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Cardiff composer gets Wales singing to the Neanderthal beat     

Cardiff composer gets Wales singing to the Neanderthal beat Did Neanderthal man make music? And if so, what did it sound like?

Those are exactly the questions that Simon Thorne, one of Wales’ leading modern jazz composers, will be addressing with his latest project, which has its live premiere next month.

Neanderthal is a new musical work that came about when the National Museum of Wales commissioned Thorne to create a ‘soundscape’ for the Palaeolithic section of its exhibition Origins of Early Wales.

The piece provides a musical backdrop as visitors journey through our ancestral past, looking at artefacts and remains that have been excavated across Wales after being buried for many thousands of years.

However, such has been the interest in the musical accompaniment to this exhibition that Thorne is now touring it in its own right. His 75-minute piece of music will be performed live by four musicians, singing and using stone instruments, and accompanied by a video evoking life for Neanderthal man.

Neanderthal will be previewed at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff on February 8, before embarking on a four-date tour of Wales.

Neanderthal man existed side by side with early Homo sapiens before becoming extinct some 130,000 years ago. Despite having a reputation for lacking intelligence, recent research suggests the Neanderthals were a lot more resourceful and innovative than we first thought.

As Thorne says: “Given that Neanderthal man’s brain was about the same size as ours, and much of our brain is given over to language, then you can assume they probably had language too. Every culture has language and music, so we can probably assume that they had some kind of music too.”

The Cardiff-based composer is the first to admit that knowing exactly what such music would have sounded like is impossible. “It’s a ridiculous notion to suggest we could ever know the precise role that music played in the lives of the Neanderthals,” he says, “but imagining it has been a fascinating experience.

“When you look at the cave paintings you have to think that if they can make these kinds of marks, then it would be inconceivable that they couldn’t make music that was sophisticated. They were a perfectly functioning society. Okay, it was a bit drafty but it worked.”

Thorne researched the era extensively before beginning to compose. Two books – Professor Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals and David Lewis Williams’ The Mind In The Cave – provided much inspiration and historical context. Indeed, Professor Mithen will be at the Cardiff launch, in conversation with Thorne, talking about the role music may have played in the lives of the Neanderthals.

Along with singers Mary Anne Roberts, Sianed Jones, Shaun Palmer and Jon Baker, Thorne began to imagine the noises Neanderthal man would have been familiar with. “It was the Stone Age, so while they would know what stones sounded like they would not have heard metal because they had not invented it,” he says.

“There was a guy at the museum knapping flint, so we recorded that. We recorded a dog and some peacocks. Slowed down they make great mammoths.”

Thorne has also been keen to put his music into context. Even if his composition was an exact replica of music made by Neanderthal man, then it would sound entirely different hearing it in a modern, plush theatre rather than in the cave-dwellings of thousands of years ago, so the performance features a specially commissioned film by Rhombus Arts: a haunting video projection that leads the viewer into the cave of our first consciousness.

“Music often becomes a part of spiritual ceremonies, and when we look at cave paintings and the part of the caves they were in, you can imagine this is where music would have taken place too. The cave is a magic space,” he explains.

Thorne says that for him the project has been less about imagining what Neanderthal music sounded like, and more about giving an insight into our own communication.

“We use language for words, to communicate. But how do we learn language? If you look at babies and the noises they make, they learn to make singing noises before they learn to speak.

“We as human beings are instinctively creative,” he says. “We can’t not be; we have to invent things and who’s to say Neanderthal man did not invent the beginnings of music?”

Neanderthal will be officially launched at the National Museum Cardiff on Sunday February 8, at 6pm. This preview event includes a live performance along with video and soundscape projection. In addition, Professor Steven Mithen will talk about the role music may have played in the lives of Neanderthals. Admission is free but booking is essential. Call 029 2057 3148 for more information.


The world premiere – featuring four singers, stone instruments and video projection – will take place at Theatr Harlech, Harlech, on March 25, followed by a tour of Wales: Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan on March 26; Torch Theatre, Milford Haven on March 27; Taliesin Arts Centre on March 28.
 
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