Matthew Herbert remembers his grandad playing church hymns at home on an art deco piano, his black patent shoes tapping out accidental percussion on the wooden pedals. That same piano was sampled for a new work by his grandson – 20 Pianos – which will be played in Glasgow as part of a mini tour.
‘It’s not just the sound of 20 pianos – it’s 20 different stories, and 20 different rooms,’ says Herbert, the prolific – and freakishly multi-disciplined – electronic producer, composer and DJ who over the years has made deep house records, glossy pop productions and more recently, recorded the sounds of a pig, from farmyard to slaughterhouse on One Pig. He founded his own virtual country once online too.
But today he’s talking pianos. ‘That art deco piano immediately makes me think of my grandad – such an interesting and important man to me,’ says Herbert. ‘He was a conscientious objector during the war, and I remember him giving me a copy of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto – I was only ten!’
In the past, Herbert – a restless experimentalist, who is also creative director at the relaunched New Radiophonic Workshop – has made music and sound art from crisp packets (his first live performance), birdsong (for a recent Boiler Room session of the British Library’s Sound Archive), apples (on 2005’s Plat du jour) and human skin (on 2002’s Bodily Functions). But for 20 Pianos he was interested in sampling a ‘disparate, democratic spread’ of pianos.
‘I knew I wanted a very expensive one, a royal one, a really battered school one, one that had witnessed some really difficult times … I think the selection is pretty amazing in the end.’
The witnesser of ‘difficult times’ ended up being a prison piano, recorded in situ in Wormwood Scrubs and at one time tinkled on by inmate Ivor Novello; the expensive one was used by John Lennon as he wrote ‘Imagine’; and other oddities popped up unexpectedly too. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall supplied a tiny ship’s piano that was played on a yacht that sailed to New York, and Finchcock’s Musical Museum in Kent unearthed one that was played by a Victorian cult leader – who ran a harem of 60 women disciples.
Once recordings had been made of all 20, Herbert sampled them and wrote a composition, for solo pianist. It will be played on a small wood block, that Edinburgh-based Yann Seznec (also of the New Radiophonic Workshop) has turned into a virtual piano, making a MIDI keyboard from touch-sensitive copper tape.
‘I wanted it to look really simple, domestic and plain, with not many wires,’ says Herbert, who met Seznec collaborating on a project about ‘a musical virus’, and invited him to work on his One Pig project.
‘Ever since then we’ve been friends. Yann’s like the missing piece in my jigsaw – before, if I wanted to do something particular on stage I’d have to track down the right hardware. Now I just ask him, and he’s able to make it himself.’
The end result, when performed live, is a bit like, ‘one pianist walking through a piano museum’, says Herbert, who just released a house EP on Accidental Records a few days after DJing in Ibiza.
‘It’s designed so you can hear two pianos at a time, or five, or ten – there are 20 fragments, and the pianist improvises with them. When you hear all 20 played altogether, it sounds pretty special.’
‘Music shouldn’t be about making ready meals – I try never to repeat myself,’ he says. ‘I try and make music that pushes outwards, and helps create a new language. And when I’m not doing that – I make deep house, because it’s fun!’
Matthew Herbert’s 20 Pianos, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Sat 2 Aug.
Read the original interview here at The List.