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How I Made A Record With 30,000-Year-Old Bone Flutes
Rupert Till , September 27th, 2018 09:08

Rupert Till, the man behind the Professor Chill album Dub Archaeology, provides the inside story on how some of the oldest musical instruments known to humanity ended up on a downtempo electronica recording.

I've been a musician, producer and composer all my life, as well as being a University Lecturer, and I got introduced to archaeology by accident when I moved in next door to a nest of them. Archaeologists kind of hunt in packs, they spend a lot of time on site working together, so are very sociable. When a few became neighbours it opened a door into a whole new world; some of them had worked as archaeologists at Stonehenge which immediately interested me.

Through that initial interest, I ended up going to see the Future of Sound event, organised by Martyn Ware. Martyn was in the Human League and Heaven 17 and he produced records for Tina Turner and others. He arranged a fascinating tour of talks on weird musical ideas, and at that event I first heard about the work of Paul Devereux and Aaron Watson, who had both started exploring the role of sound at archaeological sites. Aaron had done some study of the acoustics of Stonehenge, but I thought that with my background, I could find out more. I'd studied, taught and worked with music technology for years, and with a background as a musician I thought I could take this work further.

I wanted to explore sonic time travel. The most interesting part of archaeology for me is trying to find out more about the lives of our ancestors. Because I'm a musician, I'm particularly interested in the sonic worlds of the past, how people developed musical instruments, and the acoustics of sites that were sacred to them. Monuments like archaeological sites only give up a limited amount of information from looking at what you can see, from the visual, whereas sound is really good at bringing things to life. While seeing brings perception, hearing introduces understanding. Part of what I've been working on, has been to reconstruct what it might have sounded like to be at places like Stonehenge when they were first built. The Dub Archaeology album takes inspiration from that approach, from the sites I've travelled to and the instruments discovered in those places.

I started to create a number of recordings for an album, firstly a single called ‘Isturitz', which has an interesting story behind the name. The Isturitz cave in southern France, is important in the history of music. Archaeologists have found 20 or so bird bone flutes there, which were made across a period of 10,000 years, the oldest more than 30000 years old. I got to record a replica of one of those flutes, made of vulture bone, being played in the cave where they were found; it was absolutely astonishing. That cave has a beautiful acoustic, a long, long reverb like a cathedral or temple, and it has stunning stalagmites, as well as some cave art. The craziest thing was that when we were driving there in the morning to record a vulture bone flute, we saw a vulture sitting in a field, like something out of an African wildlife film, with its long neck and hooked beak. They've been reintroducing them to the south of France.

It's that flute, the Isturitz one, that features on the album. A musician called Mina Salama is playing it. These so-called flutes are not really flutes at all, as they're open at each end, they are more like bone pipes really with fingerholes cut in them. There's no hole to blow on like a flute, you blow on the open edge of the pipe. Flute players find them hard to play, but Mina plays the Ney, an Arabic instrument that uses the same technique, which is very similar. He picked up this model of a 30,000 year-old instrument, and could play it straight away, which is astounding. Mina used to be principal Ney and Oud player in The Egyptian Opera House in Alexandria, but had to leave because of the political situation there. He's an amazing musician, so it was great to work with him.

The other instruments on that track, everything else, is me, including the guitar parts, drum programming, creating the synthesizer sounds, adding the effects, and I also did quite a lot of processing to Mina's playing, cutting it up and shifting it around. It's something of a labour of love. I've spent years collecting the sounds, building up the tracks, and putting it all together, it's been a giant jigsaw puzzle, but I'm really pleased with how it sounds. And the mixture of the ancient and the modern glue together really well.

There lots of other instruments on different album tracks, each track has its own story. There are a few Viking instruments, or rather Scandinavian. A Trossingen Lyre, a bagpipe, bone recorder and Lurs, which are droning horns. There's Greek aulos, double pipes like you see the Greek and Roman goat-legged Dionysian gods playing. There's also a Roman hymn sung by Stef Conner, a singer and composer who used be part of the Unthanks.

I've made some more purist albums with just the sounds of ancient instruments, you can hear them on 5 CD series released on Delphian records, including Spellweaving (ancient Scottish), Ice & Longboats (ancient Scandinavian), Dragon Voices (giant Celtic bronze trumpets), Edge Of Time (bone flutes) and Apollo & Dionysus (ancient Greek and Roman, this last one comes out in September). I initiated and co-produced all those albums, choosing musicians, and taking part in recording, engineering, producing, mixing and even performing.

Dub Archaeology is me trying to still capture the same aesthetic, but with a more contemporary approach. It's quite an unusual blend, but you can hear some different electronic influences in there as well, there's a little bit of the archaeology of ambient techno music going on in there. Leftism by Leftfield was what I kept going back to as a reference for the production, and Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd was another important influence. My challenge to myself was to try to match up to those two recordings, something of an impossible task. I'm influenced by all sorts of music, contemporary downtempo acts like Bonobo and Solar Fields, as well as Carbon Based Lifeforms, Shpongle and OTT. Brian Eno, John Cage and Gavin Bryars are all important to me, as are Tangerine Dream, Lee Scratch Perry, and William Orbit.

It's quite a mixture, an eclectic mix that comes out of 30 years or more involved in a mix of lecturing, contemporary composition and DJ and electronic music culture. The album's been five years in the making, so variety is to be expected. It started to come together in 2016, when I performed at the Boom Festival in Portugal. That's a psy-trance event, but they have an amazing chill out stage. I played on the last night to about 2000 people, using a surround ambisonic Funktion One sound system. It was a fantastic gig, performing early versions of some of the tracks for the first time. There's nothing like playing to a live audience to help you work out which tracks work and which don't.

The album travelled from Portugal to Berlin, by a roundabout route. I mixed the album and got it 90% there, but I'd heard the recordings so many times I just couldn't see clearly what needed to be done to get everything across the finishing line. I asked a friend of mine to help out, Nic Bougaieff, who's a techno producer in Berlin. He's signed to (Mute Records electronic offshoot label) Novamute. I knew he had the ears and production chops to get the mixes right, so he finished off the album mixing, giving it a more defined sound and pulling it all together. He also put me onto Frederic Stader, who mastered the lacquers for the vinyl version of the album in the same studio where David Bowie made his experimental and ambient albums, holed up with Eno and Ziggy, which all seemed kind of an appropriate end to the process. Finally Nic and Tom Howat, which is Bryan Ferry's monitor sound engineer, helped me sculpt it all into a set I could perform live. I played the album proper for the first time at the Samsara Festival in Hungary on 11th August.

Acoustic modelling of historic sites also contributes to the sound of the album. I reconstruct these ancient soundscapes using Odeon, a very expensive and complicated computer programme from Denmark that architects use to help design concert halls. If you are spending millions designing a building like an opera house or music venue, you want to know that it's going to have great acoustics before you start construction. So you make a computer graphics model of your design and drop it into this software, and it works out what it's going to sound like. I thought if I could make a model of Stonehenge, then I could put it in the same programme, and hear what Stonehenge sounded like 5000 years ago.

I couldn't just go to Stonehenge and do some tests there, although I have done that as well, usually with a TV crew in tow, because half the stones are missing or have fallen down; it's like trying to listen to a cathedral that's been knocked down. There are traces of its old sound, but a lot is missing.

It would have sounded very different in the past, with noticeable echoes and a low frequency hum. How I managed to model Stonehenge is too long a story to tell here, but I ended up building an app called the EMAP Soundgate where you virtually wander round Stonehenge and other sites. Meanwhile I started to think about what music would be played there. Once I could reproduce the acoustics of the site with software, I needed some music to play to trigger the echoes. I found a cadre of music archaeologists in New York at a conference. Ever since 1939 when the BBC broadcast the sound of someone playing the trumpet found in Tutankhamun's tomb, people like Cajsa Lund in Sweden have spent 40 years trying to reconstruct the ancient musical instruments that archaeologists have found in different places, so that musicians can play models instead of the original artefacts. Because I'm a producer I wanted to put those musical instruments in the right acoustic context, to bring them home if you like. I was also disappointed that there weren't many really good recordings of these instruments to listen to, so I started plotting to find a way to remedy that.

The kind of instruments that people were rebuilding included quite a wide range. The oldest are flutes made of vulture or swan bone, or sometimes mammoth ivory. Those are up to 43,000 years old, the oldest human musical instruments that have ever been found, even older than the Isturitz examples.

These are the oldest human instruments we know about, although something might come even before that. There's a very controversial bear bone in Slovenia that some people say is a Neanderthal flute, whereas other people say it is a hyena's dinner. It seems to have markings made by people, as well as hyena bite marks on it, but it's hard to be sure how it was used. I've heard someone play a rebuilt model beautifully, but the jury's out on that one about what's going on. If it is really an early musical instruments, it shows that Neanderthals had music, and so probably even culture and religion, which has massive implications.

Natural instruments also exist. Nature makes a lot of sound that is quite stunning, rocks that ring like bells, animal sounds such as bird song, environmental noise from wind and water. Some places that I've visited just sound great. I've been really lucky to visit a lot of these spaces with archaeologists - caves, temples, tombs and stone circles - and to make recordings there and capture the acoustics, all of which went into my album.

It's been an amazing privilege bringing together sounds from our ancestors and sounds of today. It makes you realise how pointless our squabbles over petty differences and disagreements are, it puts perspective on it. When you look with the distance that archaeological sites give you, we all have the same history, the same roots and culture. Whether you're a prehistoric hunter-gatherer soaking up the atmosphere at Stonehenge, or playing flute by a prehistoric cave painting, or a clubber chilling to some downtempo beats at a bar or festival, it's the same thing going on inside us - deep down we're all connected.

Find Professor Chill AKA Rupert Till on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. You can buy Dub Archaeology on iTunes here and physical formats here