Kate Chisholm

Noise - A Human History

What kinds of sound would stone age people have heard? What noises did they make?

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You could say that Neil MacGregor revolutionised radio with his mega-series A History of the World in 100 Objects. In each of those 100 programmes he took us on an extraordinary journey of the mind, to show us what we’ve been up to since the first ‘primitive’ reindeer carvings of the Ice Age. He did this not by the usual route for such grandiose series of going on a whirlwind trip through history, but by looking at the small, often tiny details and drawing from them as much meaning as possible. He also transformed the 15-minute radio slot into a brilliant teaching tool, focusing on the minuscule while at the same time building block upon block of knowledge, so that if we listened to the programmes in sequence we came away feeling jolly clever.

He has not been an easy act to follow. Others have tried to do the same kind of survey series, on the study of the brain and on our passion for sport, for example, but have only shown how difficult it is to achieve the same balance of erudition and entertainment. MacGregor’s scripts were always impeccably accessible without being patronising, and as inviting and vivid as they were informative. They were also purely aural, while being primarily about images and objects. No small feat. (There is still a website of images from the series but you really didn’t need to go there to appreciate the full impact of the radio programmes.)

David Hendy’s new series for Radio 4, Noise: A Human History, is shaping up to be another classic. He’s the professor of media studies at Sussex University and has written a book on the history of the old Home Service network. Sound is his medium and his fascination is with the story of aural communication since that time when we were carving stone and ivory into images of bison, bears and pregnant women. What kinds of sound would those humans have heard? What noises did they make? What was their soundscape? Without industrial machinery, traffic, electronic technology, their world was surely quieter. But how silent was it? What, too, did the babel of Roman life sound like?

Professor Hendy has travelled the world with an audio recorder and also ransacked the extensive sound archives at the British Library to create 30 short 15-minute talks that take us from echoing cave people to texting teenagers via the shamans of the Siberian plains and the pygmies of the Central African Republic. He has the right kind of voice for the job, light and easy on the ear while also clear and well-paced, drawing us in, not loading us with too much data.

In the first week, he took us inside the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy where archaeologists have discovered fragments of paintings of mammoths, bears, fish, even the delicate outline of a bird, dating back 40,000 years. That’s extraordinary enough, but when musicologist Iegor Reznikoff went into the cave to look at the paintings he found that 80 per cent of them are positioned precisely where, if you make a sound, there is an unusual resonance, an eerie, echoing presence.

The paintings are not close to the entrance of the cave, where the light from outside still penetrates, but deep inside where it would have been pitch-dark and to paint would have been difficult. Here, though, the echoes are more pronounced. If you clap in certain rhythms beside the painting of a mammoth, for instance, the overlapping reverberations sound like hooves galloping towards you from deep inside the cave. Reznikoff believes the images are connected to these audio effects. Sound is as important a part of their creation as the visual image. In effect, the images are signposts into an aural world, connecting the hearer, or rather listener, to another dimension of experience.

We heard the same disembodied sounds (conjured up by Hendy and Reznikoff) that our hunter-gatherer forebears would have heard, creating quite unexpected connections with the past. Perhaps technology is not so brave new worldish after all? The experience of listening to the radio, the way it draws upon the imagination for the pictures to come alive, is not so very different from the aural lives of those cave people in Arcy-sur-Cure.

What, though, would those cave-dwellers have made of the strange aural messages that emitted from Radio 4 as part of Open Air last week? Five artists were invited to create three-minute ‘audio interventions’ into the Radio 4 schedule, disrupting expectations, provoking reactions, creating unusual connections between the listener and broadcaster.

The trouble is that artists are not often the best people to come up with audio ideas. Their focus is on visual stimulii; their imaginations tuned into other kinds of creativity. These interruptions at 9.02 a.m. were mostly quite dull, saying more about the artist’s agenda and imaginative repertoire than what the listener could hope to experience.

On radio, there has always to be attention to the listener. How will he or she hear this? If you try to impose an imaginative agenda, or elicit a prescribed response, it won’t work. For the ethereal to come alive requires an absence, a withdrawal of self.