Meet Mike Sheppard
Fourteen new works for solo cello & orchestra by composer Mike Sheppard take the listener of 'The Soul Rests Eternal' on a journey exploring the emotional landscape of grief, bereavement and loss, but also hope, faith, optimism and a celebration of life.
The album takes an emotional journey from the immediate to the eternal; the banal to the sublime. It is a reflection of lives lived, however well, however long or briefly - 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.
A close brush with his own mortality in 2009 was the driving force behind Mike Sheppard’s decision to focus solely on composing, putting aside his other commercial interests as a music publisher and producer.
The album is performed by acclaimed cellist Caroline Dale and the English Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Steve Sidwell. It is available here.
The Child Bereavement Charity is a national charity that provides support and information to all affected by the death of a baby or child or when children are bereaved. It also provides training for the professionals who work with these families and children.
1. In a world where people have turned away from traditional religion and money and celebrity status have become paramount what does 'The Soul Rests Eternal' offer in the way of nutrients for the soul?
It's certainly true that Western civilisations seem to be becoming more secular and, as they move away from traditional notions of faith, their all-too-human hunger for affirmation and consolation seeks solace elsewhere.
So I wrote music that celebrated the relationships that meant most to me – even those I had lost. And so the music in some way became a reflection of that loss, but in a positive, celebratory way.
I think the music resonates with so many people because they project their own relationships, their own partings and bereavements, into the emotional soundscape I have created and it seems to offer them what one critic called 'quiet solace'.
This music was my own quiet solace at a cathartic time and, if it offers the same to others, then I'm delighted.
2. The spirit soars when you walk the Australian landscape. People speak of connecting to the heart throb of the land; feel the living quality of the land around them. By contrast, those suffering from loss of loved ones describe the barren, silent wasteland that they find themselves in. How does 'The Soul Rests Eternal' help repair the void? What landscape emerges?
There is a strong link between nature and faith; between what we believe, what we hold to be true, and our physical surroundings. Pantheists have found their faith in mother nature since the beginning of organised religions.
Similarly, even those lacking an orthodox faith can find solace in nature - by seeing the bigger picture and the beauty of our natural surroundings it's as if we connect with a sense of how we fit in.
When bereaved people describe their landscape as barren, desolate and silent they are not describing a literal truth; rather, they are expressing how their own personal emotional catharsis has led to a shut down of the sensory experience that being at one with nature can bring.
This is the void you speak of so eloquently: being deprived of healing sensory experiences because our own ability to receive them has been compromised by an emotional shock.
Where my music can help lies in the fact that it gently explores those raw emotions, but in a way that says to the listener "you are not alone in this - others have walked this path before you, and we are with you now".
So, to continue your analogy, the landscape that emerges through my music is rather like the misty dawn of a new day; a day not yet ripened by the sun, but one that shows the promise of a warmer future - a way through the emotional morass.
3. What knowledge of solitude enables you to capture the haunting beauty of a soul at rest, free from the pain of loss, savoring a moment of peace? How does your music help one listen to personal unhappiness and find the meaning that is essential in order to thrive rather than just survive?
There is no more acute encounter with solitude than being left on your own in a hospital room having been told you might only have six hours left to live. This happened to me in January 2009. I required emergency procedures to correct cardiac problems and the outcome was at best uncertain.
On the same day a close family member was losing his fight against cancer half a world away. These two events combined to create the highly tuned emotional state out of which this music emerged.
I thought about my wife, whom I love very much, and my wonderful children, Ellen (12) and Henry (9). I embraced the possibility of not seeing them again and it broke my heart. But somewhere in that agony of separation and loss there emerged a stronger voice – one of celebration of the beauty of the human heart at its best. And where is the human heart at its very best? In the quality of the love we feel for others – and this is the frequency my music resonates to.
Instead of mourning the possible loss of my family I somehow tuned in to the love I knew we felt for each other. It's this quality that seems to connect with other people when they hear my music; it's this quality that seems to provide solace for those in pain.
There is a bitter-sweet poignancy in much of the music, but it's always underpinned by hope and optimism and is grounded in the certainty that, ultimately, flesh may die but love lives on.
4. The soul, or spirit is not narcissist. Spirit may be in us but it not an island unto itself. It yearns for communal fellowship. How does music such as 'The Soul Rests Eternal' help us find direction, meaning and guide us towards others? How does your work help build community?
I believe it's a fundamental part of the human condition to want, no, actually I'd put it stronger than that – to need – to reach out to touch other people. Not just physically but on a deeper emotional level. As an artist I often find myself posing the question "what is art for? – what does it do?" And I think the best answer to that question is that all art, including music, is simply a reflection of the human condition. Because we have this deep-seated need to reach out to others emotionally, physically, intellectually and in all sorts of subliminal ways, it therefore follows that our art somehow reflects the ways in which we communicate with each other and mirrors our emotional responses to that communication.
Put simply, as souls we reach out to one another. In doing so we create emotional consequences, both for ourselves and others, and music reflects these emotional consequences.
So, if a piece of music can be a 'snapshot' of an emotional state, it follows that the same music can help bring about, or at least remind us of, such emotional states. I think my music does this – it is so steeped in the sentiments of the circumstances that helped create it in the first place that it automatically guides us back to that emotional place.
The question of community is an interesting one: beyond the philosophical question of how music communicates and therefore builds community through art, there is also a more practical application. I'm using this music to help promote and support the Child Bereavement Charity, who do great work helping families who have lost a loved one. So, every time the music is played on the radio, or whenever I'm interviewed, I make sure the charity is mentioned. Thus they get great publicity as well as direct funds from performances, since I have donated a share of the publishing rights to them.
Your website is another example – your feature on my music is another way for us to taste our shared experience and then to reflect upon it, both as individuals and through a forum such as yours.
5. In his book, Well of Remembrance' Ralph Metzner write "It was a revelation when I heard Marija Gimbutus describe in her Lithuanian accent and calm, deliberate voice, the peaceful matricentric (not matriarchal), egalitarian, artistic, aboriginal Europeans and saw her slides of the almost overwhelming profusion of Goddess figurines that remain of these cultures. Some days later while meditating on what she had related I received this image: a wise, friendly, scholarly woman walks into my house and calmly informs me that underneath the basement of my house is another house, much larger, much older, and much better furnished and appointed than the one in which I lived. This image profoundly altered my sense of my ancestral heritage."
Dip into your well of remembrance and share how your forebears filled you with passion and provided a well spring for your music and composition. How does 'The Soul Rests Eternal' help us access this infinite source?
Personally I don't have a 'well of remembrance' because my immediate family was fractured and dispersed when I was very young, thus making my sense of my forebears a rather weak and diluted one. I do, however, have a very strong sense of my musical heritage, and I have a very clearly defined 'well of remembrance' when it comes to composers who have gone before me.
Because of my disjointed family I feel cut off from my familial ancestors; but this serves to heighten my connection with my immediate family now – my wife and children – because I am their future 'well of remembrance'. It's almost as if I feel we are starting a new family dynasty with this generation. I think having a sense of one's past is very helpful to the psyche – it's that nature thing again, of knowing one's place in the continuum – and I regret that I don't have it for myself.
However, I think the music in The Soul Rests Eternal alludes to some universal truths that echo down the generations – the primacy of love; the value of our relationships etc. – and I think it is these truths that speak so clearly to those who identify with the music.
6.Those who have lost many significant others often find being a survivor difficult. With key people gone it is easy, especially at a time when society seems so cynical and in death denial, to feel disorientated and lost. How does 'The Soul Rests Eternal' help light a path and help the bereaved come to terms with loss and rebuild?
'Survivors' Guilt' is a syndrome that doesn't just apply to major traumas such as plane crashes, or 911, but affects us all to a greater or lesser extent. "Why him, and why not me?" is a common response to the loss of a loved one.
Bereavement is universal – everyone dies, so everyone leaves others in their wake; death is one of our 'rites of passage' and I believe that our increasing disconnect with faith and forms of spirituality that help us through these rites only serves to exacerbate our feelings of grief, loss and loneliness.
Death denial is another aspect of this – the other side of the same coin, if you like – where, as a society we increasingly place our 'faith' in medicine in the vain hope that life can be endlessly extended.
Where 'The Soul Rests Eternal' lights a path is in its ability, through music, to help us to focus on what is truly eternal – the love that we feel for each other. 'Flesh may wither and die, but love lives on' is the central tenet of this album, and in its many connections to those who have experienced it, it seems to offer a quiet voice of solace in the maelstrom of life.