Philip Sheppard

Classically trained screen composer Philip Sheppard is a documentary expert and somehow arranged all 206 national anthems for London 2012. The cellist tells us how...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 15 Oct 2014
  • min read
You may not know the name of classically trained screen composer Philip Sheppard but if you saw any of the London 2012 Olympics coverage, you will have heard his music.

Philip was the brains behind arranging all 206 national anthems for the event while earlier this year he composed several pieces for the 2014 Tour de France.

On top of that he’s gathered international acclaim for a diverse career as a composer, conductor, arranger and innovative performer with his work lighting up more than 25 feature length films (such as the critically acclaimed documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon) as well as the work of artists such as David Bowie and UNKLE. His most recent projects includes the score for Professor Brian Cox’s new The Human Universe series while he's also busy as a musical teacher. Philip takes some time out of his hectic schedule to tell us the challenges composers face in working across such a variety of media…

How did you first get into music?

I heard Jacqueline Du Pre playing Elgar’s cello concerto on the radio. I pointed to it and said that’s what I want to do. I was three at the time. I got to meet her a few years later and she was lovely and very encouraging.

What was your first big break?

From a composing point of view, the biggest break was the first feature film I got involved with - In The Shadow Of The Moon. None of us had ever made a film before and we took it to Sundance and won. It was a great way to fall into film music. I never knew I would have a way of doing it as a living.

So your musical career escalated from there?

The great thing about documentaries, which is where most of my work has been, is that the films aren’t crowded by executives. You can get very close to the business of making the film, in the editing and script level.

I like real stories too. Because you’re dealing with something that’s true, you’re not dealing with a suspension of disbelief. So in a weird way it’s easier to write for docs, as you’re not having to co-erce the audience. I like the Ennio Morricone quote where he says good film music should be like the ideal guest at a party. They don’t announce their arrival but by the end they’re indispensable.

Is there a difference between composing for documentaries and working with concert music?

In films you can be freer than in concert music. Some of my music tends to be tonal and sometimes I’m given the opportunity to write a whole wall of noise that Neil Young might hide from. I can go where I want.

I found with playing that I got into a bit of a rut. There was a resistance to making your own music. It’s the only art form you can train for where you’re not required to compose for. It’s really weird as if you’re a dancer, painter, actor or comedian, you’re constantly creating your own material from day one. When I started going into schools and working with kids who are writing their own material, I was getting envious thinking ‘I want to play with the plasticine please’. Being creative is when it gets interesting.

Can you explain the creative process behind the 2012 Olympics project?

I had to approach it as an accounting problem at first. I relied on Excel more than anything else as there were so many countries. I put a map on the wall at the start, then just broke it down into country groups – Europe, Asia, Asutralia. It was a case of doing three or four a day, straight up arrangements. Then locked myself in Abbey Road with the London Philharmonic for 52 hours straight.

I look back on it and don’t know how I did it, then I had an incredibly engineer – Jake Jackson. He’s a total hero.

Were you pleased with the result?

It was very satisfying to do and pleasing that it was my contribution to the Olympics. But sometimes the classical world has some funny areas where there’s a level of vindictiveness which you don’t necessarily find elsewhere. Some people came out of the woodwork and were quite critical. But ultimately it was a very good experience.

What are the key projects keeping you busy at the moment?

I’m about ¾ of the way through Brian Cox’s new series, the Human Universe, which is just beautiful. They’ve given me a full orchestra to work with. I’ve got about four films lined up for Sundance submission. I’m also starting work on a Hollywood drama with Matthew Morrison from Glee. I’m doing a big live event next year I can’t discuss yet and working with UNKLE’s James Lavelle again.

Are you comfortable flitting between these projects?

Yes as from a genre point of view, I just see it as music and I use the same brain for all of it. If I’m working on one film, I work much better if I’ve got two or three on at the same time. It means if I’m stuck on a cue I can slide down the desk and work on another. I throw away tonnes of material because I’d rather write a lot, then throw away 95 percent of the marble to find something decent inside. The deadlines can be nasty but I don’t worry about blockage. I’ll put the kettle on, play the cello and something will emerge. It may not be very good but that’s a production issue!

Is the screen composing industry in good health?

I think it is. A lot of my friends are in the business and everyone is really busy at the moment. I can’t get studio space at the moment as there’s so much going on. The level I work at isn’t necessarily mega blockbusters. But I’m turning down more than I’m doing and I’m not unusual in this respect. I’m also optimistic about the film market. More are being made than ever despite the budgets being lower. The fact is that ultimately if you can write well and can work with people will never be out of work.

Have you any advice for new composers?

Find people who are doing something well, then ask them how they do it. If I find a book I like, I’ll write to them and tell them. I’ll usually get a reply as usually people only write when they’re complaining about stuff. You need to be relentlessly curious but always act on it.

You can’t get into it by sounding like anyone else. Clint Mansell is Clint Mansell and got there because of that. He’s come from somewhere else. The same goes with John Williams. If you appear with a different sound and approach, you’ll have a great chance of standing out from the crowd.

Visit Philip’s website for more information on his projects.