The Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band
The State Between Us
Released 29th March 2019 – out now
Streaming/Download, Triple 12″ Vinyl, Double CD
Released on the day the U.K. was scheduled to leave the European Union, Matthew Herbert finally saw the realisation of his experimental big band project that has been almost three years in the making. Created with over a thousand musicians and singers from across the EU, The State Between Us is a musical and artistic endeavour that started as a response to the triggering of Article 50. Lee Ashworth discovers an artistic mandate that is multi-faceted, incredibly complex, playful and utterly surprising in every way.
It’s easy to say that this or that artwork “contemplates what it means to be British in 2019” yet The State Between Us, from its superbly ambivalent title onward, does exactly that. One must start somewhere when describing this album yet at every juncture, with every attempt to express what this is… the complexity and completeness risks being lost. Even describing it as an album is misleading. It is packaged and recognisable as an album: it’s an incredibly cohesive body of musical work. Yet the album sits in a much more ambitious, wider concept. I think the only name for this is art and The State Between Us may be the most vital piece of Brexit art to date.
It is not a response to what was expected to happen on and after 29th March, its gestation is steeped into the interminable battle ground ploughed up beneath our feet since the referendum in 2016. Instead, it leans back further and further in time and peers through the prism of interconnected ideas to achieve something that is masterfully synchronic.
Orchestral music is intertwined with site-specific recordings to create an epic soundscape: a figurative, literal and emotional analogue of the political landscape in which we find ourselves. Amongst the rhythms and melodies we encounter key tropes in the story of our national identity, from World War II fighter planes to the dismantling of a Ford Fiesta – an apt synecdoche for the current dismembering of the U.K. Amongst the score there are sounds of empty harbours, factories in demolition, the felling of an ancient tree and the calls of animals teetering on the brink of extinction. The album asks the audience ‘Where’s Home?’ and answers with the reassurance of identity through acts of hospitality – ‘You’re Welcome Here.’
The State Between Us is the creation of composer, producer and writer Matthew Herbert, whose recent work includes acclaimed scores for Disobedience and the Oscar winning A Fantastic Woman. His own works have crossed genres and disciplines, including The Music (A Novel Through Sound) and A Nude, where he soundtracked 24 hours of human activity through recordings of a single body. Situated within such an eclectic and ambitious oeuvre, Herbert’s current work makes perfect sense.
For those like me who are coming new to his work, any assumptions from the title that this is the work of a big band leader in any conventional sense are put to bed after the first, startling track A Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions. Here we are presented with the roar of a chainsaw as a 180 year old German pine is felled “during Brexit” in March of last year. This is not found sound or a sample. This is a recording from inside the tree itself, protracted and sustained in all its toothy splintering. It is unsettling. It is the sound of destruction, severance and the clash between something unmistakeably human, something mechanical and something natural, something with complete vulnerability, something defenceless. The metaphorical allusions to Brexit are apparent, yet time and again these meditations have value way beyond the ephemeral politics of the UK.
Elsewhere on Fiesta, we find both meanings of the word alluded to in the sinister carnivalesque music and the destruction of the titular automobile. On the one hand we are reminded of the cosmopolitan richness of the UK’s music and culture and on the other hand we have something more closely associated with a different kind of Britishness, represented by the brand of car. The juxtaposition, both included within the single noun and different aspects of the same track, is where the album gains poignancy and digs deeper into the underside of the Brexit debate.
Poignancy is to the fore again in other tracks such as an A to Z of Endangered Animals, incorporating the sounds of animal horns and shells by Byron Wallen and the ice drumming of Julian Sartorius. This is typical of the project’s excessive nature. Such artistic license shold not come as a surprise after consideration of the length of the artist name here, and yet almost everything, including the incredible liner notes, comes as a surprise. So many artistic avenues are pursued from minute details such as the horns and shells to the over-arching concept culminating in a work of creativity that eschews the casual by-passer and demands full attention in every respect. Like the collage featured above, this is art you can wander round in and inhabit, with the caveat that you, like so much else described in this enterprise, might become utterly lost.
On You’re Welcome Here and later on Be Still, the beautiful vocals of Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne soar high above the melee, suffused with tenderness and calm. In The Tower we find field recordings made on a silent walk around Grenfell and in Reisezehrung we have lyrics inspired by radio recordings of people’s comments upon the reunification of Berlin and the singing of choirs from the former west and east of that city with their ominous grandeur: perhaps a warning from history?
The vertiginous centrepiece of the album is a woozy, distorted re-working of one of the greatest pieces of music of all-time: Moonlight Serenade. Is this the Blitz, relived in some parallel dislocated horse latitude of time where there is no wind to move us forward or back? It is the sound of the boat going down – all the boats that they said were unsinkable.
This record is laced with hope but it is also steeped in a sense of defeat. The State Between Us is an elegy, a commemoration for something – maybe only an idea or set of ideas – that no longer exist. As we wake and blink and tramp through the ruins, this is true late style UK.
Check out the album trailer here:
You can find more information about Matthew Herbert here and at the following social media sites:
All words by Lee Ashworth. More writing by Lee Ashworth can be found at his author’s archive. Lee Ashworth is also on twitter as @Lee_Ashworth_ and has a website here. He is one half of The Manchester Art Authority.