Blowing over the top of a bottle of San Pellegrino

Adam Mars-Jones

Matthew Herbert’s Plat du Jour is an album of dance tracks united by the theme of food. Herbert has made a name for himself as a producer from collaborations with Róisín Murphy and Björk, but Plat du Jour is a different kettle of fish, a personal project that has taken a couple of years to devise and record. As the opening track makes clear – it’s called ‘The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialised Chicken’ – he is obsessed by the ethics of eating. In its idiosyncratic way this is protest music, but there’s only one actual song on the CD, the perversely catchy ‘Celebrity’ (‘Go Gordon/Go Ramsay/Go Beyoncé/Go Beyoncé…’).

So how is it supposed to work? Protest dance pop seems as unlikely a proposition as protest chamber music. Complicating the old debate about whether art can serve a political agenda is the still older debate about whether music can ever have content in non-musical forms. Protest songs of the 1960s were always rather precarious emulsions of melody and slogan. Herbert goes off in an entirely different direction: he doesn’t try to mix oil and water but allows them to separate out. His approach is so odd and draws from such unlikely sources that it seems to be a mutation rather than anything as orthodox or foreseeable as a ‘development’. And there’s nothing more fruitful than a timely mutation.

The late Angela Carter once told me I was a ‘formalist’. We didn’t meet often, and this may have been the first time we did, in which case it was at a party. It had slipped my mind that I don’t smoke, and I cadged a cigarette off her in exchange for reciting the first sentence of one of her novels (‘On my last night in London I paid you a small tribute of spermatozoa, my dear Tristessa’ – an opening that is actually easier to remember than forget). I felt baffled and obscurely hurt by her comment. I honestly didn’t know what she meant, but I understood that a formalist wasn’t a good thing to be. I knew that ‘formalism’ was one of the headings (along with ‘decadence’ and ‘bourgeois leanings’) under which Soviet composers of the 1930s were bullied into abandoning experimentation, but I didn’t connect with the word at all personally. Now I feel I’ve more or less worked out what the term means, and though I think I was misdiagnosed on the basis of a single symptom (an elaborately structured story), I wish I had defended an approach to making art which can claim Bach, Dante and Joyce among its dupes.

There is an element of arbitrariness in every artistic choice. The reason that (say) Beethoven’s Fifth is in C can never be as strong as the reason (say) water boils and freezes at particular temperatures. Formalism welcomes that element and gives it house room. The formalist divides the creative process into two unequal phases. First he invents a set of rules for himself. This stage is not expressive in itself; if anything it produces obstacles to expression. Then he treats the chosen rules as if they were set in stone, beyond appeal.

The supreme example of formalist procedure must be the fugue in music. Once you have decided to write a fugue, your choice of theme is already restricted by the permutations that will be required. A loose fugue is no fugue at all. Once you’ve chosen your theme, the scope for personal expression seems to shut down even more. Luckily restriction is exactly what stimulates one sort of musical mind. There have also been composers who throw off their chains, and then find that they miss the chafing. Schoenberg, after a period of free atonal music, felt the need to draw up a new set of rules, the twelve-tone system, which set out to make every piece of musical utterance as rigorous as a fugue.

There’s no actual law that forbids popular art forms from borrowing such practices, but the overlap is hardly great. It’s possible to be so steeped in counterpoint that you can improvise fugues, à la Bach, but formalism doesn’t foreground spontaneity, the fetish-feature of popular art. Popular art forms also tend towards the open-ended, as in the one-size-fits-all dungarees of the twelve-bar blues, rather than the Houdini straitjacket (drowner of so many escapologists) that is twelve-tone technique. If there was going to be a convergence, you certainly wouldn’t look for it to come from what started off as an outgrowth of folk music – the protest song.

The protest song had a short life near the centre of popular culture and youth politics, and then a long afterlife. In the decades after its 1960s heyday the genre developed, or degenerated, in two main ways. It became less direct, and it became focused on single issues rather than overarching causes like war, capitalism or power to the people. In 1965 it was pretty clear what Barry ‘Eve of Destruction’ McGuire was agitated about (‘If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,/There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave’). As a matter of fact, his blood was so mad, it felt like coagulating. It was equally clear that Crosby Stills Nash & Young were on about Nixon and the National Guard when they recorded ‘Ohio’ in 1970 (‘Four dead in Ohio’).

There had always been vague protest songs, cut loose from proximate causes, such as ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Lady Madonna’. But those were explicit statements compared with later examples. In 1983, Elvis Costello’s poignant ‘Shipbuilding’ (sung by Robert Wyatt) was so sidelong a comment on the human costs and economic benefits of the Falklands War that you had to be told that’s what it was. I even have a sneaking sympathy for the campaign agent who chose Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) as a rallying cry for conservative America without noticing that the song was a critique of imperialism. If the message is tucked away in the verses instead of the chorus it doesn’t qualify as a protest song. It’s way too sophisticated. There’s nothing wrong with Don Henley releasing an undemanding ditty called ‘All She Wants to Do Is Dance’ (1984, written by Danny Kortchmar), but was anyone seriously supposed to think the song condemned American political ignorance and involvement in Nicaragua? This was the protest song as Rorschach blot – exactly as political or unpolitical as you want it to be.

When there was a clear message in this era, it was likely to be a single-issue protest. What did the Special AKA want when they sang ‘Free Nelson Mandela’? Exactly what it said on the record label. The song was saved from obviousness by the ambiguity in the simple lyrics. The words ‘Are you so blind that you cannot see?/Are you so deaf that you cannot hear?’ seemed to be addressed both to the indifferent West and to the South African authorities. The lyric sent intoxicatingly mixed messages to the listener: you’re stupid, you’re helpless, you don’t care, you’re powerful. And the music, wonderfully rollicking, spilled out of the narrow emotional range of most protest music. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ made it sound as if the party celebrating Mandela’s release had already started.

One of the most unexpected ventures into the genre of the protest song was Morrissey’s baleful veggie anthem ‘Meat Is Murder’ from the following year, 1985: ‘And the flesh you so fancifully fry/Is not succulent, tasty or kind/It’s death for no reason/And death for no reason is murder.’ The urgency behind most protest music suits it to the format of the pop single. ‘Meat Is Murder’ is unusual in that it remained an album track. It’s also one of the very few protest songs not to be preaching to the converted. A fair number of Smiths fans may have been vegetarians, but that song must have spoiled quite a few late-night bacon sandwiches. ‘Meat Is Murder’ was a single-issue protest song from a single-issue person. As far as Morrissey was concerned, as long as you didn’t eat meat (and had nice hair) it was fine by him if you were a demented gangland killer. The song represented a dandy’s only excursion into morality.

Matthew Herbert inherits a genre that has become both diluted and specialised – two strains of oversophistication. Instead of resisting these tendencies he exaggerates them, and comes up with a new way of yoking the pleasure principle and the need to engage with the real world.

Most engaged artwork wears its heart on its sleeve. Plat du Jour wears its heart on its sleeve notes. It would be perfectly possible to play the disc without reference to its case, and not know that this project had designs on your life choices. The sleeve notes, though, include a reading list and recommended internet links. All that connects the reading list and the actual music is the source of the sounds. Much popular music these days uses samples, pre-recorded elements underpinning a new sound world. Herbert prefers to bake from scratch, recording freshly in the studio or ‘in the field’. He creates the elements which he then transforms into dance tracks. On ‘The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialised Chicken’, for instance, the bass line is derived from the cheep of 24,000 minute-old chicks, drastically pitched down. The melodies and chords of a track called ‘These Branded Waters’ are all transformations of a sampled sound: someone blowing over the top of a bottle of San Pellegrino water. Herbert explains in the sleeve notes: ‘The track is 182 bpm (beats per minute) because it takes 182,000 litres of water to make one ton of steel … Sanitation coverage is 53 per cent in Bangladesh, so the track is 5’30” long.’ If that isn’t formalism, what is? You couldn’t ask for a better example of formalism than that ‘so’ and that ‘because’ – as arbitrary as the underlying phrase ‘Because I say so.’

He’s not keeping bad company. It’s clear that Peter Greenaway makes films in the same sort of way, imposing sets of rules on himself before he constructs a narrative or creates character (if he ever gets round to that). Peter Reading has taken a similar tack in his poetry. For a book of poems about cancer, for instance – C, from 1984 – he chose to be limited by the meaning of ‘the big C’ as a Roman numeral. He wrote a hundred poems of a hundred words each. In a late story, come to that, Angela Carter rewrote ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore as a screenplay with a Western setting, prompted not by any obvious affinity but the sheer coincidence of a Jacobean dramatist and a legendary director sharing the name John Ford. So perhaps it takes a formalist to know one.

But the contemporary formalist whose approach converges most sharply on Herbert’s is the sculptor Cornelia Parker. For a piece called Measuring Liberty with a Dollar (1998), for instance, Parker took a silver dollar and drew it out into a wire that would stretch from the base to the top of the Statue of Liberty. The ink she used for Pornographic Drawings (1997) was made by chemically dissolving videos confiscated by HM Customs and Excise. Or so it said on the label. There was no way for the viewer to confirm the authenticity of these materials, just as there’s no way for the listener to tell that the eggs used to create the percussion on ‘The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialised Chicken’ were organic as claimed. This is a game played out with a seriousness that negates any sense of the silly.

Cornelia Parker, working in a visual medium, could have represented money and freedom in the body of the work if she had wanted to: the suppressed symbols of coin and statue are visual in themselves. Instead she offers no more than an orderly bundle of superfine wire. The title is required to activate the suggestiveness of the object, just as Herbert’s sleeve notes do. It’s hard to see how he, working in a non-visual medium, could convey his dismay that Perrier and Vittel are owned by Nestlé, and Highland Spring by a consortium based in Liechtenstein, any more directly than he does.

At the same time, his approach frees him from the po-facedness of much socially engaged work. Having chosen his materials, he transforms them very freely – the pleasure principle takes over. The content of the song is encoded on a genetic level, as it were. There’s no need to insist on it any further. By the time you’ve commissioned a re-creation, down to the last Duchy Original, of the meal Nigella Lawson cooked for Blair and Bush when they met in London to celebrate their close accord about the Iraq War, and have then recorded the sound of it being run over by a Chieftain tank, you hardly need to top things off with a bitter chorus of ‘War stinks – Blair out!’ The music is freed to find its own mood, unconcerned by the emotions behind its making. Much protesting art is driven by anger or grief, which translate rather too readily into rant or dirge, but the tracks which make up Plat du Jour are often blithe. The art is sheltered from the dark moods of the artist. In turn Herbert is freed from the burden of acting out his good intentions, the burden which made Dylan reject his original audience, becoming steadily more cryptic and spiky, and which makes Billy Bragg seem exhausted by figurehead duty.

Formalist art contains the sincerity of its maker without needing to transmit it directly. That’s the theory anyway. Of course formalist art can seem very glassy and self-absorbed, alienating – as so many people find Greenaway’s films. His 1988 TV film Death in the Seine, for instance, sounds fascinating: a series of tableaux showing bodies pulled from the Seine in the years 1795-1801, with descriptions and personal histories. It’s just that your heart sinks while you watch, as you realise that there’s nothing in the film beyond the concept, no second phase where the artist plays freely with the material. High art can come up with formulas every bit as numbing as Will Smith movies.

It wouldn’t be fair, though, to blame Peter Greenaway for giving formalism a bad name. It had a bad name long before that. Still, his case offers a warning that what starts as a strategy – a means to an end, after all – can turn into a sort of private religion. Greenaway’s formalism doesn’t seem to free him up, but makes him solemn and arcane. Peter Reading and Cornelia Parker have the knack of staying spontaneous within their chosen restrictions, and so does Matthew Herbert.

As if the credits of Plat du Jour weren’t exhaustive enough already, what with lists of the ingredients in convenience foods aimed at children, Herbert adds a declaration that the whole enterprise obeyed the rules of ‘pccom turbo extreme’. The rest of the notes offer no guidance, but a moment’s Googling unearths his ‘Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (incorporating The Manifesto of Mistakes)’, dated 2000, an 11-point programme for avoiding lazy choices – factory presets on electronic equipment and the like – and drum machines above all. As someone who hates drum machines, and has been alienated by them from any amount of music I might otherwise like, I should be cheering him on. It’s just that I don’t understand why it is necessary to prohibit them, rather than simply not use them.

‘Turbo extreme’ is a further set of rules published this year, the first of which reads: ‘Once the subject of the track is established, only sounds directly related to that topic may be used. For example: if the track is about coffee, only sounds made by coffee farmers and their relatives; cups and spoons; milk; Colombia etc, may be included.’ The last rule, rather anti-climactically, is: ‘5. The piece shall endeavour to be good. Mediocrity is not an acceptable conclusion.’ As if rules could ever guarantee results.

The obvious precedent for this exercise is the Dogme 95 manifesto issued by a group of Danish filmmakers including Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, but the similarities are not close. The Dogme ‘vow of chastity’ was really a vow of poverty, a way of making films cheaply without giving an inch of the high aesthetico-moral ground. What the rules conspired to eliminate, or at least minimise, was post-production, the processing of the image. But Herbert’s work is all post-production, all processing of the sounds he starts with. With his ‘pccom’ rules, with or without the supplementary principles, Herbert seems to me to be taking a step backwards, by seeking to present himself as a purveyor of organic electronica. All such claims to authenticity are ways of tiptoeing up to an idea which is immediately revealed as nonsense when invoked directly: the natural.

This is a dilemma firmly rooted in the period when protest music was emerging out of folk (some time before Herbert was born). The classic protest song of the 1960s was a sort of angry pastoral. It spoke out against injustice in the name of a natural order. Its classic exponent was a singer with an acoustic guitar – an opinionated troubadour. A folk instrument was required to channel the judgment of nature. When Woody Guthrie wrote a slogan on his guitar in the 1940s – ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ – the really surprising word was ‘machine’. The piano, though acoustic, is not a folk instrument. Not being portable, it isn’t a free agent. It bespeaks the bourgeois home, the embroidered stool, (God forbid) music lessons in the parlour. The electric guitar is not a folk instrument, but for different reasons. It plays a discordant part in the symbolic order. It preaches rebellion without righteousness. There’s no logical difference between listening to an acoustic guitar by electric light and listening to an electric guitar by the light of a fire, since both require a socket (or a generator), but this isn’t logical turf. This is an area of culture which needs to see itself as part of nature. Never mind that we can’t be part of nature, however many trees we plant. What other creature plants trees? Neither species of guitar, the electric or the acoustic, breeds in the wild. Even if there was a moral difference between the instruments when performed on, it could only have vanished by the time their sounds have been captured on a disc and then reproduced by electrical equipment. Yet Bob Dylan could serve notice that he was abandoning the career of a socially engaged artist by changing his instrument.

Herbert the artist could no more function without electricity than Herbert the man could function without air, and the subject of Plat du Jour, food, can’t be the domain of the natural. Our bodies live in nature, but we do not. Nature imposes on us the duty of hunger, but everything we do to satisfy appetite is a cultural matter. And we’ve tried everything, from human flesh to breatharianism. We are responsible for the damage done by our appetites, but it’s hard to strike the right note while saying so. Herbert dedicates the CD ‘to anyone anywhere that has walked past a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Tesco, Asda etc without going in and eating the wrong bit of the world’, but it’s easier to specify the wrong bit of the world than the right one. Let he who is without sin cast the first Turkey Twizzler. Some of Herbert’s suggestions are simple (don’t buy imported apples, when there are 2000 varieties in the UK), others more hippy-visionary: ‘How about we turn off public ornamental fountains until the rest of the world has clean drinking water and sanitation?’ Even on issues which earn a track on Plat du Jour, poultry-raising and capital punishment (‘The Final Meal of Stacey Lawton’), his position isn’t clear. He may or may not be vegetarian and oppose the death penalty, or he may be saying that chickens must be raised humanely, and this particular man was innocent.

As project director (so to speak) of Plat du Jour, Matthew Herbert has subcontracted various tasks and subjects, for instance commissioning artwork for the packaging which explores themes parallel to those of the CD. The designer, Stanley Donwood, even gets a slot of about five hundred words to explain his own formalism. The results are beautiful washes of colour, but the material was food dye of various sorts, dripped through a pipette onto chromatography paper. Ours may be a world in which dumbing down is rampant, but it is also one in which the designer of the packaging for a pop CD has his own statements to make about our culture: ‘Our bright, colourful world is made possible by the manifold use of oil, that black ooze composed of millions upon millions of long-dead organisms.’ Which, admittedly, attached to a marketed plastic disc, sounds like the pot calling the kettle petroleum by-product.

Another bit of subcontracting is rather more uncomfortable. The track listing for ‘The Final Meal of Stacey Lawton’ reproduces the convict’s last words (‘I want y’all to keep your heads up, hold on and stay strong’ and so on) and refers to his choice of last meal: a jar of pickles. Herbert asked Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck at Bray to create his own variations on a theme of pickles, as possible sound sources. Blumenthal came up with an electric pickle, a pickle milkshake served in a pickle, freeze-dried pickled popcorn (which yielded the richest results acoustically), pickle ice cream in a dill cone, a pickle marinated in cola, and popping candy pickle. It’s hard to see how this conveys respect for an executed Texan you believe to have been innocent. Lawton’s choice of an accompaniment rather than an actual meal has a dreadful humble pathos. The frilly boutique versions seem like mocking kitsch.

It’s partly that Blumenthal seems the wrong choice of collaborator, a formalist of the kitchen in his own right. In this style of cooking, flavours, textures and presentation become puns chasing each other round the mouth, elaborate games of surprise. Sure, the bacon-and-egg ice cream is an astonishment, the sherbet a delightful ambush on the tongue – that’s not at issue. Blumenthal sees himself as a boffin of the palate, a researcher exploring the science of taste, science being the nature behind the nature we experience directly. And still, at the Fat Duck, the link between food and actual hunger is as tenuous as it could possibly be. Anything less like good, honest food would be hard to imagine. It’s hard to see how Blumenthal’s approach to cuisine connects up with Herbert’s global concerns. If he was asked to feed the world, what could he say? Let ’em eat freeze-dried foie gras?

Obviously it’s foolish to expect philosophical consistency from a CD. What is actually exciting about Plat du Jour isn’t so much the rigour of Matthew Herbert’s thinking about food, as the way his music and his ideas dance round each other in eccentric orbits. The closest thing to a rallying-cry in the project appears in the booklet rather than on the CD, and is hardly designed to prompt a rush to the barricades: avoid supermarkets. No exclamation mark, not even the added emphasis of capitals. There’s something very mannerly about the whole project – which doesn’t undermine its seriousness and its fascination.

Matthew Herbert doesn’t preach to the converted. He preaches to a much more precious audience, the audience of the unaligned, some of whom may never have thought about the issues which have preoccupied him for the last few years. They are free to explore the formal processes and the ideas behind the aesthetic decisions, swimming upstream from the artefact of the compact disc, first to the ideas pooled in the notes, and then to their sources on the internet, that Sargasso Sea in cyberspace where notions spawn and die.