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The challenge of creating new music to the sound of violence

The stirring soundtrack of a new BBC series on the Troubles was created by Belfast-born composer Sheridan Tongue

Highly emotive: Sheridan Tongue was honoured to compose the music
Highly emotive: Sheridan Tongue was honoured to compose the music

By Judith Cole

Using oil drums to create the atmospheric sounds of conflict on Belfast streets during the Troubles is just one of the highly emotive elements of composer Sheridan Tongue's distinctive score for the new BBC series commemorating 50 years of the Troubles.

Sheridan is one of Northern Ireland's most successful television and film composers, best known for working on award-winning drama series such as Silent Witness (12 series), DCI Bank (five series), Spooks and documentaries including Wonders of the Universe which have reached global audiences.

Born in Belfast, he attended the City of Belfast School of Music before touring Europe playing the clarinet with the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra. Sheridan moved to London in 1985 to study music at the University of Surrey, Guildford, and then went on to work as a producer, remixer, orchestrator and arranger.

He has worked in recording studios with icons such as Robert Plant, Johnny Marr and Blur, and received a gold record for his work on Beverly Knight's Prodigal Sista album and now he has his own artist label IN-IS. Sheridan lives in Michigan with studios in both the UK and USA.

He says: "Having grown up in Belfast I felt honoured to compose the music for this series. The Belfast I grew up in was one of checkpoints, security searches and bomb warnings. But it was also an incredible city of inspiration and in my teens, making music was my passion.

"When I was first viewed a rough cut of Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History there was an immediate resonance with me. The images were so powerful I felt that the films did not need a large emotional response from me, the story was all already there, so I felt that my music should be observational rather than emotional. It was one of the biggest challenges of the score, to somehow retain a neutral but engaging tone to the music without it getting too emotional."

Sheridan adds: "My job is not to create a piece of music that just sits under a sequence in a film to fill a void but rather to craft a piece of music that is fulfilling a role that the images or story cannot do alone. I did not want to take sides musically - there would be no theme for Martin McGuinness or Ian Paisley - but broad brush strokes that arched over the entire film. I always remember when Bill Clinton helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, here was someone from well outside the conflict bringing a fresh view point. I liked the idea of trying this musically by scoring the soundtrack from instruments one would not usually associate with Northern Ireland."

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From early on Sheridan knew that he wanted to use a string quartet in the score and opted for players who could play in a Baroque style with Baroque instruments. On the recording session the cellist was actually playing an instrument made in 1760. Again, this fed into his mantra of using instruments and sounds not usually associated with 20th Century Ireland. The overall sound is quite different to conventional strings creating a colder, less emotional string sound which is what Sheridan wanted for this soundtrack which unintentionally happens to sound folk-like in places.

The soundtrack has different layers and the juxtaposition of these layers creates a tension which subtly relates to the various factions within the conflict. As the scenes about conflict in the documentary develop, so does the music.

Sheridan adds: "I remember the centre of Belfast in the 1970s and '80s as a hard place with concrete barricades, barbed wire and metal checkpoints. I was keen to reflect this somehow in my soundtrack. I had worked with percussionist Joby Burgess on previous soundtracks and I knew he could bring a rawness and edginess to my score. Joby suggested to me a large oil drum for the soundtrack. He brought it to the recording session alongside an array of deep drums and other smaller metallic percussion.

"The cold sound of drum sticks on metal in a large space set my spine tingling as soon as Joby played the first few notes in the recording session. When we were recording I kept saying to him 'You are the sound of the streets in Northern Ireland, I want a rawness from you'. Drums have played a large part in music from Ireland but again I was keen to avoid a bodhran or Lambeg drums. I opted rather for Japanese Taiko drums, African djuns, bass drum, grand cassa and dry Toms.

"I remember the music that I used to hear as a teenager in Belfast - Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and Silent Running. There was an angst and a rawness in the music that I was keen to reference in my score. I used heavily distorted electric guitar on some of the cues as a wash of sound on which to build my tracks.

"The other colours I wanted to bring into my soundworld were flutes; to have a breathiness and percussive of overblown sounds that would occasionally poke out of the soundtrack and give me different colours. Rather than orchestral flutes or Irish wooden flutes I opted for Bansuri (Eastern Europe), Duduk (Armenia), Ney (Iraq), Kaval (Balkans), Fujura and Suling. All played by Dirk Campbell. Again these all played into my eclectic mix of instruments not related to Northern Ireland.

"A musician once said to me that my music is a like an oil painting with many layers and I hope this is reflected in this landmark series.

"It's wonderful to see so many global TV series, dramas and films coming out of Northern Ireland and I'd love the opportunity to complement these productions with original soundtracks reflecting the unique culture and sound of this special part of the world."

Sheridan's soundtrack can be heard on Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History on BBC One NI and BBC Four on Tuesday nights at 8.30pm with catch up on the BBC iPlayer. To view a short film with Sheridan describing his work for this series click link below https://youtube/vds96T 1M0XA. For more information on Sheridan's work, visit

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