In this Summer Special episode of Broc on the Bloc, we at PROLE JAZZ commissioned cosmic diva & interview guru extraordinaire Celestial Broc to seek out profound and transcendental musical wisdom, to uncover the metaphysics of sonic euphoria, to delve into the vibrational basis of our physical and spiritual existence.
To resolve these conundra, she chanted for 3 nights beneath a wolf moon, meditating and levitating and letting out the occasional howl. When this approach failed to bear fruit, she sought out Professor Chill: composer, researcher and educator in the Arcane Art of Music. They spoke at length of many things, from ancient acoustics to avocado currencies to virtual reality to glitter pop… read all about it!
Celestial Broc: What are you doing here?
Professor Chill: Um what? You invited me! To talk about music and academia, no?
CB: Yes OK – so tell us who you are and what you do…
PC: My name is Rupert Till and I’m a Professor of Music, and Associate Dean International in the School of Music, Humanities and Media at the University of Huddersfield. I lecture on music and I also do research.
What do you research?
My core research is divided into two main areas. One is popular music, including electronic dance music, stardom and celebrity, and the link between pop music, religion and spirituality. The other focuses on the ancient roots of music.
What does that involve?
Well, I’m involved in the Centre for Music Culture and Identity and within that we have a Popular Music Studies Research Group. I also lead a Sound Archaeology research group . I have PhD students working in these areas, for example Paul Wolinski who is in a band called 65 Days of Static is doing a PhD with me in algorithmic electronic music. A guy called Nick Bougaieff who is now a Techno producer in Berlin, he did a PhD with me on Berlin minimal music, and a guy called Adam Smith who is in a band called Temples – he did a Masters with me on the literary influences on British Psychedelia in the sixties and seventies. You may have heard of these people as musicians, but there is a link between their academic written cultural studies, music analyses and practice based research. These students have been attempting to answer research questions by making music for the public domain.
What about the Sound Archaeology?
That’s a bit different – it’s about reconstructing ancient acoustics of archaeological sites. We record in a studio sounds from models of ancient musical instruments that have been found by archaeologists, and place those recordings acoustically into the archaeological sites, or we even play them live.
We’ve done this with the Hypogeum in Malta, which is a big rock tomb, Stonehenge, Sculptors Cave in Scotland, Pathos Theatre, a Roman amphitheatre in Cyprus. We’ve gone as far back as prehistoric caves; we’ve taken models of 40,000-year-old flutes made out of vulture bone, and got a musician to play it in the cave where it was found. By doing that we can see what we can learn from that kind of process, and about what it might have felt like to be in those spaces in the past.
Hmmm, so it’s sort of about the co-evolution between humans and music?
Yes. It’s about phenomenology, human perception, and deep listening in those spaces.
Oh, that is deep. What led you into the life of academia?
It started with music. I had piano lessons as a small child, joined a choir when I was six, and continued to sing and play instruments for most of my life. I started playing in bands from about 15, and then at some point realised I wanted to study music at University. I studied performing arts and focussed on writing music. Back in those days you couldn’t study pop music, it wasn’t really a thing, but I knew that I loved music. Even out of term time I was hooked – at the end of my second year of uni I performed at seven different events on seven different nights in seven different groups. A punk band, a classical piano performance, an RnB band – this wasn’t work for me! I then went on to do a Masters in music technology. I had a synthesiser and sampler, I bought some decks and a primitive Atari computer that could drive the synthesiser. The plan then was to work in the music industry, but it just felt more sort of, stable, I guess, to explore academia. I was working as a sound and lighting engineer at the Leadmill when I got a job at Barnsley College as a Music Technology Facilitator, helping students on the new BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology who are making music on computers.
So you were straight in there, from industry to academia?
Not quite. It was a college and so was mostly further education, A Levels etc. But it was a pivotal place to be because Barnsley College was running this music technology course at a time before there were many degrees in music technology. It was one of only four places in the country to trial it. Humble little Barnsley college was ahead of the game! Then they started a degree in pop music, as one of only a handful of places in the world that was doing that at the time. I soon discovered that I was more qualified than any of the lecturers in music who were working there because I had a Masters degree in music, and within four months I was a lecturer there.
So how did you get into research?
I started a PhD in my spare time at Sheffield University on ambient electronica. Barnsley college was great, they allowed me to work on my research, and I could integrate my research on writing music into my teaching there, then I got a job at Bretton Hall University College, which is now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, teaching on a Popular Music degree there. It was great! Like a sixties art school, really experimental with a lot of choice as to what we could teach. I started a popular music composition course, and a module on club culture where the students did a term-long project on club culture, wrote electronic music, and then they had to put on an all-night dance party, which they promoted, sold tickets for, designed the set for, booked the DJs and played themselves, they even did the lighting. Part of the prep was an all-night field trip to the Q club in Birmingham. That course was great, the students were always very engaged!
So how did you end up at Huddersfield?
They had a music degree that didn’t really teach any pop, and an engineering department full of students wanting to record pop music. They got me in to teach popular music to the engineering students, and I’ve been there 16 years now. We now have a lot of cross-talk between the departments, and I teach music technology to the music students. We run courses on pop music production, and music technology and popular music, and we’ve really overhauled the traditional approach to teaching music.
How do you manage work-life balance when you have a job that focusses on something that for most people (excluding professional musicians of course) is a spare time activity?
It’s complicated, and a lot of the time I don’t. I often write music in my studio at home, but I enjoy it so it doesn’t feel like work. That is a typical academic life, but I am lucky in the sense that the things I do in my spare time for fun, also feed into my work. The music I’ve written and the performances I’ve done also feed into my teaching, and I do things like run conferences. For example, last year I put on a conference with Dancecult, the electronic dance music research network and ASARP, the Association for the Study of the Art of Record Production, and the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. I’ve written a lot of papers, for example about Prince, about electronic dance music culture, about trance, and about how club culture behaves a bit like a replacement for some of the traditional functions of religion, about Adele and her song writing. I’ve also written books.
What are you focussing on now?
I’m really focussing on writing music. I’ve also recently been making apps and designing exhibitions, then releasing albums. I can tie that research process together with making an album, and write a publication about that entire process. The whole thing works really well in concert with the academic context…
…like a pop concert…
…I’ve recently led a special issue in the IASPM Journal on practice-based research for musicians of popular music, which was set up to facilitate early career academics in publishing their practice based music development. In classical music, this has been a thing for years, but for popular music there just hasn’t been an outlet until recently.
So, you’re a pioneer, Rupert?
Well there was just nobody doing it, so I guess you could put it like that.
That’s literally the definition of a pioneer.
OK, I’ll go with that.
Is there anything you would do differently, looking back on your pathway to becoming a professor?
I was told early on in my career that I was far too diverse in my interests. I was writing about celebrity culture. Then I was writing about Techno, Trance and the ritual of club culture. I was also writing music. Probably I should have just focussed on one of those and become the world expert in that thing, but I get bored easily and I’m interested in all sorts of things. As I’ve got further on into my career these things have all started to come together, like how electronic dance music and prehistoric music have come together in an intellectual context. It’s that crossover that is much more interesting because that’s where you tend to find new discoveries.
More pioneering fusion from Prof Till.
Yeah, fusion, mixing it up.
Tell me about historical developments in music technology.
When I started on my career path music technology was limited. Well, I mean it’s funny because a piano is music technology, a scale is music technology, but now we have digital music technology and that’s literally changed music. In a really astonishing way.
But do you think there is an upper limit in terms of how we can develop music using technology?
No, I think there is still a long way to go. When I did my Masters they assigned us a task to go away and write about where you think music technology will be in 100 years and be as far out as you can possibly imagine. I wrote about brain control – I wrote that we will think music and it will appear, that we will control a synthesiser by thinking about it. And I now have a box called an Interactive Visual Brainwave Analyser, which has EEG connectors you put on your temples and you can use it to drive music. It is very basic, but it seems like science fiction, and these sorts of things are being developed.
It works? You can get a tune out of it?
Sort of! You can generate things from it. It’s kind of crazy! I mean, nowadays there are virtual studios where you can put on a VR headset and there’s a virtual studio there in front of you that you can use as a controller for your computer and generate a whole orchestra of musical instruments, and then tweak the recording studio, adjust the EQ on a drum machine and whatever, JUST by reaching out with your hands.
So it’s not virtual reality, it is reality?
Yeah – it’s not the future, it’s the present!
Is this going to enhance music or we going back to the Venga Boys? [back to the island?].
Absolutely enhance it. Some people said that the accordion was incredibly damaging to a lot of world music cultures because it was portable, and when people from Europe travelled around the world they took this piece of early music technology, which was portable, and it drowned out a lot of local music because it took over. Western music has done that, but it has created new music too. There is an inevitable process of progression in music; people will always discover new things and create new technologies.
The Venga Boys have a lot to answer for. What about how we distribute music?
That’s interesting because that is one of the biggest changes in music in recent years. How music is sold and distributed, the Spotify revolution is astonishing. The amount of music everybody has access to is just mind blowing and that is all driven by the same technology that the music itself is being made with, it’s all computer technology. Anyone can now drive this change. If you have a laptop, you can make music. You can record music, you can master it, you can distribute it, you can send it straight to an audience, people can buy it, listen to it, and it never even has to go to a record company.
Anyone can make music…do you think this is a good or a bad thing?
Well it used to be that a small number of people, your Stings and your Elton Johns of this world, made a lot of money and there weren’t very many of them, but now there are many more people making a small amount of money. I think that diversity is good.
I can relate to that. Captain Avery pays the triceratopses in avocados…
If you go back say only 300 years, there are hardly any professional musicians. Almost none. Nearly all music, nearly everywhere in the world, was made by people for people. The people playing the music were the audience and there were no professional musicians.
Sounds like Holy Robots.
What? So, there’s the carpenter playing the violin, the butcher playing the drums, somebody singing, lots of people joining in.
Yup, sounds like Holy Robots.
So yeah – it has gone full circle. We’ve gone back to that sort of ritual focussed, community based music, where people make music because they enjoy it and it has a role in society.
I do it for the avocados. Speaking of avocados, my next question is about what you think drives fashion in music.
Some things are definitely driven by technology. I mean the Technics record deck at some point in the 1990s overtook the electric guitar as the most sold piece of musical instrument anywhere. But the electric guitar at some point took over from the acoustic guitar. The most common instrument in the early days of blues was the banjo, pianos took over from harpsichords. New instruments drive new things. After the war, tape technology was discovered by the Americans who nicked it off the Germans. With tape you get multitrack recording, the whole tape industry, forties and fifties rock’n’roll. FM synthesis came in during the early eighties from University research, and you can hear it in the music from that time. The Hi-NRG thing that comes from sampling, and the sound of drum machines giving you bands like Frankie goes to Hollywood and Dead or Alive, which leads into The Pet Shop Boys. The 808 drum machine. Samplers producing early house music. Drum and Bass came from software called Recycle which chopped sounds up into tiny little bits. Jungle came from people pimping their Technics to be able to play at double speed. So quite often fashions are driven by a new piece of music technology.
What about Britpop and then the Indie revolution?
That’s a complicated story and it’s really more about politics. Britpop came about after the Blair government came into power after years and years of the Tories. Blair got a load of bands to come into 10 Downing Street. But that was a few years after John Major’s government launched the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and they calculated how much money was generated by pop music, and how important popular music, bands, venues, music making and record sales were to the UK economy. They discovered that at the time of Oasis and Blur, music was the number one export industry in the UK. Much more than say, car manufacture. The result of that was a shift in culture, in acceptance of popular culture over high art culture, for example.
What about the resurgence of guitar music though?
Well that came from Punk. Punk partly emerged from the Indie record scene where people could print their own records. So again, changes in technology made it easier for small organisations to release records, and that coincides with Punk, boutique acts, the homemade DIY scene. Punk moved on into Indie, alternative music, and that bubbled under. The big change that led to Britpop came out of the Seattle scene – a small group of local bands who were signed to a label called Sub Pop – Mudhoney and Sound Garden, and then there was a little band that piggy backed that scene, called Nirvana *laughs*. So Nirvana came with a nihilist attitude, made an album called Nevermind, which was inspired by Never Mind the Bollocks by punk band the Sex Pistols, but they wanted to make a new punk album. Very guitar driven, becoming a massive influence, which is partly because there’s a scene involve – the grunge scene – checked shirts, long hair. They had the look and the UK adopted grunge fashion. Blur were influenced by The Kinks and The Who – very UK focussed with British accent singing – but Oasis were reacting against this American grunge scene invasion and countering it with British music. They reacted against the American invasion, and started singing in strong British accents.
Which brings us back to the Indie resurgence.
Yeah, so, if you’re a songwriter and you want people to believe that what you’re singing about is true and meaningful, then, if when you start talking and you have a broad British accent, after singing with a strong US twang, then you immediately appear very fake.
You’re not from San Francisco, you’re from Hunter’s Bar?
Exactly. Oasis and Blur realised that they could sing in a British accent. That, combined with the fact that Nirvana had taken on a kind of anti-fashion fashion. Blur were very fashionable. They were mod-cool, with The Who’s styling, cool haircuts and sharp suits, art school grad types. Oasis did the same, they were grungy-grebo, but they were wearing designer £2k Parkas. Cool, fashionable, but British in culture. To me, the whole British thing runs really deep, and I think those bands who have realised that singing in your own accent is important have been successful. The Beatles, Oasis and Blur, The Arctic Monkeys, or Adele even. If you’re going to pour your heart out on stage like Adele and convince the audience you’re authentic, you’ll do it most effectively in your own accent!
Like Goldie Looking Chain, right?
Well exactly, if you’re going to be a rapper in the UK, be GLC – don’t try and pretend you’re Big Daddy Cane when you’re from Salford. Anyway, the Arctic Monkeys did that and weren’t the first but were extremely successful. They also changed the music industry because they released that album online with each track as a single, and each one hit the charts. The idea of the album was over that day, and that, for me, marked the end of that route. The Beatles got the idea of writing their own songs, in their own accents, about themselves, at the same time as The Beach Boys. That was the start, the Arctic’s series of singles tracks was the end.
What about dance music?
We’ve always had music that is there to dance to. Whether it’s Motown, Disco, Detroit Techno, Funk, House Music or Dubstep or whatever.
So, we can boil music down to either stories or dancing?
Yeah, I think so. They are kind of different things, aren’t they? In one the lyrics don’t really matter. I mean I love Disco because the lyrics generally go “dance, dance, dance, have a good time, dance some more” or sometimes they might say “do you fancy a shag?”. So, if you’re writing lyrics to dance to then that’s what they should be about, right? If you’re not, then write a story!
Which artists, bands or innovators have inspired you in your academic navigation through the world of music?
I studied music with a guy called Gavin Bryars and he was my first composition tutor, and his ideas were really influential to me. He had studied with a guy called John Cage who wrote the famous piece of music 4’33”, which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. That piece inspired Brian Eno, and Eno inspired the whole ambient music scene. So there is no real surprise that I’ve ended up writing ambient chill out music, because there’s a direct line from Cage through Eno, Bryars and to me. There is a band called Tangerine Dream, who were sort of hippy prog rock, seventies synthesiser pioneers, alongside Kraftwerk. I was influenced by Tangerine Dream. Kraftwerk were inspired by Stockhausen, who was an avant-garde computer music pioneer in the 1950s, and I’ve written a bit about all these links and how they tie together. Later on I realised I was quite influenced by Nile Rogers at various points – his Disco productions in the seventies are just immense, and he’s worked with all sorts of people – Madonna, Bowie, Daft Punk. With almost everyone he has worked with, a lot of those recordings have been important pieces of music to me. More recently, I guess key influences on my production style have been Leftfield and Massive Attack.
Let’s talk about the Sheffield music scene right now – is there anyone you have high hopes for?
The International Teachers of Pop. That’s the latest version of Dean Honer’s band. He was originally in I Monster and the All Seeing I. Their latest thing is really cool, I think what they do is just great. There’s also an all-female indie band called The Seamonsters. They are sort of glitter pop, they play their own instruments, write their own songs, one of them studies music technology and has gone into the production side, they do all their own marketing, and I just think they are brilliant! There’re hardly any guitar based all-female bands writing their own material.
Yeah – but just compare that to the number of all-male guitar based bands. There are bloody hundreds!
Have you heard of a band called Captain Avery and the Cosmic Triceratops of Intergalactic Peace?
No, I have really and I love that Henge-like thing they are doing, tying in really well with the festival crowds. The music scene is weird now because from June to September, the music industry stops and becomes the festival scene. Ordinary gigs stop and it’s all festivals, and it’s hard to map a band’s progression nowadays, from local gigs to releasing and album and touring, because Spotify and the power of the festival scene has really disrupted that. I think Captain Avery are perfect for that festival scene and can use that to their advantage.
Remember using MySpace for promotion?
Well yeah – there used to be scenes. Like The Crookes, Bromheads Jacket, the Bassline scene happening, but now everything is very diffuse and there aren’t really scenes anymore, everyone likes everything, you know?
Don’t you think there is a strong World Music influence in Sheffield?
About 15-20 years ago, Sheffield was one of the cities that took migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and from that point Sheffield became a lot more multicultural. Up to that point it had been very focussed on the Steel industry, whereas surrounding areas were focussed more on fabrics with strong links to the Indian subcontinent and Afro-carribean communities. I’ve been involved with producing an album for a group called Rafiki Jazz, involving Avital Raz and Sarah Yaseen, and it feels like the world music influences are really taking off in Sheffield. But not just Sheffield, it’s global. If I had to predict a new scene it’s Global Bass. I don’t like using the phrase “World Music” because all music is world music, isn’t it?
Except the music from outer space.
Well yes, except extra-terrestrial music. And it’s very common that there are electronic beats involved. It’s not just the music we would consider “World”- Africa, the Middle East, Pan-America – now we have J-Pop and K-Pop, which is incredible, really astonishing stuff.
Astonishing is a good word to describe K-Pop.
Seriously though, it used to be that this stuff was badly produced, cheesy stuff, made at home on keyboards. Now it’s the most sophisticated pop music, brilliantly done, perfectly sung and I think the future is global, and will include K-Pop. A K-Pop band had a number one album in America last year and they became superstars. Most adults (like me) had no clue about this because all their success came through YouTube.
Not on the adult Radio 6 Music.
No. In fact, the album I’m working on at the moment is Globally driven. If you look at music instruments from Ancient Rome and Greece c. 2-3000 years ago, there are instruments that are dead now because nobody can play them. Very similar instruments are being played in the Middle East and Africa, where there are living traditions that have carried on in the interim. You can still find Duduk that are very similar to a Greek Aulos, and you can find people that can play them, and I am very interested in working with them. For example, I am working with Mohammedreza Belani who plays a goat skin – a whole goat that has been shorn and had its head and arms and legs cut off and a pipe stuck in it to create a bagpipe, and it sounds amazing. And one of the guys in Rafiki Jazz, he picked up a model of a 43,000 BC vulture bone flute – this thing that I’ve heard archaeologists, who’ve spent a year learning to play, only play like a child playing a recorder – he could play the most amazing tunes on it straight away, because it’s exactly like a Ney. Anyway, all of these influences are going to be on my new album.
So, the future of music is Global?
I think you can criticise music that picks up influences from different places as stealing or bastardising stuff, but I think that is the nature of migration. The clashes between cultures that we are seeing across the globe, the difficulties of migrants settling in Europe, Brexit; I think music has a great potential to help those issues by making it normal for different cultures to live together. Because in music they can. If young people get used to those musical influences being culturally mixed then they, we, can become more accustomed to cultural mixing in the rest of our lives and society [takes a sip of beer]. Smash the system!
What’s your favourite dinosaur?
[very long and tense pause] It’s probably the Mastodonsaurus, which is a 20ft giant salamander that existed a million years ago.
[Broc turns to camera and whispers “not a dinosaur”]. Surely it existed more than a million years ago?
Probably, I dunno, I’m making this up.
OK, so as we question everything you have said in this interview, answer me one last thing – do you think your academic career has led you to appreciate music in a different way?
Undoubtedly. It is complicated though. When I first started studying music, it totally changed the way I heard it. But in a bad way, because it stopped me listening to it in the way that I used to. I remember being completely blown away by records when I was a teenager, like, my mind was changed. It’s difficult to find that experience anymore. After studying music, I would spend the whole time only listening to the rhythm of the Hi Hat in a song, for example. When I started producing, records were spoiled for me because I was always listening out for aspects that I thought I could improve on, like “they should have added a bit more 4K to the vocal” or, you know, “there’s a horrible 1K ring on that snare drum”. Gigs were worse. Live, when I’d hear sound engineers mixing and not turning up the guitar on the guitar solo, and I’d be giving EVILS to the sound engineer who was just busy having a pint, or staring out the window or whatever, because he does it every single day of his life and he’s bored and he doesn’t care about this guitarist’s solo. Eventually I knew enough about music to hear all of the instruments at once, to appreciate the meaning and the context all at once, and had enough experience to perform that analysis on a whole track and appreciate it. But also enough sense not to do it as well. I appreciate now that there is more to listening to music only to get the best ideas from it and keep them for yourself. It’s taken a lot of academic maturation to get to that point.
Sorry Rupert, I have one more question. If you wanted the readers of Prole Jazz to appreciate one thing about music, what would it be and why?
That music and spirituality and religion, that they are the same thing. In terms of general revelation, and physical experience, music can provide what people have described as the spiritual and religious experience, and an important sense of connection to others in the same situation, to self, and to the music. Transcendent experiences in all of human history can usually be linked somehow to music. Rouget said that music inspires dancing, and dancing is what causes trancing.
Check out Professor Chill’s album Dub Archaelogy, and links to upcoming gigs here.