In 1947, the British Government passed an act to Partition British India into two independent nations: India and Pakistan. This would spell the end of the Raj, and the mass relocation of millions by train incited violence across the subcontinent that simmers to this day in Kashmir. In 1988, American composer Steve Reich hymned the American railways with his groundbreaking Different Trains. Reflecting on his status as a Jew in America, his rail journeys across the continent during World War 2 were contrasted with those of Europe’s Jews. In 2016, Different Trains was performed at Edge Hill train station (home to arts organisation METAL), celebrating 180 years of British railways where it all began. In September 2017, artists from the UK and India will present DIFFERENT TRAINS 1947. Under the direction of WARP’s Stephen Christian, a new multimedia piece commemorating 70 years of Indian independence that uses Reich’s composition as a starting point will be performed at Edge Hill, London’s Barbican Centre, and at Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan, India.
Ahead of this landmark event – a kind of conceptual sequel to 2016’s hugely successful Different Trains live performance by the London Contemporary Orchestra – Stuart Miles O’Hara spoke with some of the artists involved with the DT47 project to find a bit more about the approach, and the challenge of transposing the themes of 1947 to today via music and film.
JACK BARNETT, half of These New Puritans, has been on a fact-finding mission to Mumbai with fellow performer Actress, to inform the music they are contributing to DT47. The trip was made into a short film by Boiler Room which can be found on YouTube.
Hi Jack! What made you say yes to DT47?
Steve Reich was influential when we started TNP, particularly his later stuff like Three Tales. Also, the historical period, it’s a great opportunity to go into something I don’t know much about.
Did you have much exposure to Indian music before your trip?
[Indian classical music] was not something I’d really listened to. We went to visit [tabla guru] Yogesh Samsi straight off the plane. We went to his house and watched him give a lesson. It was fascinating to watch them doing their thing: one guy playing a rag on harmonium, while two tabla players churned out these rhythms faster and far more complex than anything you’ve ever heard in Squarepusher. A minute-and-a-half of music was made to last two hours, back and forth between the players.
In the film, you visit the Kanheri caves on the outskirts of Mumbai and you mention the unique acoustic properties of the meditation chambers there…
Great place to visit! All these huge chambers are carved out of the mountain, very wide with low ceilings. They didn’t necessarily have much bearing on the piece though. There are two aspects to the piece: one is voices from the interviews [commissioned by Metal] with four people who lived through 1947, all the harmonic material is derived from their voices. And the second is a recording of a steam train from that period – the kind of train that moved people from India to Pakistan. There are no extraneous sound sources.
Has working on this project informed your view of Britain’s relationship with India?
It’s a really complex period, the course of events is very contested by people, be they colonial apologists or self-flagellating religious types. There are no politics in my piece because of that – I let [the interviewees] speak for themselves.
There are a lot of collaborators on this project. Is your voice audible in the finished result, or was it more about finding common ground between artists?
It’ll be pretty evident which parts are by whom. There are multiple movements, each by one of us. There is some crossover, but it’s a work in progress. The audience will see how it unfolds.
Sanaya Ardeshir is better known as SANDUNES. She performed in India’s first Boiler Room series, and is one of the principal artists involved in DT47 in Mumbai.
Hi Sanaya. How’d you get involved in this project? Have you worked with Actress or Jack before?
I first learned about the project over a year ago. DT47 has been in the pipes for a long time. It was only earlier this year when Stephen was in India that I found out it was all finally coming together. I haven’t worked with Actress or Jack before, but I am looking forward to flesh the composition out in a collaborative context.
Were you familiar with Different Trains before getting on board with DT47?
Yes indeed! I was drawn to [Steve Reich’s] work after a stint as a student of production in London. I think it was Music For 18 Musicians that opened new doors in my thinking around composition. The world of Reich has since been a prominent part of my personal ‘oblique strategies’ around composition and production.
Many people in Liverpool might be hearing Sandunes’ music for the first time – is there an audible Sandunes element to DT47 or is it a departure from your usual style?
Not a departure from my usual style in terms of the approach – I’ve come at the whole project from a deeply personal angle given my grandparents lived through the age of Partition. The music I’m working on always belongs to the ‘Sandunes-universe’, even when it’s pertaining to varying styles or themes – so this piece isn’t separate from that world.
In the UK, we see the rail network as being one of the icons of modern India. Does the cultural significance of the network (which DT47 will celebrate) resonate with young Indians today?
I do think so. We’re constantly ‘celebrating’ the resilience of our local trains. They run when the city is flooding during the monsoons, and continued when the city was under a terror attack – very synonymous with the ‘keep-going’ nature of Bombay [sic]. It’s not uncommon for ‘British Rule’ and ‘Indian Railways’ to live in the same sentence – it was in our history text books. At the same time, I think young Indians aren’t hesitant to question the railways as a symbol of colonised India, and question the way our society is structured as a result of many years under the British rule.
The colonial legacy is ever-present in the UK today, but it isn’t always confronted. What’s the attitude towards 1947 in India today? Do you hope that DT47 might increase awareness of the road to Indian independence via the Liverpool and London shows?
1947 has largely been celebrated as the beginning of independent India, but Partition often goes unaddressed – even as the largest mass migration in human history. If the DT47 shows have the potential to ignite some thinking and conversations on what is otherwise a suppressed segment of Indian history, it would feel like an accomplishment. Especially with regards to the current status of the Indo-Pakistan border – I think there is a lot of scope to increase awareness. It would probably then feel worthy of the essence of the original composition too.
IAIN FORSYTH and JANE POLLARD are two of the UK’s leading filmmakers, with a penchant for working with musicians. Their collaborators include Jarvis Cocker, Scott Walker, and Gil Scott-Heron, and their BAFTA-nominated first feature, 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth, was a meditative study of songwriter Nick Cave.
Hi guys. There are a lot of personnel involved in DT47 so the creative input is coming from all directions. Was it a constant back and forth of ideas?
The various collaborators will be spending time together as a group in the run up to the DT47 performances, so ideas are being shared, and it’s incredibly useful to discover which points of reference have particularly resonated with the different artists. Ultimately, we’ll be focussed on the visuals, while the musicians will be dedicating time to their compositions. [There are] fewer people involved in this project than a typical film, so it’ll hopefully be a smooth process!
Did you have to do much research on Indian independence before coming to this project?
Not before, but as part of our process we’re learning about what happened in 1947, as well as the events leading up to Indian independence and the fallout. We’re fortunate that Metal arranged for us all to speak to Aanchal Malhotra, a remarkable oral historian. Her work on the social history of Partition has been a great inspiration. We were also lucky to discover that a friend of ours who’s a historian wrote a book about the secret history of the period.
India’s film industry is enormous. Were you tempted to look at Indian cinema past or present when producing DT47?
We haven’t dug particularly deep into Indian cinema to be honest, we’re more interested in the less constructed footage that we’re uncovering through the BFI and other archives. It’s hard to find, but we’ve discovered a few snippets of home movies shot in India that we may make use of. We have been asked to select a film for the Metal film programme, so we’ve chosen Prapancha Pash (A Throw Of Dice), a classic silent film which the BFI restored with a new score by Nitin Sawhney. The director was German, Franz Osten, but the Indian producer was Himanshu Rai.
You produced Run For Me in 2008 for the Great North Run, with excerpts of interviews with people about their experiences of running. Putting aside the obvious motoric similarities of running and train travel, is there a place for the same kind of audio interviews in DT47?
We know some of the musicians are working with social archive interviews, so it’s likely there’ll be elements in the final piece. We’re all still developing the work, so it’s hard to say yet. But it’ll be very different to Run For Me, which was very much about speaking to people in the moment, capturing their experiences, more like you’d approach a documentary. There’s one big similarity though – we were drawn to the Great North Run project because we knew nothing about running. When Metal approached us with this project we knew basically nothing about Partition, so this was a great way to find out, to educate and inform ourselves. But DT47, for us, is about another, more visual, way of telling stories.
SHAUN CURTIS is Creative Director of Metal Liverpool, and was heavily involved with the performance of Different Trains on the station’s disused south platform in September 2016.
Hi Shaun. How does it feel to put on a massive Different Trains-related production two years on the trot?
2016’s performance transcended all expectations of what an event at Edge Hill could look like. It’s really special for us to do DT47 with Steve Reich’s blessing and explore a really interesting part of [Britain and India’s] shared history. It does feel like we’ve been able to build some positive momentum off the back of what we did last year. Those who came last year will have a similar experience – a performance with live railways either side. But we’ve learned from last year, and raised the bar. We’ve increased in terms of production – the stages will form a more ambitious structure.
How would you entice newcomers who didn’t come in 2016?
Well, this is a new mode of commission – bringing globally-recognised, quality artists from India and the UK. On top of that, there’s something about seeing the premiere of a new work in a setting that’s only been used like this once before, to rave reviews. It’s a venue so loaded with history and cultural relevance. All rail journeys – whether they are made on the network, introduced to India by the British and taken to new levels after Partition, or in postwar Britain – started from this place and its 1830s architecture.
This project’s involved a lot of travel, not just by train. Did you make it to India during this process?
I first went in February 2016 to meet with our partner organizations WILD CITY and WHAT ABOUT ART when it was still in the planning stages. It’ll finish out there in December, out in the desert of Rajasthan at Magnetic Fields Festival. A fitting end to a remarkable project!
Different Trains 1947 will be performed at Edge Hill Station on Wednesday 27th September, at the Barbican Centre, London, on Sunday 1st October, and at Magnetic Fields Festival, Alsisar Mahal on Sunday 17th December. More information and where to buy tickets can be found at differenttrains1947.com