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What’s that noise?

28 March 2013

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THERE was a critical moment in the first episode of Noise: A human history (Radio 4, weekdays), when the whole thing threatened to topple into absurdity. The presenter, Professor David Hendy, was deep inside one of the prehistoric caves at Arcy-sur-Cure, in Burgundy, presenting his thesis on Neolithic acoustics against a backdrop of honking, grunting, and whining, produced by the musicologist Iegor Reznikoff. I wondered whether The Early Music Show was missing a trick by concentrating on harpsichords and warbling falsettists: the song of the caveman is where it's at.

The purpose of Reznikoff's sonic emissions was to discover which parts of the cave had the most complex reverberations. These most resonant of spaces he then correlated with wall paintings to support his theory that even prehistoric man manipulated his acoustical environment. The stone circles on Orkney certainly attest to this practice among our ancestors, as do the chambered cairns which provide evidence for a longing for seclusion and sensory deprivation.

Noise is the latest series to exploit the format pioneered by the immensely successful A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each weekday, in a 15-minute package, we encounter a new artefact. Last week, we travelled from Burgundy to Wells Cathedral (via the House of Commons, as Budget Day interrupted the schedules and we got a sample of political noise).

Inevitably, some encounters work better than others, and in the early episodes there are a number of sentences that adopt the form "We'll never know for sure, but it's likely that . . .", which is another way of saying "We have no idea whatsoever, but wouldn't it be fun if . . .". Yet the audio materials are fascinating.

Indeed, the radio highlight of last week came in Friday's episode, when the description by a Russian 19th-century anthropologist of a Siberian shamanistic ritual was counterpointed with a recent recording of a similar event. The point was that the mediators of spiritual experience have always used auditory resources to enhance their status. Hence the visit later to Wells Cathedral and its West Front, whose angel statues appear to sing every Palm Sunday. The trick is to secrete a few choristers in the gallery behind; although, for baffling reasons, the angels on this occasion sang with the voices of mature, world-weary baritones.

The architects of Notre-Dame in Paris knew about the importance of acoustical space; as did the musicians who exploited that space over the past eight-and-a-half centuries. To mark Notre-Dame's anniversary, Radio 3 pulled in Simon Russell Beale for Our Lady of Paris (Saturday), a hurried survey of ecclesiastical music in Paris over nine millennia.

It began and ended with chant - the repertoire that formed the basis of the first, sophisticated polyphony of the 12th-century masters, Leonin and Perotin, and which the 20th-century genius Olivier Messiaen regarded as the touchstone of liturgical propriety in music. Messiaen believed that all chant should be sung fast, joyfully, and, above all, congregationally. In the echo-filled acoustics of Notre-Dame, that would indeed constitute noise, but not necessarily of a pleasing or uplifting nature.

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