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The sounds of music

Joe Acheson

Freelance composer

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Composer Joe Acheson explains the process of writing the signature tune to Noise: A Human History, a new Radio 4 series exploring the role of sound in the past 100,000 years.

For me, music and sound design are inseparable. Most of my work integrates music with sound recordings and effects, such as chopping up birdsong to make beats - and when I am travelling on tour with my live band (Hidden Orchestra), I enjoy gathering field recordings to add to my library of sounds. So when producer Matt Thompson invited me to create the signature tune for Noise: A Human History, the project instantly appealed.

My first thought was that this theme should be constructed entirely using sounds from the 30-part series which explores how our interactions with sound have shaped us over 100,000 years of human history. The programmes feature sounds from all over the world, including rare recordings from the British Library’s Sound Archive - so there is plenty of great raw material to work with. I decided to make a different bespoke theme tune for every episode, using the sounds from that day’s programme. It will evolve along with the series, developing as David Hendy’s history progresses through time.

I still needed a recognisable riff as the basis of the theme – something that would be consistent throughout all 30 episodes. The series explores the history of sound from prehistory to the present, so it seemed wrong to come crashing in at the start of episode one with a Western classical motif. Matt told me about a recording he had just made in Ghana, of a traditional 'talking drum' (used to transmit an ancient language coded in rhythms – like a lyrical form of Morse Code). He had asked the drummer to 'play' the title of the show – which when translated onto the talking drum becomes "Noise - Noise - The History of Human Communication".

I liked the idea of hiding a message in the signature tune, so I decided to use that as the central riff - a strong rhythmic hook that also serves as a recognisable signature.

Then it has been a matter of progressing through the weeks, listening to all Matt's recordings, and archive material from the British Library, and the collections of nature sound recording legends such as Bernie Krause - listening out for fragments that I can use.

The first episode uses the talking drum, with various Togan lithophones (musical stones), Ghanaian 'rock gongs', prehistoric-style singing in caves, flints being knapped, and birds flapping their wings.

As the week progresses we hear more drums, birdsong, wind in the trees, rainforest gibbons, echo-ey acoustics, and shamans - in week two these gradually give way to crowds, the babel of ancient Rome, stonemasons tapping, elephant growls, Indian sitars and Greek oratory.

As we go into week three, and the development of music, we start to hear melodies taking shape, choirs, bells and organs take us through the medieval era and into the clanking machinery of the industrial age, the clamour of warfare, and finally all the way through to the cacophony of the modern metropolis.

If sounds are inherently rhythmic, then I adapt them to fit it in with the rhythms of the piece. I adjust the pitches to blend in with the emerging harmony and I shape the sustained atmospheres (e.g. forest murmur/flowing water/street babble) into sweeps of noise that rush in and out of the texture.

I try to use sounds that will prefigure but not overshadow the content of each episode, highlighting those not fitted into the actual body of the programmes.

I am halfway through the process at the moment. I am interested to see how it leads me through the remaining episodes - whether for example melodies and harmonies start to take shape as the programme winds along its parallel paths through the histories of music and sound. Please feel free to leave a comment about the signature tunes as the series goes on, and I'll try to reply to any questions you may have.

Joe Acheson is a freelance composer.

Noise: A Human History begins on Radio 4 on Monday 18th March.

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