“All there is left to say is goodbye,” begins Matthew Herbert.
A weepy creep of alto saxophone follows his naive ascending melody. It’s a subtly tragic start to an evening marketing itself as a continental celebration. And yet there’s a sense of humour, albeit a morose one, to Herbert’s breaking chords. In these notes, he’s both bidding a reluctant farewell to Europe and welcoming the crazed triviality of Britain’s exit from its four decade-long membership in the EU. Whether the trumpet toots for Leave or Remain, Brexit has been an emotional and administrative malfunction. This is what Matthew Herbert and his Brexit Big Band are parading tonight.
His ‘Big Band’ assembles choirs and orchestras from across Europe and beyond. For this particular rendition at the Barbican, the likes of the London Humanist Choir and Koruso! Southwark sidle up with the UK Japanese Music Society and the London International Gospel Choir. Players such as Espen Laub Von Llienskjold head up the percussion section while Phil Meadows leads the brass, leaving Peter Wraight responsible for conducting the malady of it all. Herbert’s project aims to work with as many local singers and musicians from European countries as realistically possible over the timescale of Theresa May triggering Article 50 and the proposed departure date from the EU in 2019. The resulting product of these sessions and performances from now to then will be an album based upon the collaborative efforts of all those involved.
And despite the staggering workload predominantly falling upon Herbert’s shoulders, the emotional weight of his songs are evenly distributed amongst tonight’s musicians. There’s a shared feeling of delirium and affection onstage as Herbert clownishly jives around his bed of samplers. The compositions in their current state teeter between the dramatic moodiness of Bernard Herrmann and the looseness of Sun Ra. Accompanied by faultless vocal performances from Rahel, the rereading of Article 50 set to music is a turbulent and unyielding affair. As a contrast to this, Herbert takes a moment mid-performance to dedicate a crushing rendition of Be Still to Joe Pickhaver; a moment leaving both the producer and key players discernibly red-eyed.
Typical Herbertian traits are also present throughout the evening, from calling for the audience to shout out their respective countries of origin and manipulating the response through phasers, to requesting us to write a personal letter to Europe, fold it into a paper plane and launch the letter towards the Barbican stage. A handful of notes reading ‘I’m Sorry’ were read aloud. Claps are recorded and transformed into piercing stabs. Rahel’s quavering notes are cut, spliced and rebound back to her. It’s anarchy, but anarchy of the most collective kind.
Celebrating the dripping tap development of an ongoing political fracas in this manner is a contentious, almost outrageous scenario. For the more incendiary libertarians, literally making a song and dance out of an enduring real-life song and dance may even sound borderline contrived. But in the name of communal unification, Herbert’s band of players recite ever-evolving swan songs to and for our European allies. Each digitised clap and shout is an audial encouragement to reach out to your neighbouring participant in maddening confusion and clasp your hand in theirs. Brexit, as with Herbert’s Big Band, is far from its conclusive stages. But while the former will undoubtedly drag its bloodied toes towards total isolationism, the latter will be a joyous spectacle that will continue to flourish.