A curly tale: the musical life of one pig

The life of a pig, from birth to plate, is providing the sounds for an entire album this week. Is it really necessary to be brought so close to the reality of a bacon sandwich?

The squeals, grunts and squelches of a pig would not be the most obvious choice for a performance at the Royal Opera House. But, for avant-garde musician Matthew Herbert, the life of a swine provides the sounds for just that – as well as for an entire album, released this week.

One Pig, which has received rave reviews from music buffs, takes recordings of one animal from birth to butchery to make a musical biography. Each of the album's nine tracks is based on a stage of the pig's life, beginning with birth and the first feed, and moving through the creature's 20-week life before it meets its final destination as a delicious pork feast.

Herbert's experimental soundscape is hardly easy listening, and it won't be to all tastes. Animal rights charity PETA condemned the album before they had even heard it, saying it exploits an animal's suffering for entertainment.

For the composer, however, the album dignifies the otherwise unseen life of its piggy subject. The brutal reality of the food on our plates is hidden from us, he says, making us careless of the life and death behind our roast dinners or bacon sandwiches. Though no vegetarian, Herbert thinks that if we're comfortable with eating meat, we should be prepared to get close to the visceral reality of life, slaughter and butchery.

The album does its utmost to make this into an affecting experience. The rumble of tractors creates its bassline, its melodies are the squeals of pigs and its rhythms the crunch of chopped bone.

Legal constraints, however, mean there's one sound the album doesn't feature. Herbert wasn't allowed to record the pig's actual slaughter, but he says the absence of this fundamental event says everything about our skewed relationship with food. Though we're allowed to consume as much meat as we like, the crucial break that it depends on – that between life and death – is always shielded from our eyes.

It is this separation that Herbert hopes One Pig will confront, changing the way we feel about where our food comes from.

Seen and not heard?

Do we really need to face the disturbing reality of the slaughterhouse head on? We all know meat comes from dead animals, and the gruesome, messy reality would almost certainly put us off our dinner. Choosing to avoid this distasteful experience doesn't mean we don't consider where our food comes from – just that we'd rather take advantage of a modern system that means we don't have to deal with such unpleasantness.

For Herbert, though, this hypocrisy is a huge danger that means all sorts of abuses can be carried out in our name. When we decide not to examine the brutal processes behind our consumption we fail to take responsibility for our actions, and leave a trail of destruction, ignored and unrecognised, in the wake of everything we eat.

You Decide

  1. Do you think it is right to eat meat?
  2. Is being aware of the consequences of our consumption a fundamental part of moral responsibility?

Activities

  1. Compose your own soundscape, based on everyday life around your school or home. Use everyday objects to create sounds that build up to make something appealing or interesting.
  2. Design an advertisement encouraging people to visit a farm, in order to find out more about where their food comes from.

Some People Say...

“I don't want to know where my food comes from.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is Matthew Herbert a real musician?
Absolutely – Herbert is a highly respected composer, whose collaborations include work with Björk, and Heston Blumenthal. He creates electronic music that ranges from the deeply experimental to mainstream, techno dance tracks.
Does he use sampled sounds in other work?
'Found' sounds are absolutely central to Herbert's work. Previous albums sample the grinding of coffee beans, 3,500 people biting into an apple, and even the sound of Palestinian protestors being shot.
So is his work always political?
Not always, but often. By using real noises, Herbert examines our relationship with sounds, and with the 'hidden', often distasteful things that our lives depend on, but that we don't generally experience.

Word Watch

Porcine
relating to or resembling a pig
Avant-garde
Originally a military term meaning 'advance guard', avant-garde art is cutting edge, and challenges the expectations of certain art forms in abstract and often controversial ways.
PETA
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA campaign for animal welfare, against the trade in fur, and for vegetarianism.
Visceral
Coming from the word viscera (meaning the soft organs of the body) visceral refers to things that are inward or bodily. It can refer to a brutal depiction of something, or a reaction which is particularly extreme.

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