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Interview, Sean Shibe on Lost and Found

Sean ShibeTrailblazing guitarist Sean Shibe continues his double-faceted career with an album that is both all electric and all eclectic; the visionary monophony of Hildegard of Bingen opens a programme that takes in the simplicity of Chick Corea's Children's Songs and works by Moondog, the sacred fervour of Messiaen and Julius Eastman's description-defying Buddha.

Sean was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on this album - how it grew into its eventual form, what ties it together, and some of the process behind crafting his interpretations of the graphic-score works included on it.

You open with an arrangement of Hildegard’s O viridissima, which uses the imagery of plant growth to praise the Virgin Mary. What were your own seeds for this album and how did it grow into its eventual shape?

Essentially it is a journey from the earthly to the celestial. In a way by placing the Hildegard at either end of the album, starting with this text about the green branch as a metaphor for the Blessed Virgin, we went from something with an earthy connotation, approached simply with a drone, to the celestial fire at the end which is presented in a very different way.

That's sort of why I'm using Blake as this way in - his famous Songs of Innocence and of Experience have this idea of what a child sees, and also the celestial element of childhood.

In an earlier stage I was thinking of the album as a kind of "gods and demons" project with Eastman's Buddha and Tristan Murail's Vampyr! which is a work from the '80s or so for electric guitar, which is nine or ten minutes of absolute unrelentless screaming... and other things that referenced I suppose what I'd call a gnarlier edge of what the guitar can do. Like David Lang's Killer that I included my earlier album softLOUD - it was going to go further in that direction.

Vampyr! by Tristan Murail, performed by Wiek Hijmans

The album is probably more accessible now than the stuff I'd been intending to put on it in that first iteration, and compared with what eventually emerged I think that version would have been a lot more "serious" - serious contemporary music composers, as opposed to me arranging things that fit into a slightly New Age, ambient aesthetic.

I eventually realised that I'd actually got two and a half hours of material, and there was just too much to go into it. It would have been even more chaotic - believe it or not! - than the album ended up being. There's one album's worth of music that's been put to the side, and this the more "vibe-y" element.

Several of your albums have this sense of duality on them - softLOUD and likewise this one with its earth-heaven contrast. Is that something you tend to draw on when putting albums together?

It's partly a balance thing. This particular album is certainly weighted towards one end rather than another, and the balance isn't exact. I suppose I think of it less as a duality and more as a journey. Maybe naturally I'm predisposed towards thinking that every album must have something virtuosic on it, and that's exactly why I push back against that instinct! But a fragment can be just as effective, or something very pristine and specific, and I like to think that within my lifetime output of albums, there will be some that will be much softer statements. That's part of what keeps it interesting for me - taking time to delve into ideas that may be understood less but that have something very specific to communicate.

The Guardian commented that some of the music on Lost & Found “skirts perilously close to chill-out”. Do you think that’s necessarily something to be steered clear of?

Virtuosity and chilled-out-ness are different things, and people are criticised less for putting out an album of flashy numbers than for releasing things that verge on too relaxed.

Three works by Moondog are included on the album – a man so utterly unique and so iconoclastic that his art, and even his life, defy description. What role do his pieces play within this album?

He's someone who wrote a lot of incredibly simple pieces; a lot of them are rounds and canons. He has some serious things to say as well, an almost Arcadian vision. ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’ reminds me of a song from the recent TV adaptation of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle - a very slow, crackly recording of Edelweiss that they play over the credits. And I think there's something quite nostalgic evoked, a previous and lost existence. The fact that Moondog was someone who deliberately chose to be, in effect, homeless and live on the streets and be with people, but also at the same time is someone of whom Philip Glass said "he taught me more about music than Juilliard ever could", means that if any one composer really sums up this album and the combination of earthiness and the celestial, it's him. Plus, then, the fact that he was taken to Germany and lived out in the forest somewhere - that makes sense to me in a way that's difficult to describe, the combination of the lifestyle and the music. Like Thoreau and his Walden - it comes back to that concept of the green branch again.

Edelweiss, as adapted by Henry Jackman for Season 1 of The Man in the High Castle

The connections between the concepts on this album are very hard to pin down - that's part of why we've ended up with this Blake concept. It's so expansive and ethereal, and the links are often implied rather than being easily explicable. And that's the only way to understand Blake - you can use as many words as you like to try and explain what makes it special but at the end of the day you just have to read it and immerse.

Detail of Shiva Feshareki's score for *VENUS/ZOHREH*
Detail of Shiva Feshareki's score for VENUS/ZOHREH

Shiva Feshareki’s graphic score, above, appears at first glance to be intimidatingly impenetrable – as graphic scores often do! How does her piece VENUS/ZOHREH work – and how did you adapt it from its original form for string quartet?

The score for VENUS/ZOHREH isn't totally graphic - there is music written down as well. So that illustration is actually only part of it!

But this question applies much more to Julius Eastman's score for Buddha, which is much more ambiguous and difficult to work through than Shiva's. Shiva is actually quite precise in what she's after, and also it helps that she's alive, so you can just ask her! We sent many audio drafts to and fro of that piece before we found something that we both liked. There were six or seven different versions.

How different were those versions, before you settled on the final one to use?

There was a bit of adaptation, since the piece is originally for string quartet - in terms of pitch choice which we had to find a solution for. We tried a couple of different versions of that, but eventually we settled on the first one we'd tried. After that it was mostly about pacing - at what point to introduce different strings, and where to play on the strings themselves.

The approach to Buddha was quite different. You really have to work out what you think is important, as a starting point. I stayed away from the guitar, thinking about what the climactic points of the (pretty sparse) score might be. Before that there's the question of how to read the score; a lot of people think of it as being line after line, reading it vertically instead of horizontally, which I don't agree with.

As a starting-point there are some strong decisions that need to be made (like whether you're treating it horizontally or vertically). And then it's a question of what the important musical points are, in this case pretty much only defined harmonically. From there I basically wrote out a score with strict beat measurement and worked out how the transitions would work. I felt that by including slides before climactic points it added to the sense of ascension that this piece would need in the context of where it sat in the album. So the track sequence of the album as a whole was another factor.

So if you'd placed Buddha earlier in the album, the performance of it might have taken a different form?

Yes, in theory - though equally it is where it is on the album for a reason.

After scoring it, the next thing was to work out what the guitar can do to make that realisation of the original score work, and there were then a couple of points where taking it into the studio changed my thinking. I had something sent over called a Hologram Microcosm - a kind of reverb pedal - and there are several full wet sounds that can be made, for example the gong sounds that open Buddha. But at the same time, the hardware that I pursued, as opposed to post-effects, means that all of this is possible live as well, which is something I find really exciting.

Your recent recordings balance the acoustic guitar – a staple of classical performance – with the electric, a relative newcomer and outsider. Do you think the electric guitar will find a classical niche of its own?

I know two or three people who play solely classical electric guitar for a living, so it's clearly finding a place. It's more serious now than it was ten years ago, but it has a tradition which by now stretches back fifty or sixty years. Also, for contemporary composers today it's becoming more standard. I was speaking to Francisco Coll the other day about this, and he said that whenever someone asks him if a new symphonic needs a piano, increasingly he wants to reply that actually it needs an electric guitar! There are different things that can be done with it. And somehow this instrument, texturally, seems very Zeitgeist-y, contemporary and relevant. So I do think it's already there, but it's only going to become more important over time.

For me, in my commissioning, there are definitely composers who don't want to write for electric and would never approach that instrument, but who are willing to write for the classical instrument - and indeed vice versa. I think both of these instruments have such a strong mythology associated with them.

Sean Shibe (electric guitar)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Sean Shibe (guitar)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC