Transcript of a skype conversation between Matthew Herbert and the war photographer Sebastian Meyer who made the 5 second recording that made up the album ‘The End Of Silence’. This is the image that Sebastian took at the same time the recording was made…
MH One of the things that was interesting to me about this process was that your sound was emailed to me and it punctured the bubble, it took me there in a way that a photograph doesn’t – in the way that you wrote about in your blog. But part of this album, really, is about thinking about that and exploring what it means to receive this kind of second hand information. For example, it’s an incredibly scary noise and yet in real life I’ve never heard anything like this before. Part of the project is about the function of recording itself and our relationship to these recordings that we’re making millions of every day and not really paying attention to. So I guess the first question was… What’s your relationship to the sound itself? Does it sound like how you remembered it? I just mean the sound, not my music.
SM It still scares me when I listen to it. For whatever reason, my iTunes, I have that really popular song by AWOL Nation and it’s right in front of the bomb sound so about 2 weeks ago I got really addicted to listening to that song. I listened to it over and over again and if I wasn’t careful, the song would end and it would immediately start with the bomb sound. And it still has me very careful because that really really scares me. And I don’t think it is a reaction like a post traumatic stress reaction, I think it really is just a really scary sound. Something you said earlier which was you’ve never heard that sound in real life before and it still scares you. Well, until I was in that situation in Libya, I’d never heard that sound either. So funnily enough, I had no frame of reference for it either. I’d never heard what an ariel bomb being dropped near you was. Being there I knew that it was really a very dangerous situation before the bomb actually exploded. The sound of it whistling through the air, even without any frame of reference, I mean having never experienced that before I still knew that it was a very dangerous situation and so I think in fact anyone listening to it shares that with me as well. The sound of the bomb actually exploding… Anyone can recognise it, that’s scary… But a bomb whistling through the air, you have no reference of how close it is.
MH It’s worrying as well because, sound increasingly is used, and I guess it always was to some extent with drums and music and shouting, but sound in and of itself is often designed to scare as well. I was talking to someone from Syria and they were saying that the government are exploding sound bombs three or four times a day to psychologically scare people. And apparently the sound of a drone is very scary because it could just fire on you at any point without any reference. And of course the military could have made those drones silent really, because they’re pretty high up, but the sound of them is part of the intimidation I guess.
SM Absolutely, and I think even in Guantanamo, there’s been lots of acts of them using really loud music, not just to keep people awake but to really intimidate people. I think that even in World War II, either the Germans or the allies put special whistling devices on the bombs to make them scarier.
MH Yes and in the blitz in England, they always talked about the worst sound was the doodle bombs which just had enough fuel to get them to London and then when they’d run out they would stop- the engine would stop- and then the bomb would fall. So it was actually the silence; you’re actually waiting for the bomb to fall… You’re wanting the bomb to keep going basically, to go beyond you. But when it stopped and there was that silence, that was the really scary part because you knew that it was nearby, close to you. And, just talking about the recording you made, when you listen back for the first time to that whole thing, do you feel like the actual recording you made, it obviously captured the horror of it because it still scares you, but does it match the memory of it?
SM Yeah, it does actually. [pause] It’s funny actually I’m gonna take that back, only because, thinking about it now… Without getting too philosophical or psychological, memory’s a very strange, strange thing. Listening to it is very, very evocative. And funnily enough it’s more evocative than the photographs that I took.
MH That was the next bit I was gonna ask, is the photo an accurate representation of what was going on there?
SM Well, one of the reasons I got into and one of the reasons I decided to stick a recorder, a recording device, in my pocket and decided to do this was after an experience that I had in Afghanistan where I covered, I was out on a number of patrols and got into some quite heavy fire fights a couple of times, I mean obviously not personally, but covered them and I came away with images that had absolutely no… They sucked. I mean, they were nice looking pictures but as bits of record and journalism they lacked everything that I wanted them to have. Which was the chaos, the speed, the uncertainty, all of it. And it was all lacking in the pictures. So I knew I couldn’t shoot video at the same time that I was shooting pictures. So I needed something to record something in real-time, you know, the passage of time. But I also shot some video. Actually, quite a lot of video in Libya as well and even the audio is more evocative than the video. And I think, I mean I couldn’t tell you because I was there, but I think it lets your imagination go but I don’t need my imagination to go, I was there. On top of that, it really lets my mind’s eye wonder a little bit more and explore things and go places and it’s quite… The sound is much, much more evocative than anything visual.
MH What I love about sound is that it’s a new form really, we’ve only had sound about a hundred years. Moving slightly away from that, could you tell me a little bit about the explosion; what was going on before, what was going on afterwards, where actually were you? Because you said it was Ras Lanuf?
SM Ras Lanuf was, at that point was the front line of the fighting. And the rebels had pushed west very quickly from Benghazi and it was actually in Ras Lanuf in the town called Bin Jawad, that’s where their advance stopped and after that they got pushed back. Anyway, Ras Lanuf is just like a tiny desert town that unless we’d all been there with our cameras, no one would have ever heard of. It’s actually a very funny thing about covering international, places that should never otherwise be known. So Ras Lanuf was at a check point. It was basically just a concrete building that you see the right of the picture that you see on the right hand side of the road, and besides that there was nothing else there and it was where everyone had congregated that day and there was just tonnes and tonnes of tonnes and tonnes of people; media, and obviously tonnes of Libyans, lots of rebels. And what people do is they get all excited, they get their cars all geared up and they all jump in a car and just drive head first straight into battle. And then there are gonna be guys, there’d be cars coming back with wounded and dead in it. And a few reporters were jumping in the cars with them or taking their cars forward to the front line. But it was extremely precarious and dangerous. I mean, it was a road in the middle of a flat desert, there was no place to hide and there was nowhere to go and the rebels, non of whom were military trained. So there were a few reporters who just jumped in the cars with them and went straight into battle with them, but they were few and far between because it was just unbelievably precarious, I mean just insanely dangerous. So what happened was these Libyan aircrafts, so this was before the French and the Americans and Nato as a whole started enforced a no-fly zone, so this was when the Gadaffi airforce was still flying, and they were flying at a pretty high altitude and they were bombing but very irregularly. It was not very common that they’d be bombing. And every time a plane would go overhead, the very outdated Russian anti-aircraft guns that the rebels had would go into effect but they were just miles away, quite literally miles. There’s no way this weaponry is gonna hit them. And you know, they’re shooting RPGs into the air and the RPGs only go up a couple hundred metres before they explode. So they weren’t doing anything. And what was I doing? I was on my own and I was walking down the road trying to figure out how far forward I could go, how comfortable I was. And basically, I was so unbelievably curious, like desperately curious to head straight down that road directly into battle because I had no idea what the battle looked like. I had no idea what it was, was it like two tanks just faced off across the desert shooting at each other? I just didn’t know. And I was trying to figure out if I was just gonna walk down the road, what was gonna be going on… And as I was walking down, every time I heard an explosion, I got kinda scared and was like ‘well maybe I really shouldn’t go down there’. And there was a young man reading a mini Qur’an, and when I say mini, I mean like the size of your wallet. And so I was walking backwards filming him… And all of a sudden everyone starts screaming ‘Airplane! Airplane! Airplane!’ in Arabic and I looked up, I couldn’t see anything so I kept photographing and all of a sudden, the sound started. And at that moment, I’m staring straight up into the sky because the day before actually, a friend of mine said when a bomb’s dropped you can actually see it because a little thing is released from the under side of the plane. And I was just like a little boy scout like ‘Oh cool man, I wanna see what it looks like’. You know, thinking that it’ll never fall on you. So I looked up and I couldn’t see anything. And everyone was pointing and I kept looking, I couldn’t see anything and then ‘nyeeaaaow… boom’ and I think probably in the part that I sent you where it’s very, very loud. It’s a very short amount of time but I don’t remember like visually, I don’t remember what I saw. I don’t think I saw anything, you know what I mean? Like, I think I was still staring into the sky. But my mind was racing. You know, I had about a dozen thoughts in a split second, which I can tell you about but you know, but that’s not really your question. So anyway, so I had all these thoughts and then the bomb exploded and I just started to look left and right just trying to figure out where the bomb had actually gone off. Because I knew it happened really close to me because I could feel the repercussion around my feet a little bit. So the first photograph that I sent Lenka (who did the artwork) is actually behind me, there’s nothing there and I immediately turned around that’s when the plume started billowing up. So I was able to react very, very quickly and take a whole bunch of pictures and then immediately afterwards I started running. You just automatically just run away from where the bomb went off. It’s an instinctual thing, you just run. So I ran and after about a couple of seconds I was like ‘hold on a second, the bomb’s gone off, there’s no reason to run anymore.’ So you should run back towards where the bomb went off to see if anyone was hurt, and not just as a journalist but as a human being. So then I stopped, and then started running straight back towards where the bomb actually went off.
MH I find it quite hard some times living in a world where some people are having that experience a lot and the rest of us will potentially never experience anything like that or anywhere close. You know, just going to shops and nightclubs and the cinema. Part of wanting to make a record like this is to remind myself of the privilege of peace that I am currently afforded, living a lifetstyle subsisdised by others who happened to be born above oil.
SM What upsets me is the stuff that happens in Iraq continuously where it’s civilians that are being targeted. I think young men who go off and choose to fight, they get hurt and it’s sad when anybody gets hurt but it’s somehow less sad than when it’s civilians; men, women children, people, teenagers, people who… they’re just there by circumstance.
MH So my next question is, was anybody hurt in this explosion?
SM Yes, there were at least two people that were killed.
MH Oh god…
SM There might have been a third, I couldn’t tell you. But outside of that, there’s one guy, if you look at the picture very closely, there’s a guy that you can see he’s been knocked down by the blast, so I don’t know what injuries he sustained, I mean he certainly wasn’t horrendously injured- he didn’t lose any limbs, he might have been deafened. I mean we were all deaf after the bomb, a little bit but you know, he’s so close to it that he physically gets knocked down by the blast. I think he might have sustained, you know… psychological stuff.
MH It sounds awful to say but I’d never spotted him before. I can’t believe it, I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at this picture.
SM You have to look really closely.
MH Yeah I see him now, but I can’t believe that I…
SM And if you look off to the left, you can see the casing, the casing of the shell.
MH Oh yeah… Fuck. I have to say I feel quite weird because… . Hearing two people died, it makes me feel quite strange, unsettled and emotional because when I heard the sound, it sounded fucking scary and when I saw the picture, eventually, of where it came from, because it was in the middle of the desert, I assumed the the bomb was off target somehow.
SM It was off target because as I said there were hundreds and hundreds of people close to me, all gathered in one spot and there was a rumour- I mean everything in Libya was a rumour at the time, probably still is- that the airforce were missing targets intentionally because they didn’t want to kill fellow Libyans. And that seemed to be the case in as much as there were no horrific bombing attacks and there easily could have been. I mean, flying and bombing large groups of people standing in the middle of a flat desert, to me, seems as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. It would have been very easy. But then I talked to a pilot who said actually those things are not as accurate as you might think, these are not laser guided missiles, these are missiles dropped from outdated planes. So… There were two guys- if you look at the photograph, there’s a concrete wall that comes to a corner and where the corner is, that’s where the bomb hit- and there are two guys sitting there so those two guys were killed. But in terms of intentionally being off target, if it were off target it was only by a couple of hundred yards. Like a hundred yards away were hundreds of guys that they could have completely obliterated.
MH And just so I understand what I’m looking at in the picture, has anything changed now that that bomb has gone off? So I can obviously see a lot of plastic water bottles and debris and stuff like that, I presume that was already there, a lot of that stuff?
SM That was already there. I mean the only thing that the bomb did, besides obviously killing these two people was, you know, they kicked up all that sand and it destroyed a bit of the concrete wall.
MH I have to say it’s very hard to hear all this
SM l can imagine you’re starting to feel like that. The only thing I’d say to you is that apart from those guys friends and family you, I and the rest of the world will never know who they were. They could have been pretty bad guys, there were a lot of guys involved in the uprising who were not particularly nice people, who were definitely in Al-Qaeda in Iraq a couple of years earlier.
MH Well, it’s weird because my whole life I’ve been talking about music being about life and death and now I know for a fact that I’ve crossed the line and I’ve made music out of someone being killed. You know, for me, that’s a line being crossed. It’s like an end. So let me… I’ve gotta go in about 15 minutes. So… Fuck… Moving on… Could you tell me then how you felt when you heard this thing as a piece of music. The overall intention for me was that it was like a kind of meditation; listening again and again and seeing how you felt about the sound. In some ways it’s quite a banal point particularly in the context of what we’re talking about but every single sound that you hear is from that five second recording, it was really important to me for the integrity of the piece that all the melodies that you hear are from that person whistling and that one person shouting just before. I absolutely am not looking for compliments by the way, that’s not what I’m interested in, I just wanna know because it’s not my noise, it’s not my sound, what it was like to come back to you as music, rather than something else.
SM Yeah, well I’ll be perfectly frank with you, it is a very… It still remains for me a very difficult sound to listen to. You know, I’m being completely open…
MH Of course, absolutely. You must.
SM I’ve been to Syria twice now. I went to Syria in October and I was on the front lines again and a MIG, I think it was the same aeroplane as in Libya, I don’t know the make, but it dived on us where we were. It didn’t drop any bombs but it opened up with a 50 calibre machine gun and the sound of the aeroplane triggered something in me and it really scared me. Now, I was fine at the time and then I left Syria and I started to have post-traumatic stress- not a disorder, like a full disorder, but I started to have elements of post-traumatic stress. So I listened to the tracks but I couldn’t listen to them all the way through because they still trigger in me, not just the sound itself- obviously the sounds do- but your treatment of it, I mean… Obviously you turned it into music but it is still very terrifying to be perfectly honest with you. And I hope other people find it terrifying too because that’s kind of the point. To be honest, as a sound recorder, I’m proud to come back with something that’s scary because I don’t want to come back with something that’s you know, just pretty. Because that’s pointless as far as I’m concerned.
MH And I don’t want to make easy listening, it shouldn’t be easy listening either.
SM Absolutely, and I’m really glad that it’s not, I mean if you had I probably would have said something. But whether it is what you’ve done with it or whether it’s still my brain dealing with that, it’s so scary; your recordings, all three of them are so scary that I can’t listen to them all the way through.
MH For me it’s a series of questions, we’re in unexplored territory, so how do we feel about it? We might decide at the end of it that we should never do it again. That’s why the integrity of the process is so important to me, that every sound does come from that and how it’s put together and why it’s put together and what we’re trying to do and all that context… For me, why that process is so important is because I don’t want there to be any distractions from what are, for me, fundamental questions about life, death, music, sound, hearing, emotion, being human, you know whatever we want to add to that list. From your pespective though, do you think there’s a value in even attempting something like this? Do you think we gain something? Because we know that war is scary and we know that it’s bad…
SM Actually, funnily enough I disagree actually. I don’t think that people who haven’t been to war know that war is scary. We’ve been told that war is scary but that’s not actually what we have because we watch movie after movie after movie about wars and they’re not that scary. You know movie films, those films don’t come under the category of horror or thriller. No, war films are loud and whatever, but there’s no way in fiction that you can capture what’s really scary. The really scary thing about war is the thought that you could really, really die. And when you’re watching a film, unless you kill off your main character an all the supporting characters, there’s no way that the audience can understand that people can just die randomly, it’s not scripted. It’s like when you hear that recording, maybe you don’t, but when I hear that recording, it reminds me of a very specific thought that went through my head and it was the first time this ever happened to me. No actually, it was the second time but it was much, much more profound was that I really thought that I was gonna die when I made that recording. I told you, I had a thousand thoughts that went through my head and I won’t bore you with all of them but easily the top two thoughts that I had was I most likely am going to die now and I had to very quickly come to terms with what that meant. And I think there’s something in that recording because it’s real, because it’s journalistic, you know it’s not fiction, it’s documentary. I think somehow that comes across and I think what you guys do and what you did with that mix that makes that come across. So, the simple answer to your question, yes. I definitely, definitely think there’s value in it and I think you’ve basically given it many, many things one of which is a platform to get it to a greater audience because otherwise it would just be a sound on my website or sitting in my ipad or worse. So getting it out there in a way that an audience can relate to it and interact with it and feel it, it’s essential. I remember when Waltz With Bashir came out, suddenly two worlds that you never thought could live together, it was a documentary film and it was an animation. How could an animation film possibly be journalistic and they made it journalism, they made it documentation, they made it real story-telling.
MH Music can now be documentary as well. Obviously with documentary comes all the moral and philosophical debate and questioning that has existed in film and photography for years and now we’re just starting to have that debate in music but, well thanks so much for being another spark for that, certainly for me.
SM No, it’s been a real pleasure and I wish I could listen to it all the way through…
MH Yeah, maybe in a few years time.