Sean Shibe: The great composers didn’t write for the guitar in substantial ways

The guitarist uses the instrument to explore colour in an ‘overtly physical and tactile way’

Sean Shibe  is coming to Ireland for a concert in the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival.

Sean Shibe is coming to Ireland for a concert in the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival.

 

Guitarist Sean Shibe, born in Edinburgh to English and Japanese parents, sounds like a raw realist when I hook up with him on Zoom. “I feel caught between despondency and curious optimism,” he tells me. “It depends on how much coffee I’ve been drinking, I guess.”

Covid within the context of Brexit “is just a double whammy, really. One of those things is something that will be adjusted to. And I feel like Brexit is probably going to take a lot more time to be hashed out. The political will to resolve those issues is not so formidable as the group effort that the Brits can sort of ride the waves of in terms of Covid.”

Shibe is coming to Ireland for a concert in the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival (the newly renamed former Great Music in Irish Houses Festival) in which he will join the Irish Chamber Orchestra for the first performance of Dublin-born, Scottish-resident David Fennessy’s Rosewoods.

His taking up the guitar was almost an accident, a coincidence of the availability of an instrument and of lessons. But it was already in his life. “Dad used to sing anti-Thatcherite, coal-mining, union songs, to my sister and I when we would go to sleep.”

There’s something much more primitive about the guitar. It was the instrument of the savages and the people

It could have been any instrument he started on, but he stuck with the guitar “because I felt able to explore things on it that I think are unique to it, like the exploration of colour in an overtly physical and very tactile way”.

There are, as he puts it, “very few instruments that require the same proximity as the guitar. With the violin you’re going through a bow, and with the piano through a whole mechanism of levers and hammers. There’s something much more primitive about the guitar. It was the instrument of the savages and the people. It was a textural band device, whereas the lute was the ecclesiastical and aristocratic equivalent that was of the nobility and church. 

“With the electric guitar,” he says, “you’re dealing with an instrument that is much more literal. You can add on these pedals and turn the volume up to... whatever. With the [acoustic] guitar you’re more of a conjurer. You’re working with deficits of volume and deficits of sustain and projection, and of course deficits of first-rate repertoire as well. You’re making up for all those deficits, I mean in terms of the kind of style I try to cultivate, through the use of colour.”

It’s the control of timbre, he says, that provides the illusion of the things that are missing. “That challenge, that problem-solving, as well as the constant adventure of discovering new ways to optimise your musical vision through the use of colour, is something so terribly exciting that I’ve not been able to wrest myself from this instrument. Despite all the quite obvious drawbacks of it.”

The great composers, he says, “didn’t write for this instrument in substantial ways”.

There are, he wryly suggests, probably enough good pieces out there for a lifetime, “but probably not two lifetimes”. And at the end of the day, this probably affords him “more liberty in programming” than would be the case for performers on instruments like the violin or piano.

“The obvious solution to not having music that is first rate is to engage as thoroughly as one can in the commissioning of new music, and helping the composer in the ways the guitar works.” David Fennessy is himself a guitarist, so in his case “that is something I didn’t really need to do”.

He waxes lyrical about Fennessy, whose work he first came across through a piece called Rosewood, “the piece the new larger ensemble piece germinated from. That was written for my teacher Allan Neave. It sums up his musical language for me. There’s so much gentility to it, and it’s very, very carefully woven and cyclical. That doesn’t mean it’s not bombastic in places either.

“There’s a level of ecstasy to Rosewoods, as well, although it’s much more delicate, the kind of ecstasy that you’ll find in bowed strings and guitar – no electric guitars and synthesizers here.”

Sean Shibe: Very few instruments require the same proximity as the guitar.
Sean Shibe: Very few instruments require the same proximity as the guitar.

Their connection is long-standing: “I went on tour with his wife Sonya in 2011 when I was an undergraduate. We used to do these little outreach projects for Scottish Opera. From there I was in touch with Dave more regularly. He sends me pieces he’s writing for guitar. There was a good piece that Crash Ensemble premiered, a couple of weeks ago, called Jack, for unamplified electric guitars. That’s incredibly effective as well. I really enjoyed listening to that.”

Rosewoods is not just not flashy, it’s miniature as well. “It’s a very short piece, about 12 minutes, and the five movements are all very brief. The piece is intended to sum up the lights refracting through the windows in the stained glasses of the Italian chapel in Orkney.”

A lot of composer/guitarists, Shibe suggests, “work within their own technical limitations, or take advantage of their technical understanding of the instrument to provide stuff that is very, very heavily guitaristic, and flashy and clever on an idiomatic level. It’s not like Dave’s music is terribly complicated in terms of getting your hand around the instrument. But it demonstrates an economy which I think is admirable. It is modest. And its modesty is sort of like its pride, in a way. 

“There’s no flash for its own sake. It’s not like the Britttenesque level of every note has its place. But every position is very deliberate. 

“He absolutely makes the most of what he puts into those pieces.”

Sean Shibe premieres Rosewoods with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at Castletown House, Co Kildare, on Thursday, June 21st, as part of the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival, which runs from Thursday, June 17th to Monday 21st. See dicmf.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.