A Battered, Deep-Fried Trumpet: Is This What Brexit Sounds Like?

Experimental producer Matthew Herbert’s enigmatic album trawls a nation’s fault-lines and finds its messy symbolism

How to make art or music about Brexit, when Culture (note the capital ‘C’) is considered to be one of the fault-lines dividing Remainers and Leavers, the ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’ (as political journalist David Goodhart referred to them in his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere), or the bubble-dwelling metropolitan ‘liberal elite’ and the ‘left behind’? Culture is for the London types, the rumoured ‘Islington set’, the ones who weekend in Paris, Berlin, Rome or Vienna, who know their Alban Berg from their Constantin Brancusi, who can be found settling down on the sofa with a glass of Waitrose Recommends wine to watch whatever won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Everyone else has mugs of tea, battered cod and ‘legitimate concerns about immigration’. These spurious dichotomies have thrived in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum and the crisis of self-flagellating British centrism that ensued. The cultural dimension of this crisis is suffused with what writer Joe Kennedy ingeniously termed, in his eponymous 2018 book, ‘authentocracy’: the scramble to assert an insight into, and membership of, the working class – not through any true understanding of economic status or relation to labour (and still less any genuinely left-wing analysis) but through a parade of tropes and fetishes associated with real(ist) working people and their opposite numbers, ensconced in Islington and equally phantasmatic.

What, then, are we to make of The State Between Us (2019), a diversely collaborative album spearheaded by experimental musician Matthew Herbert in response to the referendum result, for which a trumpet was recorded being battered and deep-fried upon a visit to Brenda’s Chippie in the northern British seaside town of Cleethorpes, 70 percent of whose population voted to leave the EU?

If this gesture sounds like a parodic account of a Leave / Remain cultural exchange straight from the mind of satirist Chris Morris, we have to suspect this is part of the point. The meanings and messages of Herbert’s unique soundwork are often enigmatic, even head-scratchingly deadpan. One of his long-term techniques sees him using sounds from highly specific contexts as starting points from which to construct conceptually unified albums, and from the results emanates a cultural and political ambience that, for all its sonic richness and specificity, can be provocatively, constructively, mute. Herbert has made albums from household objects (Around the House, 1998), the human body (Bodily Functions, 2001), the food chain (Plat du Jour, 2005), the life, butchering and consumption of a pig (One Pig, 2011) and the sound of a shell exploding in the Libyan civil war (The End of Silence, 2013). Alongside this, he has made house music (as ‘Herbert’) and has recorded with the Matthew Herbert Big Band since 2003, which on The State Between Us manifests as The Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band (or ‘Brexit Big Band’), which conducted a two-year ‘apology tour’ of the EU following the referendum, during which time the album was recorded.

Brexit Big Band performance at the Barbican, London. Courtesy: Matthew Herbert

Brexit Big Band performance at the Barbican, London. Courtesy: Matthew Herbert

So, what does a battered trumpet say about Brexit? The State Between Us cannot entirely be heard as protest music in the conventional sense of articulating a political message or standpoint. The closest it comes is on the album’s handful of songs, such as ‘You’re Welcome Here’, whose lyrics reassert, in the face of the referendum’s accompanying surge of xenophobia, the promise of safe harbour for those who would need it from beyond the UK’s borders. Yet, the song’s positivity is complicated by its mournful scoring and delivery – most of the album, in fact, feels crepuscular and haunted – and, in any case, the message is not one that those who hold power, from the UK government to those manning the borders, are likely to agree with or implement. Some may hear the song as heroic but, for this listener at least, the track’s intrigue is its tragic irony and, given how subjective political truths have proven to be in recent years, that may be apt. Reactions to Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019), a TV movie fictionalizing the referendum, varied similarly, with some Remainers scandalized by its glamourization of Brexiteers while Leavers divined yet another establishment smear job.

A battered trumpet is less a clear message about Brexit (and still less a political intervention) than it is a photographic portrait of it; less a metaphor than a metonym. More specifically, it’s a tragicomic sketch of the bizarre gulfs in British culture that Brexit has implied, and the painfully insufficient narratives (stemming from both sides) of class and culture that surround it and the symbols on which it all turns. A photograph can often tell a political story with ease (famously, Dorothea Lange’s depression-era ‘Migrant Mother’ in the American Dust Bowl in 1936 or Nick Ut’s bomb-fleeing ‘Napalm Girl’ in Vietnam in 1972), but the microphone-enabled sonic equivalent can, in the absence of words, struggle to be as communicative. Thus The State Between Us comes across as a kind of ‘action recording’ (as in ‘action painting’): sounds as traces, as disconnected souvenirs of a disconnected country and a disconnected continent, divorced from context and from reality, animated only by the memory of the gesture and its (re)construction in the imaginations of listeners and dreams of (European / British) citizens; it’s a time capsule of a tumultuous and confused moment. The album is the work of over 1,000 participants and its creation has crisscrossed the UK and the continent: the resulting nearly two hours of sound is its often baffling, often poignant record.

The album features sounds recorded along the Northern Irish Border – which, historically sensitive in nature, is set to become the only significant external EU border post-Brexit – as well as from the perimeter of the British Prime Minister’s country retreat, Chequers. There are noises associated with the decline of British manufacturing industries, of a swimmer crossing the English Channel, of 50-pence coins commemorating the EU. In fact, the album fittingly encapsulates the tumult of the past three years by not limiting itself to sounds adjacent to Brexit. The ecologically-themed track ‘An A to Z of Endangered Animals’ features ice drumming and various animal horns and shells while ‘The Tower’ contains recordings from the silent walk that marked the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy of 2017. (US President Donald Trump is one hot potato left alone, probably deserving of an album of his own.)

The Matthew Herbert Big Band, The State Between Us, 2019, album cover. Courtesy: Matthew Herbert

The Matthew Herbert Big Band, The State Between Us, 2019, album cover. Courtesy: Matthew Herbert

Brenda’s sizzling battered trumpet appears on ‘Fish and Chips’ amid the soundscape of a seaside chip shop complete with customers and seagulls, whose cry is echoed at the track’s conclusion by the single plaintive fart of the now highly calorific horn. Midway, a jaunty big-band groove appears as if it were the last words of the oil-submerged trumpet or its final reminiscence of better times. Throughout the album, in fact, the big-band sound carries heavy connotations of the 1940s and the golden age that Leavers are often seen to be perceiving and pining for. By extension, it evokes World War II, the heroic imagination of which has long animated Brexiteers – most famously invoking the putative ‘Blitz Spirit’ at the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit, while ignoring the all-too-real horrors of war that the EU offered itself as a solution to. Indeed, The State Between Us includes a rendition of Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’, originally recorded in 1939. Miller was famously photographed in his Army Air Forces uniform and died when his plane was lost over the English Channel in 1943. If there is a musical style that represents the misplaced and anachronistic ambitions of Brexit, it might well be that of 1940s big bands. The State Between Us captures this ironically but not unsympathetically, suggesting the image of white-haired couples bobbing in a pier ballroom as the spotlights slowly fade: one last dance, one last assertion of presence. This is the demographic that those most ardently calling for a second referendum periodically suggest has expired since 2016, thus crucially reducing Leave’s already slim majority.

In the midst of things, few can hope to make a single coherent statement on the meaning and consequences of Brexit, whether as a stenographer or as an activist. This is not where the curious power of The State Between Us comes from. Instead, it worries the freshly exposed tensions that may well have torn the UK from the EU and the UK from itself, its Culture of collaboration and experimentation (coded European and literally European). It does not proclaim itself superior or authentic or even necessarily correct, but hauntedly trawls the sonic artefacts of its messy symbolism as if they could tell us anything more than that something has happened, that something has broken into pieces.

Main image; courtesy: Matthew Herbert

Adam Harper is a lecturer in music based in London, UK, and the author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making (2011).

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