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Mike Sheppard (b?)

The soul rests eternal

Caroline Dale (cello), English Chamber Orchestra, Steve Sidwell (conductor)
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Recording details: August 2010
Phoenix Sound, Pinewood Studios, United Kingdom
Produced by Mike Sheppard & Tonia Sheppard
Engineered by Dick Lewzey
Release date: November 2010
Total duration: 55 minutes 30 seconds

Cover artwork: Woman and Boy by Eva Mueller (b?)
 

A close brush with his own mortality eighteen months ago was the driving force behind Mike Sheppard's decision to focus solely on his composing, putting aside his other commercial interests as a music publisher and producer. The Soul Rests Eternal marks the first fruits of this new direction. The works take the listener on a journey exploring the emotional landscape of grief, bereavement and loss, but also hope, optimism and a celebration of life. Seen through the twin perspectives of the composer's eyes and a more global view, the album takes an emotional journey from the immediate to the eternal; the banal to the sublime. Performances on the album come from internationally renowned cellist Caroline Dale and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the emmy-award nominated musican Steve Sidwell.

Reviews

'A prominent feature in Mike Sheppard's music is its strong neo-pastoral quality. Sweeping melodic shapes are underpinned by sumptuous modal harmonies which flow out of a lush lyrical bedrock, as heard here on 'Elegy for a Lost Son', 'Lullaby' and 'Ellie's Theme' … efficacious in this respect are the commanding performances heard here, especially that of cellist Caroline Dale. This may not be technically difficult music but it still requires thought and understanding. Dale manages to draw every drop of emotional energy from the instrument on 'Soliloquy' and 'A Remark You Made'. It is fitting that her beautifully weighted sound is heard at the very beginning and end of this album' (Gramophone)» More

'If you want to lie back to something warm, soothing, yet intense, this is unquestionably it. Beautiful music, played with passion, even if harder personality types might prefer a drier acoustic for the cello' (Classic FM)» More
Prologue: The Prologue and Epilogue form the bookends of the album. They are the start and the end of the emotional journey. Essentially two contrasting performances of the same piece, they are designed to reflect the emotional states at either end of the journey. In the Prologue Caroline creates a cello ensemble by overdubbing the main cello melody with a series of harmonics and double stops to fashion an ethereal backdrop.

Elegy for a lost son: This piece was originally conceived as a film cue. The scene depicted an emotional cri de cœur from an anguished father for his infant son, snatched from him at only one day old. The repetitive three-note falling refrain first heard in the solo cello encapsulates the sighing, bitter-sweet anguish of a parent’s unfulfilled love.

Artemis and Orion: A huntress tricked into murdering her lover by her jealous brother; the loss of her beloved at her own hand, the self-inflicted grief and despair which gives way to a joyous recollection of a perfect love. Such is the story of the goddess Artemis as depicted in this piece.

There are various accounts of this story, but the one I have used tells how Artemis fell in love with Orion, sending her twin, Apollo, into a jealous rage. One day while the twins were hunting, Apollo saw Orion swimming far out to sea. Apollo, recognising him, challenged his sister to fire an arrow at the distant object. The great huntress could not resist the challenge and pierced Orion’s temple, killing her beloved at a stroke. The slow, reflective introduction gives way to a faster section that introduces a carefree theme of joyful reminiscence.

Despite the falling snow: The title comes from the Robert Graves poem She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep, in which the poet beautifully evokes the fragility of love, comparing it to nascent spring flowers in a winter of falling snow. Some interpret this poem as darkly pessimistic, but I prefer to read it as a testament to the optimism of love.

The least functionally tonal piece in the collection, it juxtaposes conventional minor 9th harmonies with purely quartal harmonic structures that allow for a more chromatic approach.

Soliloquoy: The cello is at its most beautiful when unaccompanied, its naked fragility enhancing its soulful quality. A simple nursery-rhyme melody develops into something more anguished as a major tonality gives way to a Lydian mode central section. The nursery-rhyme melody returns across the entire range of the cello before ending in a simple cadence that segues into the next track.

Lullaby: This is an innocent folk-like melody of the kind that a mother might sing to an infant. This piece also exists in an arrangement for Soprano and choir, but here the melody is played beautifully by the solo cello.

It is in strophic verse form, with each reiteration of the theme ever more passionate until the orchestra seizes the main theme from the cello, which responds with a series of passionate obbligato phrases.

The coda brings a more reflective statement of the theme against the Lydian major third-sharpened fourth figure of the opening bars in horns and strings.

The soul rests eternal (In memoriam Michael Franklin): On the day that decided the outcome of my own illness I learned that a close family member had lost his long battle with cancer. This piece reflects the acceptance of the dying of the light; the embracing of the end of a life; the final resignation.

The stasis of the repetitive harp arpeggios forms a backdrop over which the cello emerges from nothing with a series of gradually rising phrases. When this is recapitulated at the end of the piece the fluttering string figures echo the last flickerings of life before the close. Conceived as a eulogy for one who suffered much with great equanimity, I hope this music conveys the quiet dignity of a fine man.

Tintinnabulum: From the Latin for ‘tinkling bell’, this is a perpetuum mobile featuring a range of tuned percussion instruments conspiring in a number of polyrhythms that start with straightforward interchanging semi-quavers and gradually become more complex, over which the orchestra gently surges with interleaved textures.

The central section sees the polyrhythms increase in complexity as the cello and orchestra play a repetitive six-note soaring portamento phrase.

In the recapitulation the orchestra takes up its own themes as a counterpoint to the solo cello before the piece comes to a close and the rhythmically insistent percussion winds down like a clock with a broken spring.

A remark you made: A simple remark can have huge resonances—sometimes immediate, at other times viewed through the prism of time and distance; often replayed in our memories, each time taking on a different emphasis or meaning. Such remarks can have enormous significance when the person from whom they came is no longer with us.

This piece takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between solo cello and orchestra. The ‘remark’ of the title is represented by the simple four-note ascending motif first heard in the opening bars in the string quartet accompaniment. This motif takes prominence in the violins as the orchestra takes up the theme. The quasi-improvisatory solo cello passages that separate the reiterations of this main theme are continuations of the conversation as the cello tries to answer the same remark in differing, ever more animated ways.

But always the remark is the same—implacably embedded in the memory. The piece finishes with a final statement of the main theme answered by a despairing fragment of the cello’s answering phrase.

Hymnus (For Pip): The use of horns and woodwind at the beginning evokes the sustaining sound of an organ accompanying a hymn tune in this homage to the unborn child. At times this piece stares into the shadow’s depths, with the central section seeing some of the most intensely passionate moments. An insistent, plaintive repeated phrase builds to a climax before, emotions spent, the cello subsides into a tender recapitulation of the opening theme.

Ripples (In memoriam Chris Dagley): In the early hours of July 28th 2010 the noted drummer Chris Dagley tragically lost his life in a road accident coming home from his residency as the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s. Later the same day I wrote this piece with Chris very much in mind.

He was incredibly talented and hard working, but, more than that, he was one of the most generous musicians I have ever worked with—always willing to try new ideas, always supportive of composers and fellow musicians alike; always with a ready smile on his lips, he was a joy to know. No star shone more brightly. Although this is not a jazz album, I wanted to get something of the sense of Chris and his immaculately tasteful playing, so I invited long-time friend Mike Smith—himself an eminent drummer—to contribute some colouristic cymbal textures, which he did beautifully in one take.

Typically though, Mike wasn’t satisfied, and only after we had allowed him to do a couple more takes and some extra overdubs did he declare the performance satisfactory—so very like Chris in the generosity of his talents and his perfectionism!

The piece is a quartet for cello, tuned percussion and cymbals. It follows a straightforward ternary structure—just as a jazz piece might follow the traditional form ‘head – solos – head’—with the central section taking the form of a dance in which the cello plays polyrhythmic melodic shapes against the constant 5/4 of the percussion.

An ordinary Tuesday: This piece was inspired by a single moment in an otherwise ordinary day, when the landscape of many lives changed utterly and forever in one man’s decision. The music takes us into the emotional abyss – imagine you had taken an irreversible course of action sure to destroy all the calm you knew; but those around you, those upon whom your decision would most severely impact, were as yet unaware. Like watching a bullet, fired from your gun, but yet to hit its mark.

Oscillating major and minor triads form the harmonic base over which a delicate melody based on a rising fourth motif opens out like a flower, gradually reaching ever higher until it encompasses a range of an octave and a half before coming to an introspective repose back where it began. The rising fourth motif—itself mirrored by the descending fourth motifs in the clarinet horn and harp—is finally resolved at the close.

Ellie’s theme: In reverence and celebration of children everywhere—especially the ones who live secretly inside all of us—this piece is an observation of, and a tribute to, the unalloyed joy of innocence and the purity of the child. It also reflects the tenderness of the unconditional love of a parent.

The breathtaking fragility of the first statement of the main theme perfectly sums up the fragility of a child’s innocence. The central section unveils a second, more robust and joyful theme that builds to a full orchestra tutti with strings, horns and cello all combining in a full-voiced rendition of the main subject, before a sudden return to the first theme.

A new theme is introduced in the Coda, featuring an exquisitely beautifully played horn solo. This is echoed by a solo clarinet before the piece ends with a return to the codetta of the first theme.

Epilogue: And so, with the unadorned voice of the solo cello, the journey reaches its end, just as it started. But here the cello stands naked and alone. In a reiteration of the opening music, this time unaccompanied, the simple melody assumes the character of a threnody, a remembrance—an undiluted reflection of the love we feel for those whom we touch; those who form part of our lives.

Mike Sheppard 2010

These fourteen new works for solo cello and orchestra take the listener on a journey exploring the emotional landscape of grief, bereavement and loss, but also hope, optimism and a celebration of life and human relationships. The music reflects the composer’s personal journey when confronted with the prospect of his own mortality at exactly the moment when a close family member was losing his battle with cancer half a world away.

Seen through the twin perspectives of the composer’s standpoint and from a more general, global view, the music is suffused with a sense of love, warmth and hope; the album takes an emotional journey through the everyday—from the immediate to the eternal; the banal to the sublime.

It is a reflection of lives lived, however well, however long or briefly—the emotional perspectives range from a mother’s lullaby to an elegy for a lost son; from a celebration of a life ripped from us whilst still rippling with vitality, to a sad yet graceful acceptance of the dying of the light.

The impetus for the album came when Mike Sheppard was taken seriously ill in January 2009, and came within hours of dying. Until then a successful musician, then music publisher with his own publishing and production company, he took a hard look at his life and questioned why he hadn’t pursued his real musical passion—composing.

He resolved that, if he saw the next day, composing would be his first and only occupation, and this album is the first result of that decision.

Signum Classics 2010

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