Interview: making Neanderthal music at Museum of Wales

Interviews By Chris Broughton | 03 February 2009
a photograph of a woman holding a hand axe

Elizabeth Walker with a 6,000 year-old hand axe from Coygan Cave in Carmarthenshire. © National Museum Wales

The Palaeolithic section of the Museum of Wales’ Origins exhibition includes a unique soundscape giving visitors an insight into the noises Neanderthals might have heard and made. Here, Collections Manager Elizabeth Walker and Composer Simon Thorne discuss how the soundscape was created, and outline plans to tour Neanderthal as a live performance.

Elizabeth Walker:
In the summer of 2007, when we were setting up the Origins exhibition, we were given a block of money to use on creative projects. I think the original idea was to commission visual artists to come up with a response to items in the collection.

Because we have cave art, I felt we didn’t really need visual pictures telling the Palaeolithic story. Being personally very interested in contemporary music, I asked whether it might be possible to work with a composer instead, to try and create some sort of composition. I took advice from the Welsh Arts Council, who put me in touch with Simon Thorne, a Cardiff-based composer and sound artist.

a photo of amna holding a bamboo instrument while leaning into a piano

'Neanderthal composer' Simon Thorne.

Simon Thorne:
Elizabeth called me out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested in doing a soundscape for the Palaeolithic exhibition. My initial response was, “Love to, yeah. What’s Palaeolithic?”

Elizabeth Walker:
We got Simon in and started off talking to him about life in the Palaeolithic, showing him stone tools and fossils found in Wales. For example, we looked at 230,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth from the Pontnewydd Caves in Denbighshire and an amazing hand axe from Coygan Cave in Carmarthenshire that’s about 60,000 years old.

Simon Thorne:
I was made aware that Neanderthals are not, in fact, the same species as early man. When Elizabeth gave me the hand axe to hold it was just an extraordinary feeling – it’s an exquisite object, and yet it’s not made by a human being. So then I had to think, “OK, how do I deal with this?”

a man and woman in profile singing

Neanderthal singing: Mary Anne Roberts and Shaun Palmer.

Elizabeth Walker:
We’re talking about such distant times, a completely different landscape, different animals. We’re trying to invite people to imagine what Palaeolithic man would have thought and heard and done. I introduced Simon to a book called The Singing Neanderthals by Professor Steven Mithen of Reading University. It’s full of Steven’s findings about how Neanderthal minds might have worked.

Simon Thorne:
In certain respects, clearly, it’s complete conjecture and speculation, but it’s totally fascinating. It encouraged me to consider the question, “what do we do when we make music?” Music making is common to all cultures; it’s as fundamental as our capacity to speak. Mothers sing to their babies, and babies learn to make noises like singing before they learn to speak.

a photo of the interior of a cave

Coygan Cave in Carmarthenshire. © National Museum Wales

Elizabeth Walker:
I gave Simon complete free reign with the music.

Simon Thorne:
…So I scratched my head for several months, and then invited four singers to join me in a recording studio. I’d also been thinking of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, a book that's fascinated me for years. Chatwin explores the idea of “singing the landscape,” so I put two and two together and jumped forward a bit and just drew lines describing a landscape, the shapes of horizons.

Then I told the singers, “OK, you must treat this like it’s gospel truth – this is language.” So they spent three hours in the studio working with my scribbles with quite amazing results. I chose singers very well versed in the experimental domain, and had we just gone in and done improvised singing, they’d have come up with great stuff. But it wouldn’t have had the same charge to it. The key was that we were inventing language, but we didn’t know what it meant.

a photo of a carved hand axe

Musical inspiration: a 6,000 year-old hand axe. © National Museum Wales

Elizabeth Walker:
Simon also did some recording up at the caves, and used some quite unusual techniques to get some of the sounds he needed.

Simon Thorne:
You have to consider what Neanderthals would have heard – they’d be familiar with the sound of stone, but not metal, and they’d hear animals. I recorded peacocks and slowed them down, and thought, “They’ll do for Woolly Mammoths.” I had a friend whose dog got locked in the kitchen and started whimpering, so I recorded that, too.

The museum introduced me to a flint-knapper, and I thought, “That's completely appropriate!” so he’s in there. I invited Professor Alison Wray to come and listen to the soundscape – she’s done a lot of work on the development of early languages, and her ideas are discussed in The Singing Neanderthals. Alison described it as “almost music”. I thought, “great! I’ve done it! It works!” Actually, there are some good tunes in there if you have the ears to hear them.

Elizabeth Walker:
Simon independently secured further funding to tour a live version of his Neanderthal music around Wales, and we were keen to have the debut here at the museum. For the live performance, he’s commissioned some visuals. He took a group of young filmmakers up to the various caves and they made a video that’s going to be projected, accompanying the music.

a photo of a man blowing

Shaun Palmer making Neanderthal music.

Simon Thorne:
There had to be another component that really captured the imagination while representing the moment people gained consciousness and moved from being animal to human. The video looks a little like an animated Jackson Pollock – it’s very abstract, but helps structure the performance.

Elizabeth Walker:
Steven Mithen will do a talk before the performance, and we’ve also invited Dylan Jones, a local educator who does special events for children. They’re going to be making music in the gallery, creating their own imaginary Neanderthal soundscape.

Dylan Jones:
I’ll be showing the group that I can communicate with them without using words, just using vocal sounds. I’ll say, “how am I feeling?” and make a sound like, “ahhhhhh!” and they’ll hopefully get that it’s ‘sad’. Likewise I’ll make sounds for ‘happy’ or ‘angry’. Then I’ll be getting them to come up with vocals, and I’ve got percussion instruments using materials that would’ve been around then – stone, wood, bone.

We have to accept that as 21st Century beings, we can’t actually ever make up truly Neanderthal sounds – this is all about getting people to use their imaginations and bring sound back to its fundamentals. It’s about getting away from everything you’ve learned about music while still tapping into something that’s perhaps innate and universally understood, from the way that we sing lullabies around the world to the sounds we instinctively make during times of extreme emotion.

a photo of a woman singing

Mary Anne Roberts.

Simon Thorne:
The soundscape uses a degree of electronic manipulation, but the live piece will be just the four singers plus stones and whatever primitive sound-making system we feel is appropriate. It’s completely based on what we did in that initial three-hour session.

We had to let go of our preconceptions about how we thought it should all go, and that opened up a really remarkable space. As a model for music making, it’s very liberating. There is a score for the piece - the map I drew - but other than that the singers can do whatever the hell they like, within certain parameters. As a creative, this project has been rather thrilling.

The premiere of Neanderthal, featuring a talk by Professor Steven Mithen, will take place at the National Museum Cardiff on Sunday February 8 at 6pm. Dylan Jones’ workshops take place throughout the whole weekend. Admission is free but booking is essential. Call 029 2057 3148 for more information.

The Neanderthal tour of Wales begins at Theatr Harlech, Harlech, on March 25. Further details can be found at www.myspace.com

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