Thursday 21 June 2012

Express Tracks

Yesterday I was one of a group of journalists who travelled to and from Gatwick on the Gatwick Express for the launch of Express Tracks. This is a new project to provide travellers on the Gatwick Express with music designed to go with the journey, timed to the 30 minutes. Customers who buy tickets from their website can download the music to play on their personal devices.

Image of young man listening to Express Tracks whilst on Gatwick Express
The composer Philip Sheppard has written a score and then Benga, the producer and Radio 1 DJ, and the UK band The Milk have reworked Sheppard's score in their own style, thus creating three very different but interwoven scores. In fact, the listener can flip between them and keep the sense of the developing journey.

Sheppard's piece is called Espressivo and he was attracted by the project because it was 'art, conceptual and a little bit different'. He works extensively in film and has recently finished orchestrating the national anthems for the Olympics.

When writing the music he cites influences such as Britten's iconic Night Mail piece from 1936 and Betjeman's Metroland. Except of course rather than describing the rail journey, Sheppard' piece is designe to be listened to during it. The music can be regarded as escapism, or as a sound track to the passing countryside or simply something to listen to on headphones so that you don't have to talk to anyone.

Philip Sheppard
Sheppard describes the piece was being akin to a film score, scoring a strolling storyboard. As with a film, there is an underlying emotional story as well. His intention is that the first few minutes should lull the listener into decompression, detaching them away from the busy city. The middle section is dreamier, to perpetuate the relaxed mood and the final eight minutes pictues up, bringing back the opening material to gear people up for leaving the train. When listening to the score I detected Aaron Copland as an influence and in fact Sheppard confirmed that Copland is one of his heroes.

Much of his recent work has been in documentary films, he has had a film in each of the last five Sundance Festivals, on such varied topics as Apollo astronauts, Osama Bin Laden and Bobby Fischer. He was involved in the Beijing Olympics, scoring the UK National Anthem, and as a result got the job of doing all 206 for the 2012 Olympic. This is a job which requires tact, the anthems are instruments of state and there is little room for the arranger to impose their own personality.

For Sheppard it is an exciting time to be working in music, many films are scored in the UK and bands are keen to record here. Though there have been job losses, he sees that as part of the natural wastage from the more self-indulgent 1980's.

He also teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and describes himself as a classical person, albeit one who has stepped over the invisible line. But to Sheppard the line is non-existent, what is important is the quality of the music making. As long as musicians play their instruments well, then that is what is important.

His score opens slowly, with a distinctly filmic feel, long string lines are played over a subtle interplay of rhythm. This mixture of long lines of highly rhythmic underlay is one of the piece's main features, which Sheppard uses flexibly in a different ways dependng on the mood his is intent on creating.

After the opening introduction, drawing you in, there is a slow build up which parallels the way the rail journey develops as you cross the Thames, pass Battersea Power Station and go into railway land proper. Long lines sing over complex rhythmical textures, the music is reminsicent of many things, evoking a variety of musical and non-musical memories. As we leave the metropolis, the landscape changes, the train picks up speed and the music's character changes again.

The reworkings by the Milk and by Benga are remarkable for the way these artists have taken Sheppard's materia and remade it but still keeping a link to the original.

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