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By Aleksandra Besevic and Zakiya Leeming on

Sound Tracks at the Science and Industry Museum

How do you transform history into music? How about engineering into notes or a train whistle into quavers and chords? A creative PhD project in collaboration with the museum is taking a look at how the story of our historic railway can be transformed into rhythm, melody and sound.

Sound Tracks is a project being created by PhD students Zakiya Leeming and Aleksandra Besevic that celebrates the Liverpool and Manchester Railway—the world’s first intercity passenger rail line, the surviving terminus station of which is now part of our site.

The pair met through REALab, a programme funded by the NWCDTP bringing PhD students from different disciplines together to co-produce and collaborate on ‘real life’ creative projects. Together, they decided to look at the story of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and find a different way of bringing in audiences through telling that story in a completely new way.

RNCM PhD student Zakiya, a composer whose work is often inspired by science and aspects of Manchester history, will bring the story of the railway to life through music, including everything from its eventful opening day to some rescued pigs. Her project partner from University of Manchester, PhD researcher at the School of Materials, Aleksandra, is documenting their progress through a series of blog posts on what it’s like to create this work, examining this new approach and researching how her digital work can meld with Zakiya’s compositions to help spread this unique interpretation to audiences that have no idea of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway’s significance.

Everyone can stay up to date by following the blog, Sound Tracks Manchester.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project is how the story of the railways can be told through the music. Zakiya has been researching and listening to lots of other train-related tracks to see how other music makers have recreated that sense of speed, noise and steam in sound.

Here’s a piece by Samuel Barber and four pieces by Glenn Miller that she thinks really evoke travelling by rail, and show how music can communicate that sensation through different instruments, timing and tone:

Excursions No.1 – Samuel Barber

Although not explicitly stated, the first movement of Excursions supposedly represents a transatlantic train (which sounds incredibly cool—why haven’t we got one of those yet?) The musical description of a railway journey is clear through the lilting rhythm. The speed at which this rhythm is played conjures the sound of trains moving across a track.

Sleepy Town Train – Glenn Miller

Sleepy Town Train keeps the feel of a train journey by the steady four-in-the-bar beat of the rhythm section. Without the lilting rhythm of the faster pieces we’ve seen before, the sound is less specifically descriptive, but the rattling quality to the drum line (likely brushes on a snare) conjures the ambient sound of the puffing of steam and clattering of pistons as they move.

Slow Freight – Glenn Miller

A slight step up in energy and tempo from Sleepy Town Train, here the rhythm line has progressed to a more obviously identifiable representation of the distinctive train rhythm and timbre. This is achieved by the opening and closing of the hi-hat between a short-long percussive strike pattern.

Tuxedo junction – Glenn Miller

This track combines some of the elements of the previous two pieces but with a distinctively evocative horn line. There is a steady walking bass beat accompanied by a rattling ambience of the brushes on the snare. The trombones provide a rhythm that, whilst it is a retrograde (mirror image) of the typical short-long rhythm of the trains, still evokes the feel of that uneven, continuous pulse. Together with the deep timbre of the longer tones, the trombone section sounds almost as if the sound of the trains had been slowed and we are hearing the whistle in a deeper bass tone.

Chattanooga Choo Choo – Glenn Miller

This was the first record ever to reach gold in the US. There are so many allusions to railway sounds both direct and indirect in this song. The ‘woo-woo’ of the horns and voices is particularly effective and evocative as a recurring allusion to the whistle. The entire opening is very well written to evoke the sounds of a train departing the station, the whistle sound played across both the trombones and then the trumpets, getting higher in pitch to describe an increase in speed whilst the scalic feature of the saxophones presents a ‘starting-up’ and ‘gaining momentum’ sound that reaches an energetic throbbing apex at the climax of the introduction, depicting the train rolling out of the station.

You can find out more about the project at the Sound Tracks blog, and look out for workshops being run by Zakiya and Aleksandra soon. If you want even more train tunes, you can check out our Rocket playlist.

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