Composing the sounds of an animal’s life cycle and ultimate consumption into a musical portrait, Matthew Herbert’s “One Pig” is in turns grotesque and sentimental, rock and opera. I expected squeamishness and vegetarian conversions when I saw it on tour, but instead, the crowd eagerly devoured the creature at the end. (Make of that what you will.)

One Pig is in Manchester, UK tonight before continuing to Brighton and Portugal.

As my own incurable appetite is for musical instruments, for me a highlight of the show is Scotland-based, American artist Yann Seznec’s Sty Harp. (See also our coverage of his iPad music game development work.) Gut strings in historical instruments already make use of animal parts, so a stringed instruments seems appropriate. But by dissecting obsolete, forgotten technology – a bit of a theme in these parts lately – Yann is able to make an effective, expressive instrument.

Sadly, there’s not much video of the instrument in action, but seeing it is a highlight of the live show. Yann’s performance has its own theatricality, rocking out on these extended strings around the “pig pen” like a boxer swinging against the ropes of a ring. First, Yann shares some notes on the show itself:

The album is an elegy to a life lived for the benefit of humans and raises complex questions about our relationship to these often-maligned and misunderstood creatures.

The album is made entirely out of sounds from the pig and its surroundings – the first squeals, the sound of it being alone for the first time, and the dripping of its blood after being butchered. The result is a delicate, beautiful, and occasionally terrifying musical composition with a profundity rarely heard in electronic music.

The live show debuted at the Royal Opera House, London, in September 2011 and has since toured the world, performing at Berghain Berlin, STRP Eindhoven, Club Silencio Paris, Liquid Room Tokyo, Ancienne Belgique Brussels, and more. Future dates include headlining at Future Everything in Manchester, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

The show explores and questions the life, death, and consumption of the pig. A chef cooking onstage brings the sound and smell of cooking pig, and the performance features a brand new custom instrument – the “Sty Harp”, built and performed by Edinburgh-based artist Yann Seznec. This representation of the pig’s home is used to trigger and control elements of music, forming an integral part of the 5 piece band. The rest of the band is comprised of Sam Beste on keyboards, Tom Skinner on SPDS, Hugh Jones on samplers, and Matthew on various keyboards and samples and things.

Yann explains how the instrument itself is constructed:

Above: As “One Pig” dissects the life and being of a pig, here, we see inside the mechanical innards of the Sty Harp. Photos courtesy Yann Seznec.

In terms of the Sty Harp, the instrument is built using hacked Gametraks, which were a failed proto-motion controller from around 2003. They were sold only in the UK, and worked by using two joysticks with strings attached that you clipped onto your hands. These could then sense the distance and vague location of your hands …a few terrible games were released on PS2, Xbox, and PC for the Gametrak before they were pulled from the market.

In any case, I took apart a whole load of these (I probably have owned more gametraks than anyone in the world, ever) and used their innards for the string/joystick controllers, which are totally great! I built a whole system with Jon (from Lucky Frame) to hook up twelve of these controllers into my computer at once. I’m using an Arduino with a mux shield to handle the 36 analog inputs (x/y/string for 12 controllers) at once, converting them into MIDI and sending them over to Ableton.

In Ableton the controllers are doing a number of different things, slightly different for each song. In the Max patch I made I can send out 5 individual MIDI notes from each string, one for general movement above a threshold, and one each for a push, pull, up, or down movement. These movements are also sending out CC values, as is the pulling of the string. So each string controller is sending a whole pile of MIDI data at all times, and I pick and choose for each song which gestures to use. So in some cases I’m just triggering individual sounds using the strings, but in others I am using some strings to trigger clips, others to control effects on those clips, and still other effects to do master play/stop/effects/etc.

The climax of the Sty Harp happens about 2/3rds of the way through the show, when the whole band joins me in the sty for the symbolic butchering of the pig. For that song each band member controls different strings, building a huge sound wall.

You can read more about my building of the sty harp here:

We’re playing in Manchester on Friday the 18th, Brighton on Monday the 21st, then in Lisbon on June 29th and Porto on June 30th.
Matthew Herbert – One Pig: exclusive album stream [The Guardian]