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From the Archive: Different Trains

Nothing Concrete text
19 Aug 2020

This week we're delving into our archive looking back to October 2017, and 'Different Trains 1947'. This was a fascinating project which featured composer Jack Barnett from These New Puritans and producer Sandunes amongst other key performers and filmmakers.


It's good to disorder yourself sometimes. This seemed like a good opportunity to do that


Ben Eshmeade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast here to help inspire more people to discover and love the arts. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archive looking back to October 2017, and 'Different Trains 1947'. This was a fascinating project which featured composer Jack Barnett from These New Puritans and producer Sandunes amongst other key performers and filmmakers. Let's follow the railway tracks to the past exploring ideas of migration, home and heritage.

Jack Barnett: Mumbai is an absolutely incredible place - just complete sensory saturation. Everything turned up to eleven. You walk out the door and there's just the potential for chaos and life.

Sandunes: The train journeys were looted and gruesome and there's a whole a whole lot of stories there to tell basically.

BE: On the first of October 2017 you could have been in the audience for 'Different Trains 1947', a multimedia response to the story of Indian freedom that took inspiration from minimalist composer Steve Reich's 1988 work 'Different Trains'.

David Harrington: And when composers started hearing what Steve had accomplished in 'Different Trains', it kind of opened up a huge palette for all sorts of possible colours. And I think that that piece has had a big influence on the entire form of the string quartet. You know, in the first movement, for example, of 'Different Trains', that that that sense of, of a train journey and then the kind of the impending urgency that that leads into movement two. And then the sounds of the the sirens and of course the the voices of the survivors of the Holocaust, and the way he treated that subject and those voices and sounds to me is so beautifully realised.

BE: David Harrington from Kronos Quartet, talking about the impact and ambition of the work that Reich composed for them. Reich's minimalist masterpiece was, of course, just a form of inspiration or a starting point. This was an entirely new series of work featuring music, archival footage, and interviews with those who lived through this pivotal period of history, the Partition of India, as we'll discover. This multimedia performance was divided into three parts featuring a performance from Actress with vocalist Priya Purushothaman. The second part was the work of Jack Barnett. The third featured Sandunes. Both the second and third section incorporated percussionist Jivraj Singh, and also featured a new work from filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Artists Iain and Jane incorporated archival footage from the BFI National Archive alongside newly shot narratives of two actors who were descended from families on each side of the partition. I spoke to Jack Barnett and Sanaya Aredeshir, aka Sandunes at different times via Skype, and then joined their answers together. Jack began by telling me

JB: How did I get involved with the project? You get asked to do these kind of commission works so often, and so often we say no. Statistically, we have to say yes to something and this seemed so, well, so in tune with what I was thinking about at the time. It was really perfect. I love Steve Reich's later work. It's funny because I came to his music from the late stuff, stuff like 'Different Trains', 'Three Tales' and worked my way back to the beginning. There's also the attraction of doing something that's not These New Puritans; to do something where you aren't the authority or you aren't at the centre of it really. It's good to disorder yourself sometimes. This seemed like a good opportunity to do that. And it'll be nice to be back at the Barbican as well,a place we've spent quite a lot of time over the years.

S: So we've had these these residences where we've spent a lot of time together, actually talking about all the conceptual furniture, so to speak and talking about how and also how meaningful it might be to use certain approaches to tie in themes like Partition and to tie in the India Pakistan story. And I think more more in the philosophical and the ideation sense, it's been super collaborative, and then we've gone off on our own to kind of put that those thoughts into practice, if that makes sense.

BE: Why do you think a train journey is such a powerful and important human experience that's at the heart of the work?

S: In this context, the British Raj in India is highly synonymous with the Indian railway network. And this is often something that I don't think people are very aware of, but it's like something that was in our history books. One of the biggest things that the British left behind was the Indian railway network. I mean train journeys are highly significant - human movement and economy and cultural exchange... But here there is specific significance because when Pakistan was created, that is to say, when India was partitioned, the train journeys were brutal and gruesome and it all happened at a time when the largest mass migration onto human history was occurring. So there's a whole a whole lot of stories there to tell, basically.

Recorded excerpt: As the new dominions of Pakistan and India take over their own affairs, hatred flares up in the Punjab. Fleeing from their looted bloodstained towns comes a new Exodus, a million displaced persons. Independence has not yet brought them peace, rejoicing turned quickly into horror and mourning. Throughout this vast land the Hindus and Muslims seek safety and new surroundings. Peace loving people, theirs is the real tragedy. The fortunate few flee in army transports or in buses.

S: The personal approach for me was, it came through the idea of using my grandfather's story as the narrative that I wanted to utilise for this piece. And he basically moved from Karachi to Bombay, he came to India on a train in 1945. Of course, at that time, it was all India. It's his train journeys that I have referred to, through the music and through this this world. Usually, when projects like this come along, there's always a 50/50 chance that it would appeal to your current bank of interests, or maybe maybe it's just something incidental. And in this case, this was something that just really hit home for me. In 1945 when he did move, he was the only son and had many sister. Had he known how drastic things would get between India and Pakistan, he wouldn't have chosen to stay on in India for work he wouldn't have chosen to stay on in Bombay because he was very close to his family.

And basically, it's a story of of being displaced to a large to a large degree. Similar to I mean, I'm in Berlin currently and I can also tie in a lot of relating to the the whole idea of separating East and West Berlin and how families were separated, and that's, yeah, that's quite an emotional, yeah, an emotional topic for me, I guess. I think it's one of the lesser known incidents in our history or lesser spoken about perhaps, but it was, I think it's recorded as the largest mass migration and it was at the root of it, it was laying a lot of foundations for very unnecessary communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. And it really came to a point where if you were not Muslim, you had to exit Pakistan and the same on the other side for, for a lot of reasons in India and it, it was violent, it was violent and had a huge impact on a lot of communities, a lot of families and it was like, not the glorified 'India is free of the British'. That's only one side of it. That gets talked about and I think often this is something that doesn't really get talked about very much.

The whole project really came at the right time, I was already beginning to refer to Steve Reich's work in a personal sense as a bit of a self study. There's a lot of his other pieces that I've also tried to draw some amount of inspiration from and the idea is that I am using different tools that are already in my sort of sonic palette, I suppose, so different synthesisers and instruments to create a bed of music that I've composed and written out to be likened to the railway tracks, so the actual the network, the railway network, and the content that will be performed is derived from interview recordings of my grandmother.

My grandfather is no more but my grandmother was actually we interviewed her and got her to tell his story, and I've chopped up samples of her voice and I'm going to be using all those components basically to kind of sonically portray a train journey with my grandfather as the protagonist, if that makes any sense at all.

JB: I thought it was important to - before I went into the project - have some idea or carve out some little space for myself to occupy and have sort of money in the bank in terms of knowing I was going to do something that would be fun, for want of a better word. If the process is fun, then you're kind of halfway there really. And the idea I had when I was thinking about it was to record a train, a steam train that would have been running in India at that time, and have it unedited, starting up running for six or seven minutes, then eventually making the sounds that a train will make on a journey like that, and then eventually coming to a stop and then to take the recording and write a drum part, a drum kit part, to the train. So effectively we have the drummer duetting with a train. So that's the basis on which the rest of the music is built. And we're gonna have Jivraj Singh who's a great Indian drummer playing on it. And then there's the, the whole practicalities of how do you record something which is essentially a furnace on wheels, you know? How do you attach microphones to something that would melt any normal microphone stand. So there's all that kind of thing and how you deal with all that. It's funny how you find yourself knowing a lot about train crankshafts. It becomes almost more like working on a film production or something, there's these other elements involved which dictate the music.

S: I am performing with Jivraj Singh. He's a drummer and producer and musician from from Calcutta in India. And we have done a lot of work together in the past, but I usually perform as a solo artist, and here we are performing as a duo. And I'm sort of looking at it like splitting responsibilities of context and content. So, kind of likening my role to the railway line and like likening his role to the actual railway carrier, if, if I can.

JB: Everything else that isn't the train and isn't the drummer comes from the voices of people who lived through these events. So taking their words from an interview as conducted by Aanchal Malhotra in Bombay, taking their words and manipulating them to produce all of the harmonic material that will be seen.

BE: Filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard created a 40 minute film which appeared alongside sections of Jack and Sanaya's performance built around the ideas of shifting perceptions of history, memory and truth. In a previous interview, they told me this about the ideas of collaboration and the conversation between them as artists:

Iain Forsyth: For us, collaboration is just such an important thing because it's such a central part of what we do together. I mean, we've worked together since we met at art school. So, you know, literally we know nothing else. That's the only thing we know how to do. And you know, that's been 20 something years now. So, collaboration forces you to externalise. You know you have to, you have to talk otherwise you're not collaborating.

Jane Pollard: For us it rests on a couple of things. One is on the ability to enjoy what you're doing that it's not a it's not that thing in which you disappear into yourself. It's the thing that you can, I mean, it takes over your life. It makes you know, it makes having a relationship and a normal life quite hard. But more than that, I love the egging on, that there's something about when you get to work with another person, that you can kind of dare each other into things. And it makes you bolder and braver, and ambitious and competitive and, and all of the things that I think it's hard to kind of self generate as an individual, become kind of quite natural, I think as a collaboration.

S: I think their role has been really significant in doing the whole body of work together. I mean, just to say that everybody's operating from such a different place, that it's given, I think it's created a lot of space to have an interpretation visually, that is open. It's a big topic, I think in general the subject of partition and Indian independence that can be quite heavy and I think they are trying to build something that is thought provoking and at the same time, not spoon feeding, if that makes sense. Also, I've given them like a very, very clear, step by step or blow by blow, a visual version of what the spoken word that I'm using.

So all the bits that my grandmother says, they may not be easily understood when they're when they're being performed, t'll obviously sound like vocals, but the idea is that you may or may not, you may or may not be able to tie the dots together, depending on how keenly someone is listening. I mean, there's so many layers to it, you know, there's a, there's an angle that you're trying to serve the purpose of a theme and serve the purpose of music above all without kind of putting yourself in the picture and getting the ego intertwined in the piece and that's an interesting challenge. And then there's also the angle of vulnerability and I suppose being alright with exposing these sections of your world that are meaningful to you and may not necessarily be meaningful to anybody else. Like it's definitely been a significant process for me this project because I haven't in the past, well, for one I haven't performed in Liverpool before and I haven't played at the Barbican before, it's a new context for sure.

It's a whole bunch of collaborators whom I have not worked with in the past. On a more process oriented level it's the first time that I'm, I feel like wow, this is really aligned with where I am and I'm also kind of just putting it out there. So it's a little bit of putting fear aside for me personally, which feels actually really good.

BE: What do you hope that the audience will take away from the performance, it's obviously a complex issue.

S: Yeah, I mean, I guess on a very, it's super complex and I don't think it would be right to have an expectation of conveying one, one or any side of a story and expecting to change minds or, or opinions. But I think if the music can serve the purpose of igniting some kind of thought that's brought about by emotional touring, in whatever way that means for each individual who is accessing the performance, I think that would, to me, that would mean that it's served its purpose. It's going to be palpable what the context is, my performance might be referring to two trains and translating that sonically; Jack who's performing after that is using a lot of actual archived audio from interviews of people on the trains,he's also using sounds of an actual steam engine that he got high fidelity recordings of a steam engine. And Darren [Actress] is also using a lot of sonic input that is very relevant to India. And I think the whole, like it won't be easy to miss what the theme is here through all three movements.

JB: What's pretty striking about it is in India and Pakistan, these events, they're not entirely history, the people are still living with the consequences. And yeah, there're still live events. They're still affecting people's lives. Obviously you can't go in in a state of complete ignorance, you kind of owe it to the subject to learn something. At the same time I don't really feel I need to have drawn any conclusions about the parties involved. They are talking about the events that happen to them. They're talking about what happened to them: people's experiences, people's pain, people's hopes. That's all I want. I don'twant to extend beyond that, at all, that's enough really.

S: Yeah, maybe like what the, it's a trite phrase, but it's like the futility of violence and the futility of separation, or war, or displacement, or all of those things that are futile and almost synonymous with war even. I think that would be the music serving a pretty noble purpose.

BE: The concert as I experienced was crammed full of ideas - an ambitious journey, which arrived successfully at its destination, a relevant and very powerful work. I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the podcast. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.


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