'Tired of the confrontational': An Interview with Seán Clancy

Seán Clancy

'Tired of the confrontational': An Interview with Seán Clancy

The Journal of Music recently published an extensive interview with the composer Raymond Deane in which he was critical of the new generation of Irish composers, describing some of their work as ‘unchallenging’. In this interview, Adrian Smith interviews Seán Clancy, a composer of the new generation, about his work, Deane’s views, and the music of new Irish composers.

Seán Clancy is a composer from Dublin. Over the last ten years he has established himself as one of the most prominent voices amongst the younger generation of Irish composers. His music regularly features in international music festivals and he has received commissions from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ ConTempo Quartet, Bozzini Quartet, Crash Ensemble and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Since 2010 he has been teaching at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where he is a senior lecturer and B.Mus. composition coordinator.

Much of Clancy’s recent music focusses on taking a minimal amount of material and stretching it out over extended periods of time. His music tends to avoid narrative and drama in favour of a more spatialised approach, often making use of repetitive cycles and drone-based structures. As such his music can be considered in some respects ‘non-dialectical’, a term that was the focus of a recent interview in The Journal of Music with the composer Raymond Deane. In the interview, Deane criticised what he perceived to be the near hegemonic dominance of this mode of composition across the Irish new music scene.

This interview by Adrian Smith is a partial response to some of the ideas raised in that interview as well as an exploration of Clancy’s own music and the music of some of his colleagues.

Adrian Smith: Seán, in my interview with Raymond Deane in The Journal of Music recently, you were one of the composers that he mentioned as pursuing a ‘non-dialectical’ style of composition. Do you agree with this characterisation of your music?

Seán Clancy: Yes, if one understands non-dialectical music as being devoid of contrasts, abstaining from drama and not necessarily wedded to traditional ideas of progress, then I agree that the work I have made since around 2013 might be seen as non-dialectical.

However, listening to my work since then, I can’t say that I’m always successful, even when I make a conscious decision to write in a non-dialectical manner. I have, at times, fallen for the siren song of drama and narrative, and it’s really only been in the last year or two that I’ve been able to fully embrace these anti-dialectical ideas and apply them to my work.

In doing so I’m not at all being prescriptive and I don’t have any issue with dialectical music; in fact I listen to it a lot and teach it regularly at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, but as an artist I also have to question it, and if I question it, I need to be able to offer solutions. 

AS: What was the particular stimulus that caused you to change your approach? I ask because when we first met back around 2010, you sent me some of your music and I thought it was quite dramatic with lots of sudden juxtapositions of different material. What prompted this change?

SC: Around 2013 a couple of serendipitous things happened that changed the way I think about music. After the first performance of a piece called Strange to See You Again, someone mentioned to me that they ‘enjoyed the piece, it was very dramatic’. This concerned me because it suggested that the listener only enjoyed the drama of the piece and not necessarily the sound. Around the same time I spent a week in Montreal with the Bozzini Quartet working on a string quartet called Neue Kraft Fühlend – a highly dialectical piece based on the structure of Beethoven’s ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from String Quartet No. 15 . During this time, the players and mentor composers Michael Oesterle and Laurence Crane introduced us to a lot of relatively un-dramatic repertoire that we discussed at length. I fairly much became besotted, and instantly began to think about how I might move forward with this new knowledge.

However, one of these consciously un-dramatic pieces by Thomas Stiegler gave me pause. It was made up of many interesting small ideas that for me didn’t quite hang together. I thought that this presented me with a challenge of how to go about writing essentially un-dramatic music that focussed on singular ideas extended in time without having to resort to narrative. 

AS: I’m curious as to why you felt perturbed at the compliment made by an audience member after your piece Strange to See You Again. You inferred from their comment that they only enjoyed the piece because it was dramatic rather than enjoying the material itself. But surely the material and the dramatic quality of the piece are not as separable as your inference would seem to suggest? 

SC: I think that musical material and dramatic qualities can be separated. Material is just material until you do something with it. You can make the same material boring or interesting, dramatic or still – it’s all down to how one handles it.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a piece called Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football for four electric guitars. I wrote this piece to draw peoples’ attention to the fact that our attention spans might be diminishing. As many people can still pay attention to ninety minutes of football, I wanted to see if there was anything intrinsic to the sport itself that accounts for this, or is it all extrinsic, related more to emotion intermingled with national pride. I chose to structure the piece on a particularly uneventful football match that lives on in the popular consciousness of many Irish people my age or older, which was the Ireland versus Italy game in USA 94.

After Ireland scored in the 11th minute or so, very little else happened in the match, so I wanted to translate this into music, to see if it would hold people’s attention as much as the match did. There is basically one block of material for Ireland, and its inversion for Italy. Each (musical) player passes their material to another at the corresponding point in time where possession had changed in the actual match, and this practice continues for forty-five minutes – the equivalent of one half of a football match.

Now, for the most part this music is undramatic and does very little. But at certain points – Ireland’s goal and some dodgy tackles for example – the music explodes. The musical material is exactly the same for these explosions as for the rest of the piece, but it becomes super-dramatic because I’m using distortion pedals and loud dynamics. The influence for this probably comes from Nirvana, who I would have been listening to around 1994 and who I wanted to allude to in the piece. They were really good at taking the same material and dramatising it through dynamic shifts that you hear on tracks like Smells like Teen Spirit or Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. Both of these songs have more or less the same basic material throughout, but the choruses are made more dramatic by the addition of distortion, heavier drums and more instruments.

Of course, I accept that, for many people, music is an intrinsically dramatic medium, and we have centuries of repertoire to substantiate this claim, but it is precisely for this reason that I would like to question it and maybe offer an alternative.

‘The last frontiers in western music’
Returning to the idea of non-dialectical music, aside from having concerns that drama and narrative could be used as a crutch to hide essentially uninteresting material, what else attracted you to this kind of music?

SC: Well, thinking about it further, if one wanted to buy into the idea of progress as a necessity of art, one could suggest that this avoidance of drama, and teleology, as well as creating long pieces made up of singular ideas that do very little, are some of the last frontiers in western music. 

I also think that non-dialectical music is more abstract than figurative. By this I mean the compositional matter seems to be flattened out, where there is no distinction between foreground or background material, similar to the visual work of Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt. I see this as contrasting with ‘dialectical’ music, which is three-dimensional with clear motives in the foreground supported by harmonic material in the background. From my perspective this seems more closely analogous to figurative painting from the renaissance to the present day. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, but I just prefer things when they’re flattened out. 

This unadorned use of sound, avoidance of drama, and the exploration of these things over longer periods of time are what currently interest me in music because they offer the listener time and space for private contemplation. One engages with the music on one’s own terms, rather than the music happening at you. I may not always be interested in this approach, but I’m currently enjoying the process and the results of this line of enquiry.

AS: Do you think that this non-dialectical music should ideally encourage a form of ‘deep listening’ that involves an intense concentration on the sound itself? I ask because I think music with a narrative dimension has traditionally been held up as the paradigm for this sort of ‘active’ listening. Music with a narrative by necessity involves ‘memory’ and the ability to relate events across time while noticing developments and changes.

SC: I take your suggestion that dramatic music is traditionally seen as involving active listening, though I don’t particularly agree with it, especially when taken in conjunction with your comments about memory and the skill required in relating events across time. Take for example a piece like Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied that has a fairly clear narrative structure. Sonically, it’s a fabulous piece, but as a listener, you don’t have to be particularly engaged to enjoy it. All the musical events happen at you, and the drama combined with the surface detail carries your ear from section to section.

Contrast this with pieces like Jürg Frey’s Streichquartett II or Éliane Radigue’s triptych Trilogie De La Mort. In both pieces there is an engaging and incredibly beautiful surface to the music, but as listeners we have to work a lot harder relating events across time because their clangs (or musical events) are so interrelated. We transport ourselves to various different regions as suggested by the compositional matter, and by the end of the piece(s) we’re not quite sure how we arrived there.

This offers an alternative to the idea that non-dialectical music might be more associated with trance-like states. Some composers see this way of writing as a means for practicing deep listening, and body healing, with this approach being particularly applicable to the work of Pauline Oliveros. Some see it as a very direct way for observing the passage of time. Still others see it as a means to practising mindfulness. And you know, maybe we need all of these approaches. Living in the twenty-first century is very difficult, we are all being exploited, lied to, witnessing horrific things across the world, and having to deal with tremendous worry on a daily basis, so maybe it is no bad thing that composers are engaging in the aforementioned approaches if it promotes healing amongst us…  

‘Tired of the confrontational’
You raise the question of music’s relationship to the world given the obvious challenges that we face today. One of the criticisms made by Raymond Deane against this so-called ‘non-dialectical’ music was that, for him, so much of it seemed to ‘dwell in a fully–realised utopia’, that it is, in effect, a ‘resigned art’ that chooses not to engage with the chaos of today’s reality. You say that some people see this music as a means to promote ‘body healing’, ‘deep listening’, ‘mindfulness’, etc. Now, those of a more modernist disposition would undoubtedly write off these attributes as another variety of escapism comparable to yoga, or some other form of stress-relieving activity. Do you think that this is too cynical and narrow-minded? Indeed, in your view, does contemporary music need to have an overtly oppositional or resistant character and if so what form should this take? 

SC: I think it’s fantastic if people use their compositions to promote mindfulness and so on. As someone who has suffered from crippling anxiety and panic since around 2010, the more solutions people find to this, the better. This and other mental health problems are a real affliction on younger people today. This is today’s reality, and I think some people are beginning to address it. I can only speak for myself, but I am tired of the confrontational or oppositional approach to art that offers critique without solution, and has prevailed from modernist into postmodernist times. I am looking for solutions to the detachment that has been going on for far too long, and I think others are too. 

Some of these points were illustrated by Liam Cagney in his chapter in the book The Invisible Art where he used the term ‘the New Sincerity’ to describe my work and the work of Donnacha Dennehy, Garrett Sholdice, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Linda Buckley. I quite like this term because, regardless of aesthetic, it can be seen in the approach of a number of different Irish composers who may see themselves as being roughly part of the same community, bound together by an expanded tonality, repetition, non-goal-oriented structures, a directness of sound, and a desire to find a way to both depict a dark world view whilst illuminating the possibilities for being alive and human in it. I don’t think we’re living in a ’fully–realised utopia’, or are engaged in a ‘resigned art’; contrariwise, I think we’re trying to engage with other people in a meaningful way and offer solutions that are not necessarily polemical or combative.

AS: In that book, Liam Cagney used this term ‘the New Sincerity’ which he borrowed from the writer David Foster Wallace as a way of describing the work of Irish composers whose music took a more introspective turn in the last decade and who have been ‘willing to risk accusation of sentimentality, melodrama, of overcredulity, of softness…’ To me, the ‘sincerity’ part of this equation suggests an approach whereby a composer is comfortable using familiar materials (triadic chords, tonal melody, simple rhythms, etc.) and doesn’t feel the need to employ certain strategies of detachment – either modernist subversion or postmodernist irony. However, without employing some form of critical detachment how does a composer avoid falling into the trap of writing pastiche or music that simply replicates traditional ideas of beauty and expression?

SC: I think the sincerity for me comes more in the approach than the musical materials used, as the folks mentioned by Liam use many different kinds of materials in many different kinds of ways. Taking my work, for example, it is informed by concepts such as translation, artistic intervention and defamiliarisation. These concepts are at work in several pieces from the last ten years or so where I might take familiar diatonic material and stretch it out throughout time so that it becomes unrecognisable. Likewise I might choose to base the form of a piece on the structure of a famous football match (Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football) or the structure of a Faith No More song (Changing Rates of Change). The same process is also in play when I take non-musical material, such as pre-existing texts like obituaries (Findetotenlieder) or greeting card phrases (Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards), and present them in an unfamiliar musical context. In a sense, I regard the pre-existing text material as equally important as the musical matter. The approach, or the desire to connect, is the important thing here. The attitude is not, as you say, adhering to modernist subversion or postmodern irony, but rather looking for meaningful connections to players, to listeners, to other composers, and ‘the work’ is just a part of this process. For me, subversion only leads to more subversion, whilst irony acts as a kind of defence mechanism (don’t let people get too close!). Besides, to paraphrase Jürg Frey, what is wrong with returning to beautiful sounds, this time with our feet a little off the ground?

‘That is challenging!’
In my interview with Raymond Deane, one of his main criticisms of the younger generation of composers was not that their work was bad – though he did say he found some of it ‘unchallenging’ – but rather that he found most of their work ‘hegemonic’ in its exclusion of dissonance, climax, surprise and its preference for a spatialised temporality. I’m guessing you wouldn’t agree with this characterisation of the music. 

SC: Well, first of all, I don’t think I would equate these aforementioned criteria with what makes music challenging. Doing so would regard a lot of the world’s music that doesn’t adhere to these principles as ‘unchallenging’. Such musics could include Indonesian gamelan, Japanese gagaku, Zimbabwean mbira music and so on, and this of course would be a very arrogant position to maintain.

Secondly, any creator knows that it is difficult to create. It’s difficult enough getting out of bed in the morning and it takes a huge amount of skill, time and effort to realise any creative work from the initial concept to the final stage of execution, not to mention the well of self-doubt that goes hand-in-hand with this process. Therefore, I don’t think it’s particularly fruitful for a more senior artist to label their more junior colleagues’ work as ‘unchallenging’.

Thirdly, the characterisation of the music of younger Irish composers as being devoid of ‘dissonance, climax, surprise’ is, in my view, incorrect. Time won’t permit me to give a comprehensive overview of this, but take for example recent music by Ed Bennett and Andrew Hamilton, both of whom I work with in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Ed’s recent Diatribe release Togetherness contains music full of dissonance and in fact the title track is one large climax lasting 30 minutes or so, while Andrew’s latest orchestral piece C is full of colour, extended techniques and a modernised dialectical structure that, although inherited from classicism, is uncanny and far more striking.

Similarly, Ann Cleare, in pieces such as I am not a Clock Maker Either or I Should Live in Wires for Leaving You Behind demonstrates her fascination with harsh textures, extreme dissonance, a plastic – almost mouldable with your hands – sound, structures made up of peaks and troughs, and indeed surprise. Surprise is also inherently linked to the music of Jenifer Walshe, whose music is completely indefinable. Pieces like HYGIENE or EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT exhibit her utterly unique approach to not only what we hear, but also what we see, resulting in powerful, explosive and thought-provoking experiences that are unlike anything else on this planet.

Personally, I feel my own music is particularly close to that of Jonathan Nangle, Linda Buckley, Benedict Schlepper Connolly and Garrett Sholdice. Each of these composers, in their own particular manner, examines what it is to exist today, and there is a melancholy and ineffable darkness there that transcends the need for climax or surprise. I don’t see this work as being hegemonic at all. But look, we all do different things and find different things interesting, and if the directness of our music is lost on a particular listener, then I guess the directness of this music is lost on a particular listener.

Furthermore, many Irish composers of the new generation make positive interventions in musical communities both at home and abroad, either through teaching, advocacy or concert promotion. These things are as important as the musical objects we create. Balancing a full-time teaching job with composing, with advocacy, with concert promotion, and, for some people, raising kids… that is challenging! 

There are lots of other “underground” musics’
I couldn’t agree more when you say that many of the people you mention carry out invaluable work in building and sustaining musical communities both at home and abroad. However, I would put it to you that the Irish contemporary music scene as a whole continues to remain an ‘underground’ phenomenon due to the lack of adequate funding support. What are your thoughts on this?

SC: I do agree with your sentiment that the Irish contemporary music scene is an underground phenomenon, but I don’t see any inherent problem with that, neither do I think this is a uniquely Irish concern. I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing new music in many different countries, and, to be totally honest, I haven’t seen such a big difference in my perception of audience figures. What we do is esoteric and we have to be honest with ourselves: it doesn’t draw particularly large audiences, and why should it? I fully believe in our music being a vehicle to deliver big ideas about what it is to exist both as an individual and as a community, but I don’t expect everyone to buy into this idea. I also don’t believe in being evangelical about it. Of course I think that what I and other composers do is important, but does everybody need this kind of music. I’m not so sure.

There are lots of other ‘underground’ musics (rock, electronic, hip-hop, traditional) that happen throughout the country and as far as I can see these people just get on with the process of writing music with or without state support. I have tried to take this approach myself over the last two years. After another unsuccessful Arts Council application, rather than agitate, I elected to try to create music that didn’t rely on their funding for its existence. As a result, taking Éliane Radigue as an inspiration, I began to create music that I could perform and put on for little or no cost, which is why I’m working a lot with synthesizers these days. I’m still very much interested in working with ensembles and orchestras if those opportunities come my way, particularly if me and my synths can be involved, but I’m a little bit more self-sufficient at the moment and can create, regardless of whether or not the funds are available.

‘Music can be about a little more than just sound’
To return to your own work, one of the avenues you’ve been exploring in the last five years or so is a certain referentiality to non-musical phenomena. It’s not just the distinctive titles of your work that encourage the listener to reflect on non-musical subjects – e.g. Ten Minutes of Music on the Subject of IKEA, Sixteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Sitting – but recently you’ve been using text-projections such as in your Ireland England project that went on a tour of the UK throughout 2018. Can you elaborate on this aspect of your work?

SC: Yes, because music is a temporal art form, one has peoples’ attention for a specific duration, and I like to think that during this time music can be used as a vehicle for thought and maybe even promote positive change. However, since we are engaged with an inherently abstract phenomenon, I think the most effective way we can enable this thought process is by using text which can then imbue the music with meaning.

I first decided to do this by titles that referred to certain things that I wanted to draw a listener’s attention to – also giving them a duration, so they know what they’re getting in for. These titles were often elaborated upon or clarified through programme notes, but since programme notes are not part of the work, I later figured out a way of doing this through projected text during performance.

The first piece in which I did this was Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards, which looks at life and death through greeting cards. Since then, I have written many more pieces with this approach including Schematics which tries to draw attention to the kinds of information we are digesting daily and how we digest it.

There is also the piece Ireland England. This piece, through sound and text (statistical, anecdotal and personal) examines all the reasons why Irish people travel to the UK, and I think at times it makes for quite a difficult experience.

I think I fall into the category of composer that thinks music can be about a little more than just sound. This might seem to be contradictory with what I’ve mentioned before when I talk about the importance of unadorned sound, and extended singular ideas; though I would argue that it is precisely this approach to composition that really allows the mind to become focussed, enabling the composer to imbue the music with meaning and maybe even instigate change in the mind of the listener.

With these kinds of pieces I’m trying to demonstrate what the results of a particular approach to composition might be if certain criteria are followed. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s going to be interesting for some people, it’s going to be uninteresting or boring for others, but that’s OK. We all have to co-exist and deal with each other. At the end of the day, we’re all just here saying hello, this is how I see the world… and maybe it will resonate with you too.

Published on 9 January 2019

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama.

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