Energy Source: Philip Sheppard

by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, August 2003 Vol. 114 No. 1377 page 810

Philip Sheppard is a cellist with diverse interests – and almost boundless stamina.
Laurinel Owen went to meet him.

A little wrinkle of disdain creased my brow as I stolidly sat preparing to hear Royal Academy professor Philip Sheppard give a presentation at the Oxford Cello School. It was the blue five-string electric cello attached to speakers, notebook computer and numerous toys and gadgets that tweaked my slightly arrogant scorn. Silently I thought, “Show me”. In my experience classically trained players pick up such an instrument only to noodle a Bach sonata or suite, which for me is comparable to performing Crumb’s Black Angels with a viol consort.

While waiting I eyed the contraption, noting that no attempt had been made to force a resemblance to the acoustical box we are used to. The “body”, a thinnish bar of 300-year-old curly maple long enough for a guitar-like peg box, has attached mechanical screw pegs, fingerboard and bridge. Since the instrument is amplified the need for a hollow resonating chamber is eliminated. Protruding wire supports and an extra long endpin allows the player to position the cello comfortably. Acquired in 1999, Sheppard had commissioned the instrument from Seattle-based maker Eric Jensen after collecting recommendations from notable jazz and country and western players such as the virtuoso violinist Mark O’Connor. (Little did I know at the time that his other cello is a 1692 Stradivari on loan from the Royal Academy of Music.)

The show commenced with a tour of the seemingly unlimited instruments the synthesizer can imitate (about 385) many of which are standard on electric keyboards: piano, trumpet, chimes, percussion, etc. Similar to rock guitarists, Sheppard’s arsenal includes a set of reverb, delay and sampler units with floor-based trigger pedals that affect the acoustics and length of sustain of any given note or fragment. Next came a nifty trick where two shadow cellos set at predetermined harmonic intervals accompany his melody. Growing in complexity he invented a piece for a quartet of marimbas and cellos punctuated by Latin drums – each string was assigned a different instrument. (Now he had my full attention!) Next he improvised a perpetual canon where the cello enters with 16 different voices – a Renaissance style piece where the “electronics” chased him by repeating a track he laid down in 3/4 while he played the melody in 4/4. (Imagine how good your rhythm and intonation have to be to pull that off!) But, for the finale Sheppard offered to let any of us in the audience try what he dubbed “a cellist’s revenge”. ‘How many of you are sick and tired of playing the repeating four-bar bass line of Pachelbel’s Canon while the violins get all the action?’ he queried with a devilish smile curling his lips. Recording voice over voice, “including some non-urtext harmonies”, he finally improvised on top of it all a jazz line while the other dozen parts continued their electronic cycles. Not only convinced, I was thrilled! With technique to burn, bubbling humor and cunning imagination, here was a cellist with the rare ability of being able to straddle the commercial, pop and classical music fields. An envious position when many of us are looking to diversify.

Later, sipping coffee at an outdoor café, he told me his story. ‘I started when I was about three and a half,’ Sheppard acknowledged. ‘My brother was already very proficient on the violin, so obviously I wanted to play, but I had to have something bigger! My parents are the opposite of pushy and probably thought it healthier to play football, but I was very persistent and, after hearing a cellist on the radio (I remember it as du Pré playing Elgar – probably romantic hindsight), found out the cello was much bigger than the violin. That was it! My first teacher, Margaret Sprakes, was an infants’ schoolteacher with a God-given way with children. I loved learning with her. All the pieces she made up for me were about her pet guinea pigs, Charlie and Fred, so I was instantly hooked.’

‘From then on my training was the traditional old school,’ Sheppard continued. ‘Since the age of six I was at the Royal Academy of Music learning all my scales and Popper studies for memory. By nine years old I had toured the United States – it was definitely high pressure, as I was expected to be a soloist. In fact, believe it or not, I was even discouraged from playing chamber music. This was completely at odds with what I wanted – I don’t want to play at people, but with them. Finally, I reached a point when I decided it was enough and wanted to quit. Luckily, I met David Strange, the Head of Strings at RAM. He showed me that playing the cello wasn’t that hard.’

Sheppard’s original experimentation with improvisation naturally led him to composition. ‘I like to play games and realized that the performers with the best technique and fluency are improvisers, like Mark O’Conner. Classical musicians perfect their mistakes by practicing them over and over. They learn digitally rather than aurally. When I was a kid I read in William Pleeth’s book, Cello, that he always spent five minutes improvising before he began practicing. From the age of fifteen I did the same. I remember working on a Britten solo suite and decided to add to it. I wrote a page that I really liked, but my teacher forbade me to play it. My fascination was with special effects. When only playing repertoire given by their teachers, students could find themselves getting through school never having created anything original. A fine artist has to produce a portfolio, while classical musicians don’t.’

Not only does Sheppard’s portfolio contain the complete Tippett string quartets recorded with the Kreutzer Quartet on Chandos, a concerto by Max Richter for the BBC label, and Oliver Knussen on Deutsche Grammophon, but two CDs on his own label, Blue Snow. His first album, The Glass Cathedral, was completely improvised. He used both the electric and acoustic cellos then layered the tracks before applying spatial sound effect treatments. The second, The Diver in the Crypt, received raves from Gramophone magazine: ‘It’s gripping music, much more than a soundtrack for an imaginary movie… Yes, it uses overdubbing; yes, it features a new digital and acoustic five-string cello. But the pieces use state-of-the-art technology without being overwhelmed by it – it works beautifully…’

The results have opened doors. ‘Somehow the head of a huge ad agency was given my album Glass Cathedral’, Sheppard remembered. ‘He called and asked me to make a proposal to pitch an ad for a documentary, Survival, a nature show. I worked with the film maker, designer, graphics artist – a whole committee – and finally I produced the entire musical score. In the film there was a butterfly that turned into a helicopter. I have a bowing technique that sounds like chopper blades. I layered, stacked and jig-sawed the effects together to create the entire soundtrack using only my cello.

‘That commission led to the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation asking me to write their identity music logos,’ Sheppard went on. ‘After three rounds, beginning with 60 composers, I won. The meeting took place in Soho. The situation was so bizarre! I played three notes and we sat around discussing them. Then I only had a week to write, produce and record 44 bits of music. Now Swedish (and Japanese, Australian and American) television viewers hear my cello every 20 minutes.’

These experiences have sharpened Sheppard’s ears and taught him how to use a recording studio. (‘If you have twelve minutes left at the end of a session at ₤500 an hour you don’t waste them!’) When reading a score he hears the harmony and claims to have developed an expanded timbral range and pallet that he can apply to classical music compositions and interpretations and vice versa. An example is a set of studies he wrote for his students at the Academy, which he used for the opening of a track titled “Everyone Says Hi” on the rock star David Bowie’s new album “Heathen” for which he was commissioned to write and record all the string parts.

Commenting that unconventional seems to be the hallmark of his career Philip Sheppard joked: ‘The more you go out on a limb the greater the chance of falling off.’ He referred to his latest collaboration with the Indian Kathak dancer, Akram Khan. ‘I play with tabla, sitar, and voice providing harmonic and melodic support. It is traditional Indian music with eleven beat cycles. The dance has very fast tabla-like foot rhythms and the second Akram turns to me I have to instantly return the riff in exact imitation. It is the equivalent of playing blue grass – you take the tune in turn, but with improvised changes, only you don’t know when it will happen. Akram is teaching me all the rhythm patterns, which are like scatting, but five times faster. I know if I can sing them I can play them.’

I asked the dancer Akram Khan why cello and why Philip Sheppard? ‘I have a real affinity for the cello – it pierces the heart and bleeds out the emotion’, Khan replied. ‘I wanted to do something different with my music. Western musicians have good rhythm and Phil has some experience playing ragas in India, so I didn’t really have to train him. More importantly I differentiate musicians from artists. Artists have an innate knowledge – it is not learned from a textbook. He finds a way of describing Indian music that is not fake, but real. He is quick to adapt, yet keeps his own identity.’

Another off-the-beaten-path sideline is working for film and theater. Haneif Kureshi, a Booker prizewinner, has begun writing a set of works for live performance with cello. A stage production of The Hound of Baskerville, which uses film, will be accompanied by his music. ‘I will create the hound through wrangling and manipulating sound, creating the beast with real music and recorded sounds of animals.’ His biggest project to date is a commission for a 35-minute score for eighty-five instruments and choir to be recorded with the City of Prague Symphony. The music will back up an action film. ‘I am cutting my teeth on commercial music so when someone finally asks me to write an overture or symphony, I’ll know how!’ Sheppard admits. ‘One piece will be Indian in nature, but uses the Hebrew scale so, later I can use it for a Bible epic!’

With composition and improvisation his other love, it is not surprising that Sheppard gives workshops to composers on string techniques. From that activity it was a natural progression to help students learn how to compose. ‘I train teachers how to write musicals for autistic children. Going into a school I get the kids to write music through games. In Harlem, New York, through Opus 118, we create string music. In Peckham, South London, through the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I have created short musicals with primary school children. Pro Corda, in Suffolk, has commissioned a series of orchestral and solo studies connected with Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which I will help the kids to write.’

The facet of the cellist’s career that initially validated his work, in my mind, is teaching. Currently maintaining a class of 16 students Sheppard has been at the Royal Academy of Music his entire musical life. ‘I want to be a mentor and have an apprentice system, not to make 100 copies of myself, but to give students expanded ideas in lateral thinking. One has to go sideways to make unexpected links, like finding techniques in avant-garde music and using them in a commercial setting. I have a rule that all my students must be involved in a classical and non-classical group. Next year three go off to India to teach and one is carving a niche in the pop field in Korea.’

His colleague and former teacher, David Strange, complemented Sheppard’s gifts as a teacher and player: ‘I hired him because I felt that out of the younger generation of cellists he has something special with extraordinary powers of communication and electrifying performances whether he plays Haydn or is extemporizing in a modern medium. You should see him work with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. There is no better rôle model. He is a serious classical musician specializing in contemporary music, yet can play heavy metal, jazz or pop. Philip has a unique gift of being able to completely change his personality to suit the music’. The principal of RAM, Curtis Price, concurred: ‘Philip Sheppard is one of the youngest cello professors ever appointed to teach here. Barely older than some of his pupils, he was an instant success. He is extremely thorough in teaching technique and the mainstream repertoire. He makes all his students listen to themselves critically; the result is one of the best sounding studios I know. But there are other amazing sides to Philip, including his advocacy of the electric cello, his experience with cutting edge pop music, and his own highly respected and original compositions. Frankly, I don’t know where he gets the energy for all this’.

Coffees long finished and rain threatening to chase us indoors Sheppard concluded: ‘I would be boring and bored if I were to stick to one thing. I feel the player must be a creator – a skill the Victorians took us away from. I have to be passionate. Yet, ironically, the thing that could be the most boring is teaching. However, I love it the best because of the challenge.’ Ironic indeed. That was what drew me to him in the first place.

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