Notes from the past
But how do you write music for a series that covers six continents and two million years of human history? I asked Steven Faux, the composer for the series, where he started with the soundtrack for such an eclectic group of objects.
We don't really know what music sounded like even 350 years ago. So, if we're talking about 3,000 years ago, or 30,000 years ago, we haven't got a chance. You're just trying to evoke a sense of time and place.
I used lots of woodwind instruments because they can be quite primitive; things like ocarinas and various types of whistles. Also primitive versions of the oboe and the bassoon. Instruments with reeds in them tend to make you think of the Middle East.
There are a couple of very early bagpipes. If you hear a bagpipe, not a Scottish bagpipe but a much simpler kind of bagpipe, it makes it plausible for something in ancient Britain or France.
But the human voice is the thing that pre-dates every instrument and the opening title sequence has my daughter singing four notes that we hear at the beginning of every programme.
This explains something that I'd sensed but never quite processed, which is that the soundtrack for each episode is different. But how do they bring that subtly different atmosphere to each programme?
There are two elements to the music we've done so far: the signature tune, which is a piece of music with a beginning, a development and a conclusion, and then we've got hundreds of pieces of musical punctuation.
I write a whole load of motifs and musical phrases - quite short ones - and get the people in the studio to play them on dozens of different instruments. You get very interesting outcomes from that. Not all of the instruments can play all of a phrase because of the nature of the instrument. They have limitations and the limitations of the instrument produce quite interesting effects.
So far we've used a different instrument to play the punctuation phrases in every single programme. In the first series there were 30 different programmes, so we've used 30 different instruments.
So it looks like the music in the series will continue to develop as we move through the rest of the 100 objects. I forgot to ask Steven if that means that the 99th episode, about a credit card, will have a wailing electric guitar solo on it. (I rather like the idea.) But I did ask him to nominate a musical instrument for the website. Is there an instrument that can tell us about the history of music?
There's a medieval reed instrument called a curtal. In some of the programmes we did use a soprano saxophone - a very modern instrument which you associate with jazz - but played in a way that makes it sound quite ancient and Middle Eastern.
It suddenly made me realise that the curtal is not a million miles away from the saxophone. You never imagine that Charlie Parker's alto saxophone in New York could be at all related to the curtal but you can see, in families of instruments, connections across the centuries - or even the millennia.
Unfortunately, Steven doesn't own a curtal, so we couldn't take a photo and add it to the site. Don't suppose anyone out there has a 600-year-old bassoon lying around the house?
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