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The Classical Station’s interview with Sean Shibe for Preview!

Interview with Sean Shibe
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: © Kaupo Kikkas)

Sean Shibe in a red shirt standing in front of a blue wall with windows and a door (all blue), holding his guitar case.

Guitarist Sean Shibe recently released his new album, ‘Lost and Found’, an experimental ambient album with electric guitar arrangements spanning across centuries. With performances at Wigmore Hall and the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, as well as an upcoming performance with Hallé Orchestra, Sean Shibe is a guitarist to watch. To start off Sean Shibe’s interview with The Classical Station, Music Director Caleb Gardner broke the ice with a discussion of the truly important things in life: the upcoming season of the television show Rick and Morty. Afterward, they launched into a discussion of the difference between performing and recording.

SHIBE: You have to be a lot more precise when recording. I know that among my colleagues, there are different approaches to this. Because I’m quite a neurotic person, when I’m in the studio I’m very specific. I’m trying to execute something that I believe I’ve perfected, so I have to be super well-prepared. I know that a lot of my colleagues treat it as a playground, experimenting with different musical ideas. I have been able to work that way in partnership with other people, but when it comes to my own solo output, I am rigorous in what I put together.

Shibe is also very involved in the production process of recording an album.

SHIBE: My previous label referred to me as a self-producer. So they do have somebody in the box, but we move on when I say we move on. That’s the only way that I’m really happy with what I’m putting out. There were discs in the past where I was sent everything and selected from each of the 300 to 400 takes. I was able to decide which material would go where. I think that’s probably the best way to go about it, it’s just incredibly time intensive and you’re working at the rate of something like an hour of work per minute of collected audio. It’s just not very replicable if you’re on the road touring and releasing multiple CDs in any one year, but it is something that I found intensely gratifying at the time.

Classical guitarist Julian Bream has served as an inspiration to Shibe, who finds meaning in Bream’s live concerts.

SHIBE: Very few people have come close to the same range of tonal palette that Julian Bream had at his best. What I respect about him is the degree of risk in every performance. I never saw him live, but he was widely reported to give concerts where just 10% of it was really amazing work. Bream was not the most consistent performer, but I think that’s because using a lot of color is something that involves a huge amount of technical risk.

He was basically sacrificing consistency at the altar of this mission. Over the last 20 years, with the proliferation of guitar competitions, we’ve lost that risk and the pursuit of something, and that’s sad. Julian Bream represents an ideal which has been lost; there’s a vulnerability and a humility, but also there’s a nobility, in that pursuit.

The discussion of Julian Bream brought the conversation around to the history of electric guitar as opposed to classical guitar playing.

SHIBE: My approach to electric guitar is linked to what it can do for classical music, and the extent to which it encourages composers who aren’t interested in writing for the classical guitar to engage with the guitar’s instrument in its electrified form. There’s not much precedent for that. In classical music, the adoption of new instruments takes a long time and requires changes in the world; in 30 years, the structures of classical music will adapt to it. I’m trying to do something that I don’t think has been done very much before.

It’s a different world now than it was when Julian Bream was performing, with social media demanding more attention and offering more distractions.

SHIBE: Social media has definitely changed my practice schedule for the worse. I have the attention span of a very capable goldfish. I don’t think it’s good. Classical music is a long form, something that is irreducible to 3 minutes, let alone 30 seconds. I look at the pupils that I have who are just out of high school, and I do think it’s really changed their approach–the way they think about music and the goals that they have. Julian Bream grew up in a time when public broadcasting corporations were expected to act in the public benefit, uplifting and educating. They’d have 2-hour masterclasses live from his house, broadcast on prime time national television. It’s as unthinkable as something like Leonard Bernstein’s classes for children would be in the present day.

The public interest in classical music depends on the way the government treats art structures and funds them, and the priority that classical music is given within the education system. So I’m optimistic for classical music in countries where it is supported by the government, and I’m not where it is not. I was just at the Schleswig-Holstein festival in Germany and they have 170 concerts across their state, and that occupies a space of about eight weeks. So it’s a very large scale festival. I think that to build up a listenership and a genuine public interest in classical music, you need to have an unapologetically serious education in classical music from a very early age.

Caleb Gardner asked one final question, interested in knowing how Sean Shibe sees his future in classical music.

SHIBE: I want to record and write the classical guitar repertoire that we know and love, and the familiar stuff that sells well, but I want to do the other weird stuff as well. If you can prove you can play the canon it brings a seriousness to the other things that are more out there, the commissioning, the contemporary music, the improvisation–it grounds it all, in essence. So you’re always playing the game of trying to contextualize the canon in such a way that we are able to see through the auras of prestige and status that these pieces have. The degree to which we are successful in framing these pieces so that they seem new is the degree to which classical music will maintain its relevance through the 21st century.

Sean Shibe’s interview airs at 7 p.m. on Sunday, November 13. Join The Classical Station for Preview! every week at 7 p.m. eastern. You can listen online at TheClassicalStation.org, on 89.7 FM, or on the App.