Cellist and composer Philip Sheppard counterpoints music and IT

Philip Sheppard is a composer and cellist who also speaks at IT conferences about the parallels between IT and music

Philip Sheppard is a composer and cellist who speaks at IT conferences about the parallels between IT and music. He has worked with David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, and Scott Walker, among others, and composed the score to Bobby Fischer Against the World, a feature film about the chess genius, which has proved popular on YouTube.

Though he is an IT-savvy musician who learnt to programme on BBC computer at school, Sheppard argues that using pen and paper, with a musical stave, is the most efficient tool at a composer’s disposal. Too many digital tools can, he says, get in the way of imagination. He thinks code has to get to that point where it is invisibly efficient.

“If you get an unlimited potential, as you do with today’s digital musical tools, it restricts your imagination. One of my cellos was made in Cremona in 1692 and will be here in 400 years’ time. It’s a peak technology, whose design has reached its apotheosis. But the latest iPad will be gone in a few years’ time.”

Sheppard is a keynote speaker at next week’s IRM UK conference in London on enterprise data and business intelligence. In his talk, Information symphony: music, data and meaning, he will speak about the metaphors that could be drawn to advantage in the world of data and software. 

Ahead of the event, he said he wants delegates to leave with a more romantic view of their own roles in their organisations.

Sheppard is no stranger to project management. One such project was the re-scoring and recording all 205 of the world's national anthems with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the London 2012 Olympics. These versions have been approved for the next 25 years of Olympic events.

“That was an example of data crisis management, done in 52 hours flat. It was nuts. But once you break it down into packets, with a production line system, so you are moving on every so many minutes, it’s an efficient process. Colossal restrictions tend to breed great results."

A recent high-profile project was the BBC’s documentary series, The Human Universe, fronted by Brian Cox, for which Sheppard wrote five symphonic scores.

He describes the Bobby Fischer soundtrack as a good example of his working methods. 

“Fischer reminded me of a type of musician who gets so focused on perfection that he retreats into his own labyrinthine mind. There is a parallel with Glenn Gould, whose Bach partitas and fugues I ripped to pieces and used as the basis for each piece in the film."

The music in the film mirrors Fischer’s state of mind as the story arc sees him playing fifty games of chess simultaneously in his head to protracted disintegration. 

“By the end, the music is not cogent with itself, and should be unsettling," says Sheppard.

As with the new Brian Cox series, Sheppard worked on the Fischer score with initial scripts. He confirms that fellow musician and globe trotter Cox, whom he met up a mountain in Montana, is indeed a nice guy. 

“From a musical point of view, concepts like multiverses are a gift. It sounds chaotic because it is quantum.”

Sheppard draws parallels between music and computer science, but also indicates how music can highlight how far IT has to go as an exemplar and enabler of creativity.

The amount of frontal brain working memory that a session musician has is incredible. Why can’t my Mac laptops work as efficiently as that?

He speaks about a standard scenario of conducting a bunch of session musicians in the Abbey Road recording studio, and how they all come together for that one occasion, and sight-read what becomes a perfect rendition. 

“It’s an organism of freelance brains all working together and caching data ahead of time while they play something else," he says. 

"The amount of frontal brain working memory that a session musician has is incredible. Why can’t my Mac laptops, which I fry on a regular basis with orchestral material, work as efficiently as that?”

Sheppard does, however, also speak about the collaborative and distributional wonders of the internet and digital technology. A trans-atlantic collaboration with David Bowie involved him working on the track Everyone says Hi from Bowie’s album Heathen, which sampled Sheppard’s electronic cello. 

“His vocals on that were outstanding. He’s incredible," says Sheppard. He came into the ambit of Bowie’s production team because of Sheppard’s work with Scott Walker, about whom Bowie produced a film. 

“It’s a small world, the music world," he says.

“As a musician you can have a huge niche on the internet now, even with piracy. You can have an audience all over the world on a cottage industry scale and make a living from that. There is loads of work if you create your own stuff."

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