the sound to convey narrative in a way that hasn’t really be tried before.
Is there much room for improvisation in what you’re doing?
It has to be very precise but the whole thing will be improvised. It says ‘part gig, part theatre event’ and that’s not really true but there is a gig-like quality to it in the sense that, as a musician, you know what songs you are going to play and in what order. But the way you do them will be different every night. Also, if you see sound as an ally rather than an enemy, we have to be open to the possibility that a busker might start playing Careless Whispers on saxophone right outside The Shed at any given moment. So, we have to be open to sound things that might happen.
How has your approach to this differed from your previous work?
I think the collaborative process has been really good, even though I do collaborate this is a different kind of collaboration. Here, you’re not just collaborating with musicians, you’re working with actors and technical crew. The other thing is that it’s a real luxury to get rehearsals. Normally you just can’t afford it. In music, I’ve always funded everything myself and I’ve had to design shows that you can rehearse on one day or that someone can come into on the day to perform without really knowing it. You have to really design the show to be able to be tightly scripted. It’s really nice to rehearse and be able to change your mind!
Do you feel like you’re being extravagant?
I feel extremely extravagant! The whole point of subsidising the arts in that way is to be able to take a risk and that’s what feels really nice. I feel encouraged to take a risk and there is that possibility.
Is it easy for you to bring theatrical drama into the sound you’re creating here?
There are no musicians in this; it’s all made out of sound. It’s hard to frame without giving too much away. It’s about memory and using sound to take you to a place you’ve never been before, or somewhere you once were that you’d like to get back to: basically being in somewhere other than where you are at that moment. Sound has that amazing capacity to transport you, like smell. I’m really helped in this show because of the ludicrous conventions of film and television sound, which are all fake. We can create something that sounds very ‘realistic’ but it’s totally unrealistic. Sound is like a magic trick.
What have you learned from doing The Hush?
It’s a bit narcissistic, but I’ve learnt that I enjoy doing theatre again. I did drama at university and left it behind because something about it didn’t connect with me. I think university often has that effect. It was nice to discover my love of theatre.
I also learnt that actors’ temperaments are very similar to musicians’ temperaments so I didn’t feel as out of my depth as I thought I might. I’ve learned that the approach to sound is very different to what I’m used to and what’s in film. The theatre sound is a much more casual addition. In theatre, sound is like the sonic equivalent of painting a picture of a house on a huge bit of canvas. It feels much more artificial and non-specific. I found that quite odd.
What are the similarities between a gig and what you’re doing?
I think timing is crucial and structure. Do you come in with a big number? Or do you creep in slowly and go for a massive climax in the end. Where do you put the ballad? Where do you put the B-side? Where do you put the classics and the new material that no one’s really interested in?! Those things still hold true – the drama and flow.
Your last release was a huge career retrospective box set, which I found quite strange for someone who’s always onto the next thing, often more ridiculous or ambitious than the last! Was it weird to pick through all that old material?
Yes! I find it brings on a combination of embarrassment with a little bit of pride. I think, ‘actually, considering the equipment I had and where I was, some of it holds up quite well’. But the biggest thing I feel is sadness.
Is that because of the memories attached to the music?
It’s more to do with a loss of innocence really with that early dance music stuff. I was 22, 23, 24. In 1997 Blair came in and ended a long period of Thatcherism. There was a huge optimism. I put my suit and tie on to vote a Labour prime minister in.
The whole thing went horribly, horribly wrong. The world is a much darker place.
How do you think world events of recent years have affected popular culture and music?
I don’t want to overplay the innocent nineties –there was still Rwanda, East Timor, Indonesia and more. British foreign policy was basically as it is now but it was more hidden and less explicit. But there was an innocence for me about what music was. It’s really changed now. I don’t think it’s enough for music just to be escapism. We all listen to music and a lot of us feel the same thing, that is music doesn’t really bear any relation to any other part of our life. If you took the top 100 news stories of last year with the top 1,000-selling songs, you would find no trace of the former in the latter. There would be absolutely no correlation between the two except for a bit of unease in a few of them. And when you consider that the violence, fear, disassociation and isolation that’s happening in communities and across the world is now a fundamental part of all our lives, I find it strange that this is not reflected in music. I feel a compulsion to get as close up as I can when I’m making music. In some ways, I’d rather be somewhere cosy with some nice musicians making pretty melodies, but actually, the world’s not really like that and I can’t get back to that place.
For more information about The Hush, and too book tickets, visit http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-hush
Top picture by Margaret Salmon and Lucy Pope.
Pictures from The Hush rehearsals by Simon Kane.