Interview: Sean Shibe on softLOUD

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First published in The Herald on 16 May, 2018

Last week the Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe was named Young Artist at the prestigious RPS Awards — call it the Mercury Prize for classical music. He was nominated alongside the soprano Louise Alder and the conductor Elim Chan, which means he had stiff competition.

The award recognised his “significant impact in the UK during 2017”, which indeed was a big year for 26-year-old Shibe. He released his first solo album — Dreams & Fancies: English music for solo guitar — a disc of refined, intelligent, stylish musicianship. Last summer, he toured a programme called softLOUD using acoustic and electric guitars, from Scottish medieval lute manuscripts to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Now he has recorded that programme, and it’s due for release on Edinburgh’s Delphian label in September.

For me, softLOUD sums up what makes Shibe a singular artist. It’s not only his playing — although his playing is impressive enough. “WOW!” wrote Reich when he heard the rough mixes. “I thought I’d take a dutiful listen and couldn’t get my headphones off. Sean Shibe has made one of the best recordings of Electric Counterpoint ever!”

It’s also the context. This album has a deeply thoughtful architecture. It’s a question, a statement, a diatribe. It’s not supposed to make perfect sense. It’s not supposed to present an easy thesis or a palatable middle ground. Delicate 17th century lute manuscripts (played on acoustic guitar) will never segueway smoothly with abrasively, screamingly 21st century works by David Lang and Julia Wolfe (played on electric). This programme is not about finding commonalities across the ages or arriving at any clean resolutions. The repertoire spans five centuries and the point is what happens in the junctions. Or rather, in the disjunctions. It’s about feeling extremes and having the conviction to voice them.

softLOUD is Shibe’s personal response to a very specific time and place. The idea emerged from 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president of the USA, the year an idealistic young Labour MP called Jo Cox was murdered in broad daylight, the year the UK voted to leave Europe, the year the term ‘post-truth’ entered the Oxford Dictionary.

Shibe felt alarmed and disenfranchised. He grappled with his designation as a millennial, as a Scot, as an artist. He wanted his work to speak of the times and he didn’t want the fact he was a classical guitarist to get in the way. “The classical world can be inward looking,” he told me. “The classical guitar world especially. Bach is universally relevant, of course, but if you want commentary that is pointed and furious, I’m not sure the core repertoire of the classical guitar will make people think more fervently. If you drag someone off the street and play them Guiliani’s Rossinianes, they’re not going to come away saying, ‘oh yeah, I feel your anger’.”

He said he felt driven to create something that represented soft and beautiful qualities that we have (regarding Scottish lute manuscripts) quite literally neglected. How to mourn the loss of expertise and nuance in Brexit Britain? “With something cyclical,” he concluded, “righteous and repetitive in its anger. I wanted to create something relevant, of its time, that reflected the angst of a generation.”

The power of music to convey social comment is in Shibe’s DNA. He was brought up in Edinburgh to Scottish-Japanese parents who run a small pottery in the Southside of the city. At home, his father would play old coal mining anthems and anti-Thatcher protest songs on the guitar. Shibe pursued a training in classical music rather than folk, but he never lost the belief that music should question and vent.

He speaks of “directional ennui” when it comes to his own career. Shibe is a player for whom technical accomplishment is not an end point — in fact, it’s not even all that interesting. That’s one reason he picked up an electric guitar for the capital letters half of softLOUD. “I found the lack of boundaries on the instrument incredibly liberating,” he says. “With an electric guitar, suddenly I’m not so obsessed with perfect counterpoint and so on. I can go beyond the physical parameters of the instrument. It becomes about pedals and extensions. It’s an over-and-beyond instrument. It looks like a guitar, but the potential is for so much more.”

The programme begins at its softest and most sparse. A Divertimento by James Oswald — an entrepreneurial Scottish musician born poor in the small Fife fishing town of Crail in 1710. He worked his way to London, published under an Italian pseudonym in order to be taken seriously and eventually became court composer to King George III. Oswald was a fine fiddler and cellist and he loved a good dance tune. Despite his regal London surrounds, he never forgot his roots and integrated traditional Scottish forms alongside the florid Italianate fashions of the time.

Lutes came to Scotland in the 1400s, but it was a couple of centuries before the popular tunes were written down. Most of the surviving Scottish lute manuscripts date from the 17th century, music collected by members of various noble households around the country. Some of the tunes are indigenous — here we find the first notated settings of Green Grow the Rashes and Old Lang Syne — but many found their way to Scotland via trading routes around Europe, and the cross-filtration between national styles is evidence of travelling musicians and a taste for the cosmopolitan.

These manuscripts show us the roots of what we now call Scottish music, and that we were musical mongrels from the start. They draw attention to the historic closeness between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art – players would happily jump between slow Scots airs and flamboyant Italian ditties. For Shibe, putting together his programme in 2016, as identity politics dominated headlines and determined voting habits, these lute manuscripts were yet another reminder of how much we owe to Europe and the free movement of people.

Shibe says “the guitar is to lutes what the piano is to harpsichords”. He navigates matters of authentic performance practice with pragmatism; in phrasing, ornamentation, accompaniment patterns, chord voicing and so on, his approach is stylistically informed but loose. He says he’s willing to refashion this music for his own political point. “Maybe I’m being inappropriate in order to engage with what this music might mean today,” he says. “I think I’m OK with that.”

And then Shibe’s album starts to telescope time. He darts forward to James MacMillan, whose music is full of old tunes and idioms. To Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, written for the guitarist Pat Metheny as the last in a series of pieces (Vermont Counterpoint, New York Counterpoint) in which a single musician plays against a pre-recorded versions of themselves. The one contemplates the many. This is solo music that shouts in loud celebration of its plurality — a blithe mix of jazz and pop, counterculture and non-Western models. Central African horn music is refracted through eight-voice canons. Reich’s cyclical minimalism challenged establishment social structures and empowered those on the sidelines to feel welcome.

softLOUD ends in catharsis. The the slow, intense keening of LAD, originally scored for nine bagpipes, is an outpouring of grief and anger written by Julia Wolfe after the death of a friend. David Lang’s ‘Killer’ is abrupt and iron-clad in its fury. Wolfe and Lang are both New York-based composers who, particularly through their ensemble Bang on a Can, confronted a face-off between formal uptown classical music establishments like the Lincoln Center and the avant-garde downtown jazz bars of the West Village. They founded BOAC in the 1980s because they saw “making new music as a utopian act”.

Shibe shares that conviction, and softLOUD is concerned as much by the frame as by the painting. “I’m not trying to define what any of this music meant when it was written,” he says. “I’m creating a programme whose contrasts speak of a personal response to the world around me.”

softLOUD is released on Delphian in September. Shibe’s next Scottish performance is at Music at Paxton Festival on 19 July