Musicians love trains. They sing about them, imitate their sounds, and scamper, instrument in hand, for the last departure homebound after a show. The moan of a harmonica is the note most readily linked to the melancholy implications of a parting train. But the harmonica’s Asian ancestor is the Thai khene mouth organ, a handsome bamboo construction full of metal reeds. Blind musician Sombat Simla is a khene master who’s happy to tackle the train’s entire world: wheezing the big steam engine into gradual acceleration, shouting through the pipes, wailing on the reeds and clicking long fingernails on the bamboo as we clatter across a bridge. Eventually the train pulls into a station and Sombat calls out the cries of the children who run alongside the train, selling newspapers and papaya. In 1984 I was fortunate to sit beneath a tree and watch Sombat perform all this in closeup. Nowadays he’s modified his piece to include modern train sirens.
Closer to home, a British train journey can be a mundane exercise or a poetic reverie. The choice is yours, but to help out, the SoundUK agency have been commissioning Sonic Journeys, site specific music to be heard while travelling a particular stretch of railway line. In 2011 they made free downloads available of two pieces by Shackleton, in collaboration with Vengeance Tenfold, Shackleton’s erstwhile sparring partner, currently resident on Dartmoor. For the first, you’re riding the Tarka Line in north Devon (that’s Tarka the otter), from Portsmouth Arms via Umberleigh and Chapelton to the Barnstaple terminus. Spoken verse by Vengeance Tenfold revolves and folds back into itself – “The memory of life is a spiral” – creating a hypnotic texture like spinning wheels. Meanwhile Shackleton’s clean woodblocks and chimes delineate empty space, threatened by various crashes and distorted clangs.
Moving to south Devon, we’re aboard the main line from Starcross, along the coast of Dawlish Warren and through to Teignmouth. Again Shackleton underlines the strangeness of the environment you see from your train window, defamiliarising it. The voice talks of sabretooth tigers in the Pleistocene period, hippopotami emigrating in flight from the onset of glaciation: “In the grand scheme of things our view that we are standing on solid ground is deceptive”.
Sound recordist Chris Watson has also recently produced a couple of train related works. First, The Station, a documentary about Newcastle upon Tyne Central Station created for BBC Radio 4. Watson does a great job describing (in words) the station’s grand acoustic, and the thrill of being there, listening to a robin’s song, just before the great doors creak open at 4am and the service teams arrive. So it’s all the more frustrating that the programme never supplies a moment to actually listen to this soundworld; instead an unbroken sequence of voices natter away about how marvellous the place is. By the time a tsunami of Sunderland football supporters arrived, roaring defiance into that echoing acoustic, I shared their rage. The irony of unbroken speech celebrating careful environmental listening is lost on Radio 4 programme makers, for whom five seconds without a human voice would represent disaster. Surely Watson himself, who visited the station “at various times during both day and night over several months”, must share some of this frustration? I see a new angle on his artistic motivation: sheer fury at how his rich recordings have been downgraded into background for banal chatter.
Likewise, Watson spent a month in Mexico recording the 1600 mile train trip from Los Mochis to Vera Cruz, for a 1999 BBC TV show in their Great Railway Journeys series. Naturally, his recordings wound up totally submerged beneath the voice of TV chef Rick Stein enthusing about Mexican food, plus a generous slathering of ruthlessly efficient, faux-Mexican orchestral score by Brixton-based composer Glenn Keiles. Luckily for the rest of us, Watson took his Mexican railway tapes and reworked them into a career highpoint, his El Tren Fantasma album, released on Touch in 2011. The track titles couldn’t be simpler: a list of ten stations along this now vanished route. Repeatedly, Watson gets off the train, and we hear still, timeless environments: night in the desert, as insomniac nightjars chuckle, or an empty siding baking in noonday cicada sizzle. But always listening for the train – or is that the wind roaring along the horizon? And then the mighty locomotive itself, endlessly clattering across a ravine, wailing like a Wagnerian brass section, generating ghostly chords like ectoplasm, as if the rails are bound for some Valhalla of the gods of engineering. Watson’s sense of theatre has never been better displayed than on El Tren Fantasma, perhaps the ultimate train record.