Language and Evolution introduced

An Introduction to Language and Evolution

In this article Trevor Locke looks at how language played a key role in the evolution of human species and in determining which species became extinct and which were successful.

A topic that is of fundamental importance to both anthropology and archaeology is the relationship between language and human evolution. The evolution of mankind – a social animal – is marked by the increasing size of the brain. If the size of a brain increases we assume that mental powers also grow. This is, however, an assumption about which we must be careful, as I go on to discuss below. Many groups of animals and insects communicate, some in quite sophisticated ways, such as oceanic mammals. Birds and bees are known to use a variety of methods to communicate with each other and with the group as a whole. Where the hominin (early humans) is concerned, it is likely that communication evolved into language as various groups and species developed. That transition from simple communication (largely non-verbal) to language was very likely to have been driven by changes in climatic conditions, migration to new and more challenging environments and by increasing sophistication in the fabrication and use of tools and artefacts.

Once spoken language became established, we can speculate that writing followed as well as art and ritual. The development of culture in hominid groups required language as a way of expressing and passing on cultural forms. The problem for palaeopathologists and archaeologists is that language leaves little or no evidence in the fossil record or in deposits and strata that provide us with our understanding of early hominin lifestyles. It is only when writing developed that archaeologists were able to find artefacts that confirmed that early people could inscribe symbols and icons on to wood, stone, bone or antler. Some examples of early ‘written language’ come from paintings made in caves, symbols carved into artefacts and the first creation of icons and totems on pieces of material.

Could the very earliest hominid species ‘talk’? Scientists have analysed human bones to see if they could detect whether such remains indicated the ability to speak. In humans, most of the mechanisms used for communication are soft tissues and cartilage and these are not preserved in the fossil record. The skulls and bones of the spinal chord might suggest the size and shape and where the soft tissues of the voice box might have been and the shape of the mouth, suggested by the jaw bones, and the nasal air passages within the skull are thought to provide clues about whether speech – as we know it – was possible in these early hominids. Looking at the bones and skulls of primates might give some clues as to what kind of sounds they made but not as to what gestures they made, posturing or hand and arm movements.

Talking about survival

We can also look at the way that modern apes and chimpanzees communicate and that provides more pointers to how early hominids communicated. Some communication would have involved gesture (including signing), facial expression and possibly touch as well as vocal sounds. Early hominid species, such as Neanderthals – Homo neanderthalensis – appear to have limited verbal capabilities, suggested by the bones and skulls that have been found. Some scientists think that Neanderthals were capable of language but this of course not clear whether this was a mixture of complex signing and vocalisations. The language in this case could be fairly advanced (compared to previous species) and (possibly) the larger brain capacity would have made it possible for there to be a proto-language and this would have supported both increasing technological capability and extensive migration into new environments. Survival in new lands would require early peoples to be able to share effective indications about where food can be found, what is edible and what is not and to give warnings about the approach of predators. Huntings parties would need to communicate in order to track and kill prey.

Once hominids had developed the ability to use words – as opposed to simply making calls or vocal alerts – the number of ‘words’ used in a group would increase and that led to establishing rules about how individual ‘words’ should be combined to communicate understandable thoughts. This requires rudimentary grammar and syntax. Bear in mind that this process probably took thousands of years. The origins of verbal words might have lay in increasingly complex gestures. In evolutionary terms, the species that were most adept at gestures and then verbal communications tended to survive and their communities prospered. It is possible that some hominid groups became communities of speakers. Some groups might have worked up a proto-language which they used amongst themselves. The spread of languages in areas like Africa, Europe or Asia would have required large numbers of people to engage in talking as a means of communication. Using language and talking went hand in hand with the gradual development of thought and culture; as some people thought using words and sentences and gradually developed the capacity to have abstract thoughts rather than just uttering names or directions. Words have meaning; just as gestures mean something to those that see them. It was grammatical speech that allowed abstract thought to emerge.

Talking for generations

For this to happen successfully the brain had to have the capacity to recognise meaning and to retrieve it from memory. That requires members of a language community to have been together over successive generations. Once a group had developed the capacity to share words and the syntax for combining them, the capacity is handed on from one generation to the next and the ability to use language becomes both cultural and genetic. Speaking a language over many generations led to changes in the skeletal and muscular morphology of the body. Language implies the ability to store knowledge and to have collective understandings of the environment and to share things of significance between contemporary members of a group and to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next. Once groups had to the ability to talk to each other, they could transmit their collective knowledge down the generations.

Talking fluently involves speaking words – in the right order and in the right way – and emphasising them with gestures or vocal tones. Modern speakers use spoken words amplified by facial expressions and hand movements and emphasise words or phrases with intonations of the voice. This could well have been true for early hominids making the transition, from communication that was very visually mediated, to proto-language with a more extensive repertoire of calls and signs. As brain power increased, so did the ability to organise sounds and gestures into rules that would enable a more complex level of communication. Groups that shared a common system of communication could speak to each other in more varied ways and share increasingly sophisticated ideas. Giving directions, making warnings and alerts, indicating where good food supplies were located, reacting to good and bad behaviour – all these could be shared among the members of group or tribe as well as taught by adults to their children.

Words and gestures are symbols; they mean something when they are used. They can be simple signals or they can indicate more complex thoughts. One of the key factors in the development of language was very possibly the ability to ask questions. ‘Have you seen any antelopes? Where can I go to collect ripe berries?’ Being able to give detailed and specific replies to such questions requires a more complex ability to communicate than simply pointing in a general direction and giving a sign for antelopes. Migratory groups had to learn what was good to eat and what was poisonous in a new habitat. The group needed to collect, store and share knowledge of the environment in order to live in it. Those that developed enhanced language skills stood more chance of survival than those who did not.

How can we study the evolution of language? Recent advances in the analysis of DNA has thrown light on the spread and distribution of Homo sapiens in various continents. Linguists have looked at modern languages in order to trace their roots in ancient tongues. It is not until we begin to find artefacts, artworks and carved iconographs and cave paintings that we can date anything. Pre-history can only be inferred from the fossil record and remains left in datable strata. There is a growing body of knowledge from studies of DNA about how early man spread out across the world from African origins.

Palaeopathologists have mapped the dispersion of hominids from Africa into Europe and Asia. This pattern of dispersion and migration would be roughly the same for the distribution of languages. Hominid groups that talked to each other had to have some process through which older members could teach verbal skills to children. Groups that broke away from their main migratory community would have settled in a place and their language would have changed to reflect the circumstances and ecology of their new local area. Clearly, even by the bronze age, many different languages were being spoken in various parts of the world. Over many thousands of years, humans would have developed genes for language. That went in tandem with changing skeletal and muscular morphology of the skull, lungs and nervous system that aided the ability to talk. Hominids evolved into talking man.

Passing on skills

Many early hominids made tools from stone, wood, bone and antler. The skills for making these implements were passed from one generation to another. This activity of ‘training’ in skills used to make things either involved fairly elaborate communication or led to the emergence of language. Some skill transmission was simply through imitation – this occurs in modern animals that watch a parent or other adult animal doing something and then copying what they see. No communication is involved in this. The Cro-Magnons tool kit was complex, varied and innovative. This reflects intentional design and planning which are the basis of complex mental processes and can be associated with language. The physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal cord, are identical between Cro-Magnon people and humans living today. This means that Cro-Magnon people would have been capable of producing the same sounds we use in speech.¹ Some scientists use the phrase ‘proto-language’ to signify the transition from sophisticated non-verbal communication to the beginnings of language as we know it. Any enhanced verbal communication requires breathing muscles to be controlled in order to vary pitch and tone with the voice box.

It is when we find symbolic artefacts in the archaeology that we can be confident that Homo sapiens had developed language. The existence of artefacts that had no obvious use suggests that they were works of art – connected possibly with the emergence of ritual or expressions of thoughts and feelings about the natural world. ARTefacts are created when people start to think in a abstract way about death, the existence of spiritual forces that control the world, the afterlife and shared reverence for ancestors. The development of symbolism requires sophisticated mental processes and any objects found that unambiguously portray symbols or icons and have no obvious use (as tools) strongly suggests that language has been established. Evidence of art prior to 40,000 years ago is limited and solid evidence of symbolism only occurs after this time. Artefacts were part of an increasing awareness of how the world and life could be interpreted, understood and explained. Art works, physical icons and totems played a part in handing on beliefs from one generation to the next.

This calls into question the meaning of the word ‘language.’ What is the difference between non-verbal communication and speaking using a language? We know from observations of animal communication that fairly complex patterns of communication exist, in some insects, oceanic mammals and the higher apes. Some have gone so far as claim that animals have a language. So, at what point does communication become language? The transition from complex communication to a fully-formed language did not have a clear threshold; the gradual development of verbal language took thousands of years and many generations and required a continuity of community capable to allowing successive generations to hand on language, beliefs and complex ideas used in interpreting the world in which they lived.

Life, death, natural forces, afterlife and ancestors are all highly abstract concepts and require language in order to be thought. Very early man might have had some emotions and intuitions about life and death and these inchoate impressions would have led to the emergence of more sophisticated beliefs, values and concepts; in this process there would have been a mutual interaction between thought and words. As people began to use a word for death, they could then begin to build icons for death and as they began to bury or burn dead bodies, rituals grew around this activity and that led to people using sentences about these things. This suggests that a group of people shared beliefs about death in common with each other and were able to pass on those beliefs from one generation to the next; the sharing of beliefs was not just for one group at one period but was inter-generational and language allowed belief systems to be shared both by the group and its heirs and successors.

When does complex communication become language?

Studies of gorillas’ and chimpanzees’ behaviours has revealed that a variety of methods are used in their communication. One writer used the term ‘the unfolding dance’ to characterise communications in great apes.³ Monkeys use a range of visual and auditory signals to communicate with others either individually or to the group as a whole. Calls are made to warn of danger, gestures are made with hands and arms, a gorilla might beat its chest as a signal, postures and facial expressions are all part of the varied armoury of signals that the great apes can use in communicating with others. Studies of marine mammals indicate that some – such as the Orca – give out calls which are specific to an individual – they call out another animals ‘name.’ A pod of killer whales uses a complex system of communications, particularly when hunting.

Here’s an interesting thought: can we think without words? I wrote recently that most of my thinking is done with language – I hear myself talking, silently, inside my head. I guess this is common for writers who are always figuring out sentences. Poets on the other hand probably think with symbols, images, feelings that occur to them in a non-verbal way. Eventually they have to capture that in the written word but a lot of the mental activity begins non-verbally. Painters probably spend a lot of time thinking with images, colours, scenes, layouts, shapes. Musicians might spend time thinking with sounds, tunes, melodies, notes, riffs, harmonies and rhythms. Artists have to use intuition. Without non-verbal thought our minds would not be agile enough to compose art. This leads me to wonder if animals think what they are to communicate before they do the communication or is what they do – calls, gestures, facial expressions, postures – simply reactive, in response to something they get from another animal or an event in their environment. I guess that is an unanswerable question, although some research on neural activity might throw light on it. A human walking through the jungle or across the plain, would have to feel the landscape intuitively. Some archaeologists believe that early man ‘felt’ the surrounding environment and that a bronze age man would see the landscape very differently to a modern human would see it. Visual recognition works sub-verbally; if we walk through a landscape where there is no written signage – a wood, a field, a lakeside – we ‘see’ trees, grass, water, catch sight of living creatures and we need to know and react to what we are seeing intuitively. Hunter-gatherers would have to react quickly to perceived risks and opportunities in their environment; they did not have time to think verbally, they have to go for it immediately. Otherwise they go home empty handed or become a meal for predator.

Do animals think about what they are about to communicate before they communicate? I think this is unlikely. Humans, on the other hand, with their large and more sophisticated mental apparatus, can premeditate what they are about to say. Premeditation is important to being successful when it comes to survival-related language and communication; issuing warnings and alerts, giving directions to food sources, indicating what is edible and what is not, giving instructions about how to male tools, teaching how to prepare foods – all require communication to be clear and unambiguous. If someone misunderstands what is being said to them, the consequences can be disastrous. Communities that can communicate clearly are more likely to survive and prosper than those than cannot.

The other thing that fascinates me is how people in China and Japan think; these are cultures that use a different, more visual and symbolic, language and writing set, to us in the West. Do Chinese people think differently to users of English? If your written language uses pictograms, does that make you think differently? Words, pictograms, icons, hieroglyphs and other visual representations of thoughts either promote or inhibit the development of culture and belief systems; those that allow sophisticated and complex thoughts are more likely to encourage beliefs and more fluid and flexible interpretations of the world than those that are limited and simplistic. How writing influenced the evolution of technology, culture and civilisation is clearly a very interesting topic but one for another time.

Pictures tell the story

Some of the earliest cave paintings were pictograms. In very ancient times, people would paint very stylised images of themselves or animals on the walls of caves. This might have led, over thousands of years, to the earliest forms of writing, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs. These early pictograms represented an idea; they were usually mostly used to represent or signify things in the real world. It was much later that icons were drawn to represent an abstract idea – something that did not exist in the real world. That was some 9,000 years BC. Series of symbols that were the earliest methods of writing came into existence about 5,000 years BC. Carvings found on an obelisk in southern Turkey in the city of Göbekli Tepe, are thought to be around 12,000 years old. They could be the oldest ‘written’ language yet discovered. The carvings were pictographs – a series of pictorial images rather than writings that used an alphabet. It can be argued that the use of pictographs is an early form of writing. Written language, as it is known it today, probably appeared several thousands years later; Sumerian writing is known from 3,100 BC. In its earliest phrase it was a system of pictograms; these gradually became simplified into the system of wedge-shaped characters that we know as cuneiform script. Proto-writing (which preceded fully-fledged written language) employed ideographs and symbols. These were representations of things in the real world and did not relate to spoken words. These early pictograms and pictographs could be understood but not spoken. The correlation between written symbols and spoken words developed much later.

It is not yet clear why paintings were made in caves. They were sometimes left very deep inside the caves, where very few people would have seen them. This has led some archaeologists to suggest that cave art was ritualistic, possibly related to beliefs about death, ancestors or the spirit world. Early man was very visual; our ancient ancestors needed to be acutely aware of their surroundings; their safety depended on it as did their ability to hunt. Hunter-gatherers needed to figure out why some hunting expeditions worked well and others did not. Tribes in the Amazon jungle today say prayers or make offerings before going on a hunting expedition. It is possible that our early ancestors began to think that hunting was governed by supernatural forces. The act of painting an animal or a hunting scene on the wall of the cave might have a ritualistic significance, it has been suggested. Early people would have had a much more elaborate set of images than we do; images of their surrounding habitat, images that have significance for them when they see their environment. Psychoanalysts have suggested that dreams play a part in the formation of imagery. Aboriginal people understand a ‘dream world’ that interprets the real world for them. As our ancestors evolved they developed beliefs and this came with the introduction of abstract thought. Over thousands of years beliefs and rituals became religious systems. That happened when human societies became larger and more complex and power systems grew up through which communities were organised by the few to control the activities of the many. Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

How words are made

When I was at Manchester University I did a course in ethnomethodology. What I remember about that course was the way they broke words down into pieces – I think they called them phonemes – the units of sound that words are made from. The way phonemes are made depends on the shape of the mouth, lips, tongue and larynx and vary from one language to another. Language requires speakers to learn phonemes in order to make words; then it is a question of how to arrange words into phrases. When we listen to someone speaking we hear the phonemes and these allow us to distinguish one word from another. There are 44 phonemes in English. The are 26 letters in the alphabet and so some letters have to be combined together to form a sound – ‘ch’ for example. However, ‘ch’ can be spoken in different ways to make different sounds depending on which word is used. Chef, Choir and Cheese all contain ‘ch’ but are said differently. English can be a difficult language to learn because the way it is spoken and the way it is written do not always marry up. The way words are spelt is not always phonetic. English has it roots in many early European languages including Latin, French, Danish, German and now even Asiatic languages. In the Xhosa language of South Africa, a variety of sounds are made with the mouth, that do not occur in European languages, such as click consonants and different meanings that flow from using rising or falling intonation. The clicks are known as dental clicks, lateral clicks and post-alveolar clicks (made with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, and sound somewhat like a cork pulled from a bottle.)

Despite the many complexities in the way that English is spoken, it is possible for people to understand what each other is saying even if they come from widely different areas of the country. Providing they use standard English (and not regional dialect words) someone from Cornwall should be understand someone from Glasgow speaking in English. Not always the case of course. Almost every language has its regional dialects. There are however some phonemes that occur in other languages that are not present at all in English. Modern standard Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes and 6 vowel phonemes. Moreover, the way that these are pronounced can change in meaning. Some syllables can be given stress that would make them different in meaning those from that are not given stress but then that is true of many European languages. If we learn Latin we have to know how to emphasise or put stress on a syllable – we have to know if the last, penultimate or third to last syllable is stressed in order to speak a language correctly. Some speakers are clear in the way they pronounce words – they are articulate. Others have more sloppy and lazy approach to speaking, using words that are slurred or truncated. This is true of some dialects. English has changed a lot since it was first spoken. When I was doing my A-Level in English Literature I had to learn to speak middle English in order to read the works of Chaucer aloud in class. The English of Chaucer sounded very different to modern English but you could just make out some of it in the written text.

To make sense of the way that spoken language influences human evolution we need to use techniques such as phonemics and the tools provided by ethnomethodology. The way in which a language is spoken changes over time in response to cultural, political and religious trends and the variations in power between different indigenous and migrant groups. Changes in spoken language can itself lead to changes in power relationships and cause conflict within communities of speakers. It is not difficult to observe that process happening in medieval Britain; it might therefore be to safe to assume that similar processes went on in early ancestral tribal societies.

Brain size and hominin language development

As part of my course in the study of Homo floresiensis (human fossils discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia), I posed this question:

A big, unanswered question is “how big was the brain of the hominin that founded the Flores colony?” We don’t really know what happened but with 700,000 year old tools we urgently need an early skull. This would help us to know how much the brain “shrunk” over a period of over half a million years. The point is that if the brain shrunk over a period of well over half a million years how did the nature of the stone tools vary over the same period. Were later tool-makers with smaller brains better tool-makers than their bigger brained ancestors? It raises an interesting question of the relationship between brain size and intelligence in hominins.

In response to this, a fellow student contributed his own thoughts on the matter; my reply to him was

I liked Christopher’s point until I came to the word ‘intelligence’. I am not convinced that brain size = enhanced intelligence. Because (a) I am not clear what is meant by ‘intelligence’ and (b) there are a lot of other mental activities going on inside the brain other than the kind of things measured by intelligence. The key question for me is whether there is any co-relation between brain size and the development of any kind of language. So far, I have not seen anything on this course which suggests that H.f. had developed language (as we know it.) There is no evidence of ritual or rudimentary religion, two things that go hand in hand with the emergence of language in early hominids.

My fellow student responded by adding:

Perhaps I should have put the word intelligence in quotes, as I quite often do. It is easiest to think in terms of a basic brain functionality, which we have in common with animals at a biological level, and cultural information which is exchanged between individuals. A number of animals apart from human share some cultural information (the great apes, orca, elephants) but we differ in that we use language to “speed learn” cultural information. I think all early hominins had a primitive language to handle social interactions, which developed very slowly over millions of years. There was a critical tipping point (perhaps about 150,000 years ago) when one group discovered how to use language to speed up the teaching of how to make better tools – and significantly you could use language to teach your children how to use language – and the cultural knowledge explosion began with no biological modifications being needed. While H.f. almost certainly did not use language as we know it, if it was alive today I suspect that we could teach it to use language!

This dialogue raises the interesting issue of the relationship between brain size and intelligence (if by that we mean mental capacities including reasoning and abstract thought.) The fossil record shows changes in the size of human brains as evidenced by the skulls that have been found. Simply increasing the size of the brain – as evidence by the capacity of the cranium – does not allow us to infer that the owner’s were smarter. There is no convincing evidence that there is a direct correlation between the total size of a brain and its capacity to think; too many other variables are at play.

My fellow course member went to say

I believe some early hominins developed a highly vocal communication language for use in hunting. It then started to be used to discuss the results of the hunt round the camp fire and young children started to learn about hunting without being put at risk. The language then morphed into a “speed-learning” tool for passing information rapidly from generation to generation. The more efficient the language became the more that could be taught … and human knowledge started to expand exponentially.

Imaginative thinking but it does pose challenging and important questions for palaeoanthropology. It suggests that language developed from life-style, from what early people needed to do to survive in their habitat and what they needed to do in order to survive and meet the challenges of the new environments into which they were migrating. Those species that did not die out and become extinct, were successful in coping with changes in climate, the need to settle in new locations and the demands brought about by slowly moving into new territories that were markedly different from where they had been living before. This process of adaption requires high levels of communication and communal co-operation. Human communication had to become more complex in order to meet the challenges facing the early humans as they migrated into new regions.

I concluded the dialogue by saying

‘we now know the modern humans were migrating through South-east Asia on their way to Australia ‘ Interesting enough but evidence that modern humans settled in Flores would be more important in conjecturing about possible interaction between H.f. and other humans. I speculate that prolonged interaction between species has consequences for both groups and that would leave behind evidence in the strata. Two things would stand out for me (1) evidence of transfer of skills in making artefacts and (2) cultural influences particularly those relating to language. Such evidence already exists from cross-fertilisation discoveries in other parts of the world for pre-historic communities. One last thing is whether species interaction spreads disease. We known from modern interaction between people from different continents that disease has catastrophic consequences for isolated tribal groups. Evidence of disease should be available from bone samples and teeth.

What are the timescales for all this?

By the time we get to the early bronze-age we get the picture of man (Homo sapiens) that indicates the existence of fully-fledged language. Bronze-age people disposed of their dead in a way that suggests they had symbolic concepts of life and death and practised rituals around the remains of the dead. People at this time had developed attitudes to death and attitudes are cultural and that means they must have had language. Intentional burial of human remains appears to have started in the Middle Palaeolithic period (250,000 to 40,000 years ago). Excavations indicate burial practices in Neanderthal and modern humans. In the Upper Palaeolithic period, Cro-Magnons were interring their dead sometimes also placing in the grave objects such as animal bones or ochre powder, tools and jewellery such as bracelets.² By the Bronze age, man had developed a full capability for spoken language, the fabrication of sophisticated tools and jewellery, had started to make clothing, had a variety of cooking methods and had developed conceptual thought to the extent that they could dispose of their dead using ritual, ceremony and the beginnings of religious belief.

People gradually changed from the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers to a settled way of life that permitted farming and agriculture. Human settlements took on long-term timescales in their activities and we see the emergence of buildings and other forms of construction that required high levels of co-operation and crowd endeavour. The construction of monuments and henges required the collaboration of hundreds of people over a long period of time. Art and craft became increasingly sophisticated and we see the emergence of trading, warfare, culture and religion. There is evidence that early communities had a knowledge of astronomy and could tell that changes would occur in the seasons, tides and the weather by observations of the moon. That required abstract thought.

That picture is the end point of the evolutionary process from very early hominids to modern Homo sapiens.

Evolution revisited.

If we look at the work of Charles Darwen and others writing at the time, we get some basic concepts about human evolution. One of the most widely known concepts in early theories of evolution is ‘survival of the fittest.’ Darwen did not have access to the vast array of scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that have thrown light on our early ancestors. Our knowledge of the evolution of human species in pre-history has created much more evidence as to why some species became extinct and other survived. If the notion that the fittest humans survived if valid, then we have to ask why we mean by ‘fittest.’ Darwen’s writings focus on the evidence that he could observe, that of physical survival in the world of predators and the ability to hunt or to access natural resources. Those that were successful could multiply; those that failed to protect themselves or to eat well became extinct. Being fit to inhabit an environment, being able to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, being able to interpret the landscape – these are all skills that relate to survival in early hominid communities. Changes in climate, the intrusion of immigrant groups, the disappearance of food sources, changing sea levels, territories becoming drier and arid, rivers drying up – are all changes that would kill off some communities but which could be survived by those that were adaptable. The capacity to adapt to fundamental change can be seen as being closely related to language, culture and the ability to modify belief systems.

The approach of this article is to try to work out the role played by language in the process of human evolution. I have considered what language is in order to begin to analyse the part it could have played in evolution. Not an easy task; we are dealing with something that does not survive in the fossil record and clues are few until we get to artefacts that represent linguistic behaviour. Much of this is guesswork and assumption. Trying to imagine how language shaped human behaviour is useful in as much as it gives some direction to how remains may be analysed. By looking at artefacts we can arrive at some understanding of the emergence of belief systems, culture and religion. If we make assumptions (in the absence of hard evidence) then they must be credible, accurate and verifiable by observations and data that are available.

Language gave early man the ability to communicate ideas and this aided survival and gave him an advantage over other species that were limited to complex but non-verbal communication. Being able to work with a toolkit of words increased early man’s conceptual powers. He began to think more clearly, use abstract ideas and employ a wider and more sophisticated battery of mental processes.

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 to 1934) was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of a theory of human cultural and bio-social development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology, and leader of the Vygotsky Circle. Vygotsky worked on the relationship between language and thought; that is what I know him for most of all. His books – such as Thought and language, Mind in society, Thinking and speech – establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. Since Vygotsky, many have worked on the relationship between language and evolution. As new and fresh findings have become available from archaeology and the fossil record, from studies plotting DNA dispersion from Africa, results from linguistics showing how modern language might relate to those of our ancestors, and many other sources, we are becoming aware of how much has been discovered and how much more remains to be discovered about this challenging relationship.

Feeding bigger brains

Life before the bronze age saw people living in small groups that moved around the landscape searching for food. For early man, life was an endless round of finding food, shelter and safety. The development of language gave people the ability to communicate knowledge of their environment and aided the process of passing on skills in the fabrication of tools and artefacts. At some point early man learned how to harness fire and the main use to which he put this was cooking. When our ancestors learned how to make fire and to cook food they gained a further advantage which took them another step up the evolutionary ladder. Being able to eat cooked food improved diet and nutrition and, some have claimed, aided the growth of the brain.

The evidence suggests that as our species learnt to make fire, rather than to just escape from it, we gradually ate more and more food that we had cooked. Over hundreds of thousands of year, the digestive system of Homo sapiens adapted so that it became efficient at extracting energy from food that had been cooked, more so than from food which was raw. Scientific papers have suggested that cooked food provides a higher level of energy, when digested, and this aided the evolution of a larger brain. As an organ, the brain and its activities uses high levels of energy. It was only through the development of cooked food that such large brains could evolve.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, of any other animal species using fire. Several species use tools of various kinds but it is only our species that had learnt how to start fires and then use them. Cooking food using fire goes back many thousands of years in the archaeological record. The remains of cooking appear in nearly all excavations of human settlements in modern times and also occur widely in the fossil record for early hominins. Having more energy meant that early man could think more and that aided the develop of both language and of conceptual capacity. Man being to have abstract thoughts. That led to the construction of ritual and religion to the creation of culture and art. By the time we get to the bronze age we see how far this whole process had come.

It could be said that what characterises modern humans is their ability to cook food before eating it. No other species can do that. The implications are profound. Recent studies found that people who chose to eat only raw food, either meats or vegetables, had a lower body mass than those who lived on a normal (cooked) diet and often became malnourished. Our digestive systems have adapted over tens of thousands of years to eating cooked food. A consequence of this is that we are more able to turn food into energy by cooking it and this provides an ample supply of energy to our brains. Cooking is such a fundamentally important aspect of archaeology and history. We cannot fully understand the lifestyles of human communities without making reference to the way they get their food – either by hunting, scavenging or by farming – and the way they prepared it before eating it. Food preparation gives rise to many cultural characteristics and in some cases to religious rituals. Whether we are studying the fossil record or digging in the period of recorded history, looking at farming, agriculture, food distribution and cooking is completely necessary to understanding the life of any community.

Death – finding the right words

As human species developed, towards the bronze age, their life styles became increasingly complex. Their technologies were becoming ever more sophisticated and varied, they had an increasing awareness of their environment and they began to treat death differently. By the time of the bronze age, people were burying their dead and placing ritual objects in the graves. It is likely therefore, I would argue, that they developed words and thoughts that represented how they felt and thought about the processes of funerals and how the present generation of people related to those who had gone before. Language was being more sophisticated and that created a further element in the advance of their evolution. Funerary arrangements had become increasingly complex by the bronze age and the practice of mummification had become established in Egypt and the British Isles. [Mike Parker Pearson, 2005]

The technology of making bronze would have required new words, I think. It was an activity that had few parallels in anything else that people were doing at the time. Being able to extract ore, smelt it and work it into tools is a fairly complex process and this suggests, I would argue, that people had language and could talk to each other about this process. It would have been very much harder, if not impossible, had they not had language. This would have been between 2150 BC and 1700 BC. [Stockhammer, 2015]

The ability to start and use fire was a major factor in the evolution of early man and is seen as a major adaptive advantage to people in the late neolithic period. [Wrangham, 2010] Newspaper reports on the discovery of a bronze age settlement near Peterborough

Almost 3,000 years after being destroyed by fire, the astonishingly well preserved remains of two bronze age houses and their contents have been discovered at a quarry site in Peterborough. The artefacts include a collection of everyday domestic objects unprecedented from any site in Britain, including jewellery, spears, daggers, giant food storage jars and delicate drinking cups, glass beads, textiles and a copper spindle with thread still wound around it. [Kennedy, 2016]

The site was in use 3,000 years ago. Excavations of the site produced examples of cooking pots and well-preserved metal artefacts. By this time the evidence suggests that these people were farmers. I have already argued that the life style of hunting and gathering required knowledge of the habitats that people moved in. The transition to the kind of settled existence required for farming demanded increasing knowledge, skills and technology and that would have led to a larger number of words and increasingly sophisticated language.
Notes and references

¹ The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals. [from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261%5D

² Mesolithic (10,000-6000 years ago). At this period, there was still a hunter-gatherer culture, but a change in technology can be seen in the archaeological record. A different tool kit was now in use compared with that of the later Palaeolithic. For example, the bow and arrow were increasingly used. This is related to a change in the environment to a more temperate climate with increased woodland and disappearance of large grazing herds. Increases in the exploitation of aquatic resources and small game are also evident. Seasonal camp sites such as Star Carr (NE England) and Kelling Heath (Norfolk) have been excavated. Local adaptations to climate can be seen. Burial in the Mesolithic is characterized by a shift from single or small groups of burials to larger cemeteries in the open. No British examples of Mesolithic burials have been identified, with one possible exception. A disarticulated burial in a partially burnt log boat found at St. Albans has been dated to c.4,700 BC, so this could be late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic. … Burial practices in this period, although in open air flat cemeteries rather than caves, seem to continue the later Palaeolithic traditions of burial with the apparent importance of red ochre, ornaments of shell and teeth, and provision of tools and food. Does this mean that spiritual traditions also remained unchanged despite a change of lifestyle? [From http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burial.htm%5D

³ Alan Fogel referred to in The Dynamic Dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes By Barbara J. KING, Harvard University Press, 30 Jun 2009

References

Mike Parker Pearson, Andrew Chamberlain, Oliver Craig, Peter Marshall, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, Carolyn Chenery, Matthew Collins, Gordon Cook, Geoffrey Craig, Jane Evans, Jen Hiller, Janet Montgomery, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Gillian Taylor and Timothy Wess (2005). Evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity, 79, pp 529-546.
Stockhammer PW, Massy K, Knipper C, Friedrich R, Kromer B, Lindauer S, et al. (2015) Rewriting the Central European Early Bronze Age Chronology: Evidence from Large-Scale Radiocarbon Dating.

Wrangham, R. & Carmody, R. Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evol. Anthropol. 19(5), 187–199 (2010).

Maev Kennedy, The Guardian,  A bronze age Pompeii’: archaeologists hail discovery of Peterborough site, 12th January 2016.

John Novembre, Nature 522, 164–165 (11 June 2015), Human evolution: Ancient DNA steps into the language debate.

Kendra Lechtenberg (2014) writing in Stanford Neurosciences Institute, https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/ask-neuroscientist-does-bigger-brain-make-you-smarter

Alexandra Horowitz, 2013, Smithsonian Magazine, Why Brain Size Doesn’t Correlate With Intelligence – We can nurture growth, but never really control it. [from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-brain-size-doesnt-correlate-with-intelligence-180947627/#KbJqgMbq8G7W60cK.99

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, 2015, Is There an Association Between Brain Size and Intelligence?  from http://brainblogger.com/2015/11/22/is-there-an-association-between-brain-size-and-intelligence/

Christopher Bergland, June 2016, Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size  – Fluid intelligence has two facets that rely on brain size and energy production –  Psychology Today. From https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201606/superfluidity-fluid-intelligence-goes-beyond-brain-size

See William S-Y Wang, Language and the Evolution of Modern Humans, City University of Hong Kong,  from  http://www.ee.cuhk.edu.hk/~wsywang/publications/lang_evo_mhuman.pdf

Homelessness

10th October 2016

Homelessness

We all need a place to call home

see below for updates

As series of shows under the moniker Musician Against Homelessness is making me think.

Making me think about what homelessness is. To my way of thinking it is just that: being without a home. Earlier this year I wrote extensively about housing, particularly about housing policy in my book Housing: Approaches to Policy. I also wrote a piece called What is a home? It is that aspect of the topic on which I want now to focus.

Tens of thousands of people are homeless in today’s Britain; and of course in the rest of the world as millions of migrants leave their homes fired by the hope of finding a new place to live in peace and perhaps also prosperity or at least well-being.

A home is a place that provides safety and security. Homes provide the substance of everyday living but above all they should give people a place that is safe, a place in which they can feel secure. Sadly our country neglects that aspect and provides only accommodation for millions of people who are forced to rent because they cannot afford to buy.

Safety and security are essential to an ordered and settled way of life; they are not secondary consequences of having a place in which to live; they are the bedrock of human existence. If accommodation is not safe and if it is not secure then it is not a home. It is simply temporary accommodation and that is what millions of our citizens are forced to accept because the Government has failed them. The UK government has failed to understand that housing is an a state of crisis – a crisis created by government and one which it shows no signs of being able to deal with.

Owning a home – usually the most secure form of living – is now a privilege of the few rather than a right of the many. More and more people in Britain are renting because they cannot get on to the property ladder. This is not good for our society; it is not good because the government has set the rules to favour landlords and has provided inadequate security of tenure for tenants. I won’t reiterate what I have already said about the government failure to create a satisfactory policy on housing.

What I do want to focus on is why having a home is so important to the lives of everyone. A home is what provides us with safety and security; it also provides us with the basic amenities of living – a place to cook food, somewhere to sleep undisturbed, a space in which parents can bring up children; a space in which people can keep their treasured possessions – the things that matter to them; a place that provides comforts that aid rest; a place in which to carry out the daily routines of human life. For some, it is also their place of work. A home is where people can entertain their friends and family; a place where some keep can keep their pets; listen to music; read books; pursue an education; enjoy entertainment… a home is essential to living a civilised life.

Why then is it that the Government treats rented accommodation with such scant regard? It is just because so few politicians live in rented property? Can they really be so unaware of how important rented tenancies are when so many thousands of their constituents must pay rent and bring to them a constant flow of problems arising from the problems they inevitably have with their landlords? Is it because politicians have an ideological obsession with council housing? Is it because politicians have had the concept of new build housing drilled into them as being the right solution to the housing crisis?

Yes all of these things are true. Too often politicians tend to base their policy beliefs on their own personal experiences and if that does not included renting in the private sector then they are only aware of it through what they find in their surgeries. That is not however what being a professional politician is about. Is it not the right to represent people.

The scale of homelessness in Britain has been underestimated because it has not been correctly defined it in the first place. Homelessness is not just having no where to live; it is also about not having the right standard and quality of housing. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in accommodation that does not provide them with a home – either because it is not safe, not secure, lacks basic amenities of living, is available to them only for a limited period of time; is unhealthy; fails to meet their needs where they are old or disabled; provides insufficient space to people who have children; is in a locality or neighbourhood which is not right for them; is not under their personal control because they have to share it other people (often their parents) owing to lack of opportunity to find somewhere better. A home is a space in which its occupants should be able to organise to their own requirements for living (within certain limits.) There are a lot of cultural differences in home-making but the principles are always the same. Most people live in family groups but there are special circumstances where people live alone, for what ever reason – whether through choice or through personal situations. I have already written about the substance of what a home is and should be. in my article What is a home.

In my previous article I touched on choice – asking ‘can we choose where to live?’ Choice of home depends on financial status and income to a large extent. It also depends on government policy and the extent to which law and practice allow choices to be made or not. The way government controls housing – if in fact it does – will either encourage choice or restrict it. It is the way that national and local governments implement their policies on housing that will enable people to have a choice or deny them opportunities. The poorer you are the less choice you have – both in housing and in most other areas of existence. That is due largely to the market; a market that the government is unwilling to regulate.

If we want to have a home that is suited to our circumstances; a home that provides us with the essential elements described above, particularly safety and security, then we must have choice; we cannot find the home that we want, the home that suits us, if our ability to choose is limited, if opportunities are denied that should be allowed. It takes government policy to expand and protect choice.

Housing policy in this country is in a state of crisis; successive governments have failed to make policies at both national and local levels – that can impact the current quantity, supply, quality and distribution of housing; homelessness is increasing; access to the right kinds of housing is diminishing; affordability of housing options is not increasing.

If the authorities that control the housing market in this country are to make any real impact on this crisis they must begin to work on the real world; the world in people actually live; disengage themselves from their own personal circumstances and work with the statistics that are in plentiful supply. They – the various levels of government that make policy and control its implementation – must grasp what it means to have a home and what a home is for the millions of their constituents and voters who are in need of one. They must have a clear sense of what a home is and what it means to have one.

What does the world say about homelessnesses?

Having written the above, I searched on the Internet for articles about ‘homelessness’.

I looked at the website of Shelter, the organisation that provides help, advice and support to people who are homeless. On a page headed ‘What is homelessness’, I read that

You may be homeless if you live in unsuitable housing, don’t have rights to stay where you are or you’re sleeping rough.

The page went on to advise:

Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless, if you don’t have any rights to stay where you live or your home is unsuitable due to severe overcrowding or other reasons.
You might be entitled to help as a homeless person if you are temporarily staying with friends or family or staying in a hostel or night shelter. Even if you have a home, you could be considered homeless if you live in very overcrowded conditions or in poor conditions that affect your health, or you’re at risk of violence or abuse in your home.

As Shelter points out, people become homeless for a variety of reasons; they refer to young people leaving care, offenders leaving prison, women who are expecting a baby, those seeking asylum or who are refugees.

They are include people who are claiming benefits or living in a low income. I would say that having to depend on benefits and having an income that is lower than the average does not of itself create homelessness though of course is if frequently a contributory factor for many people. Having insufficient income to pay for the housing you are currently in, leads to eviction if rental payments are in arrears or, as I discovered recently, if the landlord decides to sell the property or increase the rent to an unaffordable level. Homelessness spirals out of control where governments fail to protect tenants and do not want to make public expenditure available to intervene in the housing market. Doing so has many unintended consequences – the cost of helping people faced with homelessness increases; housing benefit payments go up; dealing with other problems such as criminality, drug addiction and mental health leads to increased public spending which could have been avoided in the first place. Not spending sufficient money on affordable and suitable housing is a false economy and leads to increasing demand for public services.

As the Shelter website points out, you don’t have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless. There situations in which people are homeless even thought they have somewhere to sleep but where that accommodation is inadequate, temporary, unsafe and in fact there are many complicated situations in which people find themselves that may lead local authorities to regarding you as being homeless or about to made homeless. A lot of this is however discretionary; it is up to the processes adopted by a council to decide whether a person is homeless and, if they are, whether they can be helped.

Practice varies widely throughout the country and national government largely leaves it up to the local authorities to make their own arrangements and set their own levels of provision for people who apply to them for housing or housing advice. In many ways that is best; local people know their own area and what is feasible and the conditions of housing supply that exist in their local area.

The problem that we have is that central government create the problem and then expects local government to provide the solutions. Without providing the resources to do the job properly.

Some of the documents I found in my search drew attention to work, to jobs, to enable people to have the money to meet their housing needs. Well, that would seem fairly obvious. When I looked at this issue I brought in transportation; in fact I argued that three things are inseparably linked: employment, transport and housing. They are all linked together and intertwined to the extent that it is impossible to make improvements in one without making connected improvements in the other two. That is true, in my view for the majority of people. For others there are added issues to do with mental health, disability, discrimination, domestic violence, vulnerability, age, literacy, many challenges and needs that are not being met that make their situation more difficult to copy with.

The statistics about housing and homeless in the UK are stark and are getting worse. Despite the blandishments of senior politicians, the government is not moving in the right direction. We see this right across the party political landscape. Politicians might say the right things but the problem is they do not do the right things; and as long as this continues our country will continue to suffer the consequences of the housing crisis.

updates

A news item on the BBC website reported on a statement released by the charity Shelter; among other things the item said:

More than four in 10 homes in Britain do not reach acceptable standards in areas such as cleanliness, safety and space, housing charity Shelter says.

Each of the five elements in the standard is measured according to certain criteria – for example, the essentials of “space” include having sufficient bedrooms for the household and space for the whole household to spend time together in the same room.
Other aspects included having outdoor space, and enough space for children to study and adults to work.

The five elements

Affordability: Factors cited included how much was left for essentials, savings and social activities after paying for rent or mortgage
Decent conditions: Words like “safe”, “warm” and “secure” were among the words used by the public to describe what makes a home meet this criterion
Space: Adequate space was felt to be crucial for wellbeing, especially mental and social wellbeing
Stability: Stability was often described as the extent to which people felt they could make the property they lived in a “home”
Neighbourhood: Living in an area where people felt safe and secure was considered particularly important. People also wanted to be close enough to work, family and friends and the services they need

Nearly one in five, or 18%, of homes failed the criteria for decent conditions, with renters twice as likely as homeowners to live in places which fail on this element of the standard.

On stability, one in four private renters felt they did not have enough control over how long they could stay in their home.
Shelter has called for stable rental contracts that last for five years and protect tenants against unaffordable rent increases.

[Source: BBC]

Closure

Editorial

by Trevor Locke

[Announcement that I will close Arts in Leicester magazine]

5th September 2016

Arts in Leicestershire to close

After eleven years, Arts in Leicester is to close. The website will cease  at the end of this year (2016). The main reason for this is that I want to concentrate my efforts on Music in Leicester magazine. I have enjoyed running the Arts magazine very much but it clashes with other things I want to do – such as writing books. Recruiting writers and people to help run the Arts magazine has not been successful. The music magazine has attracted more interest from volunteers. Now that Leicester has an alternative out let – in the shape of Great Central – the new magazine about culture and the arts – there is less need for what we do.

I will continue to publish Arts in Leicester up to December but I will pull then the plug and our website will be no more. Some of the articles current on the site will be transferred to other outlets and the whole thing will be archived off and stored away.

Leicester has always been a great city for the arts and culture and over the years I have been writing about it, the city has never failed to produce an endless supply of events, shows, festivals and new things of interest.

Editor

Carnival2016

Saturday 6th August 2016

Leicester Caribbean Carnival

2016

The annual Caribbean carnival took place today in Leicester.

Leicester Caribbean Carnival 2016
Leicester Caribbean Carnival 2016

Blessed with hot sunshine throughout the day, the event attracted hundreds of thousands of people to see the process and enjoy the music and food on Victoria Park.

Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016
Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016

The procession started from Victoria park just after 2 pm.

DJ on one of the floats in the carnival procession, 2016
DJ on one of the floats in the carnival procession, 2016

A large number of floats played music for the dancers who followed behind.

Costume in the carnival procession, 2016
Costume in the carnival procession, 2016

Many of the dancers had large costumes support with wheeled frames

Large costume in the carnival procession, 2016
Large costume in the carnival procession, 2016

Many of these costumes would have taken many hours to prepare and assemble.

Dancer in the carnival procession, 2016
Dancer in the carnival procession, 2016

The procession took about two hours to weave its way through the streets of the city centre.

Costume in the carnival procession, 2016
Costume in the carnival procession, 2016

Throughout the whole of their journey along the route, the dancers had to keep moving in time with the music.

Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016
Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016

Dance troupes had come from all over the country, from towns and cities as far away as Leeds.

Thousands of local people lined the streets, together with many who had come to Leicester to see this event from all over the UK and parts of Europe.

Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016
Dancers in the carnival procession, 2016

After the procession, thousands of people gathered on Victoria park for the entertainment and to enjoy the many food stalls that served West Indian food.

Tickets were required to enter the event held on Victoria park.

On the day of the event ticket booths were open at all four entrances at Victoria Park from 9am.

Advance prices were:

Age 13-59 at £2
Age 5-12 at £1
Under 5 and 60+ free

On the day prices were:

Age 13-59 at £3
Age 5-12 at £1
Under 5 and 60+ free

Pinafore at Curve

21st July 2016

Review: Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore

by Sophie Antunes

Our Rating: *****

I am very grateful that I got the chance to end my extremely long absence from the theatre, by attending the opening performance of HMS Pinafore, on Thursday 21st July; a truly memorable performance!

At first I was quite anxious, that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the context and irony of the show, to the fullest extent, which was heightened by the much older audience I could see around me. Yet, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself and was rather amused by the comical performances from the male cast.

HMS Pinafore at Curve, July 21st 2016
HMS Pinafore at Curve, July 21st 2016

The realism of the performance was spot on, due to small actions, such as: torches used for light, cigarettes being smoked, actors changing on stage and the brotherhood displayed by the cast, which allowed us to accurately witness the lifestyle of World War II sailors.

Also, the vocals which filled the room, were very impressive and I was stunned by the variety of notes sung, melodically, by the male actors, who were even able to impressively imitate women for the show. I felt, that I further enjoyed the show due to the music and vocals, which helped to heighten the atmosphere and emotions being presented and in turn brought the whole show to life.

Personally, I loved this theatrical experience and would encourage fans of Opera, as well as people who are interested in history and class struggles, to hurry and watch this performance!

You will laugh, be immersed in breath-taking vocals, and emotionally connect with the talented male actors of the show, who are able to push aside gender barriers to create a performance of intimacy, presenting social injustice in our British class system. HMS Pinafore has helped me to fall in love with theatre again, and I can’t wait to return.

 

Music Education

Music Education

This article was published in Arts in Leicester magazine on 23rd March 2016; it has been transferred to this blog.

Arts in Leicester visited Loughborough today (18th March 2016) to look at the work of The Loughborough Music School.

Loughborough Music School is part of the Loughborough Endowed Schools (LES) and is housed in a purpose-built building opened in 2006 by the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

LES Music Scool. Used with persmission. Photo: Jake Hilder.
LES Music Scool.
Used with persmission.
Photo: Jake Hilder.

My host and guide today was Richard West, Director of Music. We visited several of the rooms in which classes and rehearsals take place; these are quipped with an impressive number of pianos, keyboards and drum kits. Richard showed me the IT room; again, another impressive display of equipment including computers that the students can use to compose music and edit the results.

LES music school interior
LES music school interior

The school also has a large hall suitable for staging concerts. Musical instruments were everywhere: guitars, cellos, harps… clearly this was a place where almost every imaginable musical instrument had a presence. Learning to play an instrument – any instrument – fosters a range of skills and a variety of mental facilities; these are things that stay with individuals throughout their lives.

Loughborough inside the Music School
Loughborough inside the Music School

The school focusses on the classical music repertoire but other genres also find a place in the many bands and orchestras populated by the students, including jazz. It’s not always about violins; there is plenty to suggest that students with an interest in rock music will have their needs met. These days musicians use a large array of things; gone are the days when only wood and cat-gut were all there was; now we have a a bewildering array of electronic gadgets, wires and boxes, all harnessing the new technology that has come to represent modern music-making.

LES Music School. Used with persmission. Photo: Jake Hilder
LES Music School.
Used with persmission.
Photo: Jake Hilder

The building had a light and airy feel to it; bright corridors and well lit study rooms made it welcoming and cheerful. The school is the second biggest specialist music department in the country, Richard told me.

Musician from LES. Used with permission. Photo: Jake Hilder.
Musician from LES.
Used with permission.
Photo: Jake Hilder.

I asked Richard about the career prospects of the more musically inclined students. The School provides musical education for all the students attending the LES. Only some of these will plan to make music their chosen career. It is clear that musical education needs to start at an early age and the classes begin at Kindergarten age, at around three years. Students continue to benefit from the work of the music tutors through to sixth form.

LES spring concert at De Montfort Hall, 2016
LES spring concert at De Montfort Hall, 2016

It was particularly good to see so many full drum kits; I have never seen so many in one room before. Pianos are, of course, stock in trade for music education and the school has the distinction of being one of a select number of Steinway partners.

Musician from LES Music School. Used with permission. Photo: Jake Hilder.
Musician from LES Music School.
Used with permission.
Photo: Jake Hilder.

Being able to see inside this prestigious school was a rare privilege for me. I was delighted to be able to attend the recent LES concert at the De Montfort Hall and was impressed by the high standard of performance shown by both the choirs and the various soloists who were on stage that night (see below for the link to our article.)

Music is an important part of the school curriculum; it always has been, even since the middle ages. There are many reasons why this important; not least the fact that the UK’s export of music is one of the country’s highest revenue earners. The music industry in this country has been thriving for several years and out-pacing several other sectors of the economy. Making music is good in itself but, as many teachers have found, it aids other aspects of children’s lives both personally and educationally. One more thing about music in schools is interesting, I think, it is a leveller. Children today come from a wide range of cultures and communities and all of them have their own musical traditions; being able to learn about the music of other cultures helps young people to appreciate and understand each other.

Loughborough is a town with a growing international notoriety in academia. Its University recently was voted top for students in the UK league tables and its contribution to sporting excellence has been known for a long time.

LES is not the only educational institution locally that has won positive acclaim. The work of Leicester College has also received many accolades, for its music courses and for its work in sound technology. The notable singer and songwriter Howard Rose, for example, is cited as one local musician to have benefited from its work.

We have also written about the work of De Montfort University in music education, technology and innovation (see the link below to our article about Arts Education.)

More information from

LES Music website.

The website for music education in the UK.

The website for Leicester-shire music education hub.

What music means for young people who are disadvantaged.

Leicester College music.

 

Breakfast At Tiffanys

Truman Capote’s
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
review

Adapted by Richard Greenberg
at Curve, Leicester

by Keith Jobey

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
3rd to 12th March 2016
Based on the novel by Truman Capote
Adaptor Richard Greenberg
Director Nikolai Foster
Designer Matthew Wright
Music Grant Olding

Our Rating: ***

Pixie Lott in rehearsals for Breakfast at Tiffanys. Photo: Sean Ebsworth-Barnes.
Pixie Lott in rehearsals for Breakfast at Tiffanys.
Photo: Sean Ebsworth-Barnes.

You’ve no doubt spotted the posters about town over the past few months. Sitting in the Exchange,  across the road from Curve,  we did. And I have to admit, Pixie Lott taking the lead role had an influence on deciding to buy tickets for it. Were we a bit hasty making our decision? After all, she’s a singer not an actress isn’t she?

This is an important production for Curve. A European premiere that is opening in Leicester before going on tour nationally. It concludes at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West end. The first time a Made At Curve production to do so. A fact they’re quite rightly proud of.

Rumour has it that this theatre production follows the book more closely than the movie chose to. The brochure tells us that this is a more ‘faithful adaptation, which investigates themes of identity, sexuality, love and loss… while charting this extraordinary story of two young people finding their way in a rapidly changing world’.

The movie is legendary, Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar nominated role helping cement it’s place in Hollywood history. Not that I’ve seen it, so I’m watching the production without any preconceptions. I don’t even know the gist of the story. In fact I’m more aware of the single by Deep Blue Something of the same name, which my wife keeps reminding me will not feature in the show no matter how many times I sing its chorus.

It’s a full house for the Saturday matinee, and also my first time in the main theatre of Curve. I’m impressed. It’s a really nice theatre. And it’s great to see it thrive like it is. The stage has an art deco feel to it, reflecting the architecture seen in New York City from the 1940s. Think the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center… and obviously Tiffany & Co.

As mentioned earlier the lead role of Holly Golightly is taken by Pixie Lott. She is of course famous for her music, having topped both the singles and album charts in the UK. Couple that with TV appearances on X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing and you have a well-known name. This, however, is her stage debut. A bit risky perhaps for such a key role in a performance? Especially a role that’s inevitably going to be compared to Audrey Hepburn. So how did she do? Well she can certainly sing, her rendition of Moon River far surpasses my attempts at the Deep Blue Something single. So no question whatsoever on that count. And I’m pleased to say she can act too. She seemed to relish the role and performed with great gusto. I did wonder about the accent at times, it seemed forced, but perhaps that intentional, after all, Holly is never really the woman you think she is.

Fred (played by Matt Barber) is particularly impressive as the other main character alongside Holly. He holds the story together, interspacing his dialogue with a narrative that breaks the fourth wall, bringing the audience in. It is his tale we hear and he tells it brilliantly. It’s a slightly seedy tale, a one of the underbelly of the high class society of New York during World War II. But that’s all I’ll say.

I have to say I was engrossed by the time the lights went out and the show closed. There was some discussion about whether there should have been more songs, but it is not billed as a musical, more of a play with songs included. So that’s mighty fine with me.

Keith Jobey writes for Music in Leicester magazine.

Background notes

Curve announced the full cast for the show that stars Pixie Lott.
The full cast was announced for the 2016 UK and Ireland Tour and the West End limited season of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adapted by Richard Greenberg and directed by Nikolai Foster.
Matt Barber (Atticus Aldridge in Downton Abbey) will play Fred and Victor McGuire (the sit-coms Trollied and Bread) will play Joe Bell. They will be joined by Robert Calvert as Doc, Naomi Cranston as Mag, Charlie De Melo as José, Tim Frances as Rusty Trawler/Editor at 21, Andrew Joshi as Yunioshi, Melanie La Barrie as Mme Spanella, and Sevan Stephan as OJ Berman/Dr Goldman, with Katy Allen and Andy Watkins.
As previously announced, Pixie Lott will star as Holly Golightly for the UK and Ireland Tour, from 3 March to 30 April and 13 to 25 June, and at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket from 30 June to 17 September.
Truman Capote’s classic novella has been adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize-winning Finalist and Tony and Olivier Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, Three Days of Rain), and contains memorable songs from the era as well as original music by Grant Olding (One Man, Two Guvnors, RSC’s Don Quixote).
Based on Truman Capote’s beloved masterwork, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York in 1943. Fred, a young writer from Louisiana, meets Holly Golightly, a charming, vivacious and utterly elusive good-time girl. Everyone falls in love with Holly – including Fred. However Fred is poor, and Holly’s other suitors include a playboy millionaire and the future president of Brazil. As war rages on in Europe, Holly begins to fall in love with Fred – just as her past catches up with her.
Artistic Director of Curve, Nikolai Foster said, “It’s a testament to the beauty of Capote’s imagination, the extraordinary characters he created and Greenberg’s faithful adaptation, that alongside Pixie and Matt, we have assembled such an accomplished company of actors to bring this dazzling play to life. We are thrilled to welcome the company to Curve and our audiences in Leicester and on tour in the UK. Every week of 2016 will see a Curve production on a UK stage and we are thrilled Breakfast at Tiffany’s will be part of this commitment to sharing work that has been made at Curve.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s will be directed by Nikolai Foster, the Artistic Director of Curve, with production design by Matthew Wright, lighting design by Ben Cracknell, sound design by Mic Pool and wig design by Campbell Young.
Nikolai Foster is Artistic Director at Curve. Recent productions include Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Shakespeare’s Richard III (all Curve), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (West Yorkshire Playhouse), the 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing (Curve and Nottingham Playhouse), Calamity Jane (Watermill Theatre, Newbury & UK tour) and a major new production of the Broadway musical Annie (West Yorkshire Playhouse & UK tour).
Breakfast at Tiffany’s will begin performances at the Curve, Leicester on 3 March 2016, before embarking on a UK & Ireland Tour. There will be a 12-week season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End from 30 June to 17 September 2016.
Visit the website for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

See also:

Music from the Schools.

An Inspector Calls.

Outings (play review).

An Inspector Calls Review

17th March 2016

Review: An Inspector calls

Trevor Locke was at Curve to see J B Priestley’s play

Curve Theatre, 17th March to 23rd March
Our rating: ****

A gripping drama with a twist in the tale and a surprise ending

What we see on stage is a bewildering time warp of 1940s northern town realism somehow morphed into a 1912 drawing room drama. At one point towards the end of the play (which was performed at Curve in one sitting) the family mansion appears to be blitzed in a WWII air raid only to be magically restored to its former state a little later. The destruction of the house reflects and echoes that of the family who live in it as their lives are torn apart by the revelations blitzed out of them by the Inspector. The ruination of the house depicts the discrediting of the old social and political order. The family members are exposed as being complicit in the suicide of a destitute young woman who they, at first, deny all knowledge of until the Inspector cunningly brings out the truth – that the whole family has been responsible for the poor wretch’s demise, in one way or another.

An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet.
An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet.

Priestley is known for a lot of things: novelist, playwright, social commentator and essayist, broadcaster – his prodigious output was impressive. His left wing political views were credited with supporting the rise of the welfare state. A Yorkshireman, he served in the army in WW1 before attending Cambridge for his education. Priestley’s career took off with the publication of The Good Companions in 1929. An Inspector Calls came in 1945. The play was first performed in Russia and made into a film in 1954. Its revival by the National Theatre in 1992 secured its place in twentieth century theatrical history.

An Inspector Calls has been lauded as Priestley’s most famous and acclaimed play. It’s stark socialist stance led it to fall into disrepute during the UK’s more right-wing eras; it’s return today, in a more politically diverse climate, is a recognition of its wide appeal as theatre and its constant inclusion in school curricula and examination papers. It’s a highly engaging piece of drama with a gripping plot that has a twist and a surprise ending. It that respect it scores highly with the drama-going public.

An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet
An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet

The play is set in 1912 and takes place over the course of one day but the play within the play is set in World War 2. Somehow, in Daldry’s production, the two time periods provide contrasting lenses through which to view the plot. Priestley does not hold back from giving us a speech about the evils of capitalism and the moral failures of middle class society. At one point the stage lights go out and hard, monochromatic lighting puts the stage into stark relief as the Inspector harangues the audience about the importance of social responsibility. Factory owner Arthur Birling is portrayed as an arch capitalist, as at home in the Edwardian era as he is in the contemporary world where individuality is lauded over community values and the needs of the poor can easily be disregarded in the pursuit of individualism.

Priestly does not come across (at least in this play) as a Marxist-Leninist, but as a benign Wilsonian neo-socialist. He probably would not have looked out of place in the Blair government. Some of what he uses Arthur Birling for is to make us realise that the Victorian admiration for self-embetterment and the every-man-for-himself mind-set is just what Thatcherism (so to speak) wanted us to believe. I am not knocking the play; its canter across the moral high ground is, after all, what we are used to in a lot of Shakespeare.

An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet
An Inspector Calls Tour 2015. Photo by Mark Douet

Daldry’s production has a rather peculiar set, designed by Ian MacNeil. Strange sets have become familiar at Curve in recent times. Most of the play takes place in a cobbled street above which is the elegant family mansion of the Birlings, wealthy and influential citizens of Brumley (a fictitious northern industrial town.) At the start of the play we find the family at home, celebrating the engagement of Sheila Birling. Members of the family are heard (and occasionally glimpsed) enjoying themselves in the parlour of the house, occasionally coming out on to the balcony to speak to people below them in the street. The walls of the house then open out like those of a doll’s house to reveal the grand interior. It is certainly a clever piece of stage design but all feels a bit surreal.

The actors in tonight’s show delivered creditable performances. Liam Brennan’s portrayal of Inspector Goole was sharp and coherent. Geoffrey Leesley’s Arthur Birling was very credible and full of character. The Sybil Birling portrayed by Caroline Wildi was viperous and acerbic when Sybil is put under pressure, although at other times she appeared rather cardboard. I particularly liked Matthew Douglas’s portrayal of Gerald Croft (somewhat Downton Abbey, in a good way.) Stephen Warbeck’s incidental music was very Hitchcock.

Spoiler alert. If you do not want to know the ending, stop here.

After experiencing the gradual disintegration of the Birling family, both their reputation, status and their home, the family members gather to take stock of what had just happened to them. They forensically pick over the evidence of the evening and conclude that it might all have been a hoax. Their misgivings are confirmed when they phone the Chief Constable and are told that there is no Inspector Goole on the force. A call to the hospital reveals that no young woman died there earlier in the day. They fall about laughing as though they had all been the victim of a practical joke. That is the twist. Then comes the surprise. Right at the end, a phone call from the police informs them that a (real) police inspector is on his way to see them to investigate the death (that evening) of a young woman who had swallowed disinfectant to kill herself. The plausible whodunnit suddenly becomes something else: a mystery, a supernatural ghost story – I don’t know. It was no less shocking.

An Inspector Calls Tour by J.B. Priestley, presented by P W Productions in association with A I C Tour (2015), The National Theatre’s award-winning production.
Director: Stephen Daldry
Designer: Ian MacNeil
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Associate Director: Julian Webber
Cast:
Liam Brennan
Caroline Wildi
Geoff Leesley
Matthew Douglas
Katherine Jack
Hamish Riddle
Diana Payne-Myers

See also:

Outings (review)

Lord of the Flies (review)

King Charles III (review)

Outings

Thursday 25th February

Outings – review

Curve, studio theatre
Outings 25th and 26th February
The world’s first show based on true-life coming out stories
by Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldin
Our rating: *****

Reviewed by Trevor Locke

Moving, funny, disturbing but wholly insightful

On stage tonight were Andrew Doyle, Caroline Lennon, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Camille Ucan.

Camille Ucan appeared in Outings, February 25
Camille Ucan appeared in Outings, February 25

The phrase ‘coming out’ has embedded itself in the British language. Originally it meant ‘coming out of the closet’, a phrase coined in America in the 1960s. Tonight the four actors read a series of stories, collected and edited by Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin, originating in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The show began at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and most of the stories were submitted to a couple of websites run by the editors. These stories reflect the life experiences of men and women from around the world as they reveal their sexual orientations to their family, friends and work colleagues.

Moving, funny and sometimes disturbing, these stories tell us a lot about the world we live in and the people who react to the confessions of those nearest to them. The 20 or so stories are vibrant, compelling and highly revealing; they lay bare not just the personal accounts of the people who came out but the reactions of the mothers, fathers, brothers, sons, daughters, work mates and others to whom they ‘came out.’ That tells us a lot about our society; it exposes who we are and how we behave towards others, especially those we love or are supposed to love.

Adrew Doyle appeared in Outings, February 25
Adrew Doyle appeared in Outings, February 25

Outings is not a play; the four people on stage tonight did a vastly good job at acting (rather than just reading the scripts) bringing each of the characters to life and making them into real people by giving them credible voices. Neither was it a documentary or a lecture. Many kinds of individuals came across in the stories: women, men, young, old… they all told of what they did to reveal their sexual orientation to those around them, the reactions they got from others and the impact of their revelations on their lives and those of their nearest and dearest.

Most of the stories were monologues, except where two or more of the actors enhanced the story by acting out moments of dialogue. It was cleverly done and the two hours of drama and comedy never had a dull moment; it was always gripping, sometimes tear-jerking, now and then side-splittingly funny but always insightful and moving.

Our four actors had a real knack of bringing the story-tellers to life and giving them colour and presence. The stories hopped from man to woman, from teenager to older married man, to someone born into the ‘wrong’ body, to a straight woman who had married a gay man, to a footballer who had to battle with a homophobic sport, to a teacher who told a class of eight year olds that he was gay… if you did not know these were true stories you would be forgiven for thinking they had all been made up. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The media has, in recent years, presented us with several high-profile coming out events: swimmer Tom Daley, footballer Justin Fashnu, rugby player Gareth Thomas, Apple boss Tim Cook, actress Ellen Page, Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, the list goes on and on. Tonight’s stories were not about celebrities;they were from ordinary, sometimes extraordinary, people living humdrum lives in a variety of situations. What tonight’s show does remarkably well is to reflect back to ‘straight’ people how they deal with coming out. Society has a lot to learn.

Outings is at Curve on 25th and 26th February.

 

Festivals in 2016

Festivals in Leicester
for 2016

9th February 2016

Leicester is a city of festivals; every weekend, and sometimes during the week, there is always at least one festival in Leicester and Leicestershire.

Music, culture, dance, comedy… there is always an event going on to temp you into the city or out into the county.

Here is our our selection of what to expect in 2016

Comedy

Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival is underway now; drawing people into Leicester’s venues, from all over the country.

Music

The festival season kicks off at the end of May with the Glastonbudget festival held over the May bank holiday weekend. A host of bands and singers will gathered on the festival’s many stages to bring you all the best of new music from today and the most memorable tunes from yesteryear.

See the Glastonbudget website for more.

Come back to this back soon for more:  The Mela, Caribbean Carnival, Pride… lots more to come

Caribbean Carnival

Caribbean Carnival 2016
Caribbean Carnival 2016

See also:

The festivals page on Music in Leicester magazine.