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Live Reviews

Bugge Wesseltoft and Matthew Herbert: Two Approaches To Leadership

By Published: May 12, 2004
Like Bugge Wesseltoft, Herbert begins his set by striding onto the stage ahead of his band. He’s dressed in tails, black tie and black drainpipe trousers but offsets this concert dress conformity with black and white shoes and a brown shirt. In his hand he carries a white teacup and saucer from which he ostentatiously takes a loud sip, turns to a microphone and knocks the two pieces of china together with almost enough force to break them. Moments later, his symbolic props put aside, he’s busy building a whole chorus from that single sound. In the meantime the band arrive and settle behind their music stands, all dressed conventionally in tuxes, white shirts and black bowties. They’re arranged in a ‘V’ with the conductor standing at the centre of the gap and the rhythm section at the back. At the front of the stage and to the left stands Matthew Herbert, to the right Phil Parnell sits at a grand piano.

They launch with gusto into Goodbye Swingtime’s first number "Turning Pages". Herbert begins to sample the band almost immediately and throws brief snippets of their playing back at them. It quickly becomes clear that he’s very adept at this practice, treating his sampler as a musical instrument in its own right. The intense concentration on his face is mirrored in the rigidity of his body both at his keyboard and as he occasionally marches up and down in front of the band. It’s not clear whether this is intended as parody or simply because he’s caught up in the performance of the music. It’s certainly very easy to be swept along by the sheer volume of the sound blasted out by the combination of four trumpets, four trombones and five saxophones. The line between mockery and subversion is a fine one and it would be interesting to know what the other musicians make of the project. Perhaps the answer is in the delight with which the group takes part in some of the extra-musical elements which include magic tricks, sight gags, ritual shredding of copies of the Daily Mail, a confetti fountain, videos of Blair with Herbert’s mouth superimposed and, for the final encore, a camera flashlight parade with audience participation. Herbert’s partner Danni Siciliano sings four numbers and her enthusiasm acts as foil to her partner’s pranksterisms and provides a welcome balance to the occasional bombast of the band. Mathew Herbert adopts a number of guises in addition to his musical role: performance artist, showman, political campaigner and sonic terrorist. Stood stage left and just a little outside the circle of the other musicians he brings to mind Batman’s enemy, The Joker, menacing a victim: eager, gleeful even – his is an intense and unsettling performance to behold. The suspicion grows that he might bring the band crashing to a halt using their own sound like a juggernaut toppled by its own load. Disappointingly this never quite happens and his sonic interventions remain more akin to a terrier worrying an elephant.

Herbert’s performance has its antecedents in radical authors J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. With the former he shares a desire to subvert the middle-class mainstream by appropriation and subsequent refraction through the unconscious. Both also share a taste for suburban bungalows in south London... Herbert’s sampling practices may also be traced back to William Burroughs’s suggestion that riots might be triggered by the strategic use of recorded sounds (in ‘The Electronic Revolution’).

The evening revealed two very different approaches to leadership: Bugge assumed the role of benevolent dictator and Herbert that of guerilla fighter. While both leaders provided scant space for soloists other than themselves, Herbert’s project was the most interesting and certainly the more unusual of the two. His approach to the big band format raised questions regarding the apolitical nature and malleability of form at the same time as maintaining a greater degree of ambiguity conceptual playfulness than his, admittedly admirable, political engagement.

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