'We are spending too much time sitting around thinking and not enough time doing.' An interview with Seán Clancy

‘We are spending too much time sitting around thinking and not enough time doing.’ An interview with Seán Clancy

Seán Clancy brings his live electronic performance with multiple synthesisers and text projection to No Frontiers. This work explores how conceiving of, and composing a piece of music can take a long time – we wanted to find out why…

Please tell us a little about your live performance on multiple synthesisers and what is involved to make it happen.

For my No Frontiers performance, I will be performing an ambiguously notated score that focuses on very carefully selected pitches and voice-leading called Schematics Book 1. I will be performing on a Make Noise 0 Coast, Moog Mother 32, Yamaha DX, OP-1, PO-12, PO-32, and Korg SQ 1 all going through Boss DD6 and Stymon Blue Sky pedals, and mixed using a Behringer Xenyx 802. The performance will be a little over an hour long and includes text projects of things I have been collecting from the same source on the Internet between June 2016 and March 2017. Some aims I have for this current branch of practice, is for me to create art that can be done for little or no cost (after a small investment on my behalf) and as a means to establishing a dynamic where the audience have space to think and potentially change as a result.

In the blurb for this event, it says; ‘Conceiving of, and composing a piece of music can take a long time.’ Why does it take this long?

It takes a long time, because a lot of work is involved! We all work in different ways, but for me at least, my pieces tend to start with a concept which I will try and articulate through the musical object. It takes a long time to refine and critically evaluate the concept, and it takes a long time to work and re-work the musical material and structure until it is absolutely perfect. Specifically for this piece, the process was long because the concept meant I was collecting texts from July 2016 – March 2017 (the piece is not yet finished!). I also had to teach myself more about synthesis and also have to practice as a soloist. Also, no different to any of my other pieces, the musical material was constantly reworked until I was completely happy with it. This part of the process was only finished last week, and now I need to find the time to practice!

When was the last time someone asked you; ‘What took you so long?’ and why did they ask?

More or less every week from an unnamed colleague and usually because I’m always 5-10 minutes late finishing up classes. My discussions can sometimes ramble on!

Is a piece of music ever finished?

I like the wandelweiser idea of composition being a stopping point rather than an end point. If one were to subscribe to this idea, then a piece of music is of course never finished. Performers are always finding beautiful ways to re-evaluate compositions, and from this perspective a work can be endless, but of course recording can change this and add a degree of finishedness to a work or collection of songs etc. My new piece Schematics Book 1 however, has a touch of the ‘stopping point’ mentality to it. Each performance can yield different results, and in this respect it will only be finished when it is… ‘finished.’  

This year’s festival’s them is ‘breaking down barriers with music’ – How do you think music helps to break down barriers?

This is a difficult one for me as I find often that music, like everything else that humans are involved in, can actually create barriers. Think about all the aesthetic arguments, and shade throwing that happens in contemporary classical music today (and probably throughout history), think about east coast/west coast rap in the 90s, think about hair rock v grunge, Disco v Rock in the 70s, Blur v Oasis! The list is endless. As soon as humans can think about something, we’re fairly interested in drawing up borders and figuring out who is like us, and who is the other. I find this attitude very difficult, but of course I have to find ways of dealing with it or countering it, and I try and do this both through my teaching and sometimes my music. To go back to the question, all I can really say is that for me personally, music has afforded me to opportunity to travel to, and meet people from pretty much every region in the world, from many, many diverse backgrounds. What gives me hope that barriers can be broken, is the strength of this musical community, and what people can create in the face of adversity.

Please name someone you admire artistically and in what ways do you think their work has broken barriers?

I’d admire many, many people artistically, too many to mention here, but I don’t really think that too many artists have broken down barriers. This is more the work of humanitarian workers, civil rights protesters, and dare I say it, people who work in politics. I think the role of the artist is not necessarily to break barriers (non-artistic ones at least), but to draw people’s attention to certain things and to make people think, and possibly change as a result of this process.

As a composer in 2017, do you feel a responsibility or particular impetus to represent or reflect current social or political issues?

This is a difficult question, I’ve always preferred art which is abstract, and essentially just creates space for one to think and reflect upon the bigger questions of existence etc. In the past, I have also had problems with pieces that pontificate about this issue or that issue. However, maybe the last few years have taught us that we are spending too much time sitting around thinking and not enough time doing. I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need to express radical politics in art (I don’t really think this is possible), but maybe we shift our focus a little bit and draw peoples attention to different issues, maybe we can become more active in our communities outside of our practice, maybe we work harder to stamp out xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny etc. My music is always a reflection of what I am thinking about, and since current social and political issues are at the forefront of my mind, they’re bound to end up somewhere in my pieces. This piece for frontiers may be an example of this.

Has your work in any way been compromised by an unaccountable bureaucrat in Brussels?

Not at all! I used to spend a lot of time in Brussels and some of my friends there were in fact Eurocrats (they have since moved on). They have been nothing but supportive of my work and career. Some of my best pieces were written there! On a side note, one of the most rewarding projects I have ever been involved in was the EU funded IICS in which each year three students from BCU were selected to travel to a city in Europe to work with other students from other European Universities and created artistic pieces in tandem with a community in the chosen city. It was a brilliant project and beneficial to staff, students and the communities. Sadly now, if/when Brexit goes ahead, our students won’t have opportunities like this again.

The answer is; ‘I can’t answer that for legal reasons’. What is the question?

‘Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through,’ discuss…


A Live Performance on Multiple Synthesisers with Text Projection of a Piece Called Schematics Book I takes place at Centrala on Thursday 30 March at 9pm. 

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