A Musical Portrait of Sean Shepherd
The Scharoun Ensemble presents a portrait-in-progress of the gifted young American composer Sean Shepherd, currently the Deutsche Bank Fellow and in-house composer at the American Academy in Berlin, including the premiere of an octet newly composed for the virtuoso group. Trained at The Juilliard School, Cornell University, and Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts - the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - 28 year-old Shepherd presents his recent works from 2005 onward. Included are works from musical friends and heroes, such as American composer Jacob Druckman and from France, Marc-André Dalbavie, in a program in which the abstract and the lyrical confront each other in a variety of contexts and instrumental configurations, from solo works to the full octet.
The following is the musical program of the evening:
Lumens (2005) Sean Shepherd (1979-)
Preludes (2005) Sean Shepherd
Tactus (1996) Marc-André Dalbavie (1961-)
the birds are nervous, the birds have scattered (2008) Sean Shepherd
Aperture in Shift (2006) Sean Shepherd
From “Reflections on the Nature of Water” (1986) Jacob Druckman (1928-1996)
Octet (2008) Sean Shepherd
I. And sometimes the sea poured brillant iris on the glistening blue
II. A too-fluent green suggested malice
III. Sovereign clouds came clustering
IV. The perplexed machine
The below are descriptions of various pieces performed. The initials S.S. are Sean Shepherd's.
This piece is, for me, about gratitude. Although it’s not easy for me to say for what, specifically, I am grateful, or why I needed to create an expression of it. Beyond the obvious—an opportunity to write for a group I know and whose membership I admire—my impressions as relayed toward this piece were more general. In short, I feel that I have much to be thankful for, and I am ever surprised as the positive elements in my life continue to accumulate in ways I can’t always understand. As I see it, gratitude doesn’t have to be sentimental or saccharine, or even an outward expression. And much music has been borne of angst, pain and fear. But, as we find our place in the world, one can’t help but admire the beautiful random framework- events, people, places- that never fails to aid us in our journey but can never be controlled nor predicted. When I was writing the piece I confided to friends and fellow composers that it might be (among certain people and for lots of reasons, the ultimate taboo!) “pretty” and that I was worried about it. But ultimately for me, this music wasn’t about those worries. For now, this is a feeling I can’t seem to shake, and that gave me something to say. – S.S.
Lumens was commissioned by Ensemble X and premiered on February 11, 2006.
While Sean Shepherd has composed several works incorporating the piano, this is his first for piano solo. Each of the three preludes explores a different mood as well as a different approach to the instrument. The first is spacious and pensive, exploring the possibilities of sonority from the scarcely audible to the fullest fortissimo. A couple of brief outbursts punctuate a general feeling oftimelessness, and the final outburst tells us a brief but important message, as if chiseled in stone, before receding back into nothingness. The second piece, to my ears, has echoes of some of Debussy’s pricklier preludes. It is fleet and humorous, with occasional grotesque jabs, and it leads to a surprising quotation (as Debussy’s Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C.). Although youdefinitely are familiar with it, you may not realize what it is until it is virtually over—which is the point of this charade. The third prelude is a delicate tapestry of sound. As if there are two separate pianos at work, a second, interloping idea—consisting of a massive, snail-paced single-note melody — works at cross purposes with the first. As in the first prelude, there is a moment of truth near the end, after which the previously heard material can never be resumed. It is both a chilling and poetic conclusion. – Aaron Wunsch
Aperture in Shift
I’m constantly interested in intersections between music and the other arts, but searching for true and meaningful connections between my work in music and what I find in other media always been difficult for me. I find myself (for example) enraptured by certain (well, maybe many) works of contemporary architecture, and have tried to find ways to bring my inspiration to a musical canvas. It’s a notion certainly not without precedent—Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores (written in 1436 for the consecration of the Florence Cathedral) responds to the ratios of Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome in way that highlights the simple elegance and ingenious construction of both works. But I find these truly organically informed connections to escape my grasp as a creator for now, especially in our postmodern world – how does one viably represent contemporary architectural concepts like Plasticism through music? I remain stuck on that one – but plan to continue my quest on the larger question.
I do find one element in what artists of differing ilk share has to do with the process itself. Regardless of medium, it seems that for the artist, the work must exist in a sort of haze until complete. One really can’t know exactly how it will turn out, even with the best of planning and intention. An unfinished score is just as terrifying as a half-blank canvas to its creator. My mother is a photographer, and I have spent some time with her as she works. What impresses me most about a photographer’s work is the time spent in the darkroom – the act of realizing the creation. It’stremendously physical work, requiring dexterity and finesse, and must also happen in strictly allotted amounts of time (not unlike a realization of a piece of music), but it all happens in near-complete darkness. One can’t know what they have until they are completely done. Aperture in Shift is for me a study in light and dark (an aperture being an opening through which light passes, and an essential element in any camera); my own chiaroscuro encounter. – S.S.
the birds are nervous, the birds have scattered
When my good friends of the Trio Volans ensemble, whose members have premiered and performed my work on many occasions, approached me about a writing piece, I happily moved other projects around to oblige. Writing for those one knows and trust, musically and otherwise, is a true joy, and knowing the sounds of a particular player often leads the way to envisioning the course the piece for them will take. This piece was, however, unusually difficult for me to write, and I felt several times that I was composing for the first time. My creative wheels, although properly greased, still locked up. Consequently, this relatively short work – around 7 minutes – takes some twists and turns that, for me, were surprising. Any musical depiction involving birds makes any reference to the music of the French master Olivier Messiaen hard to avoid, so I didn’t try to avoid it. But while birdsong (Messiaen’s area of fascination) might be an obvious point of departure, I found myself meditating more on the idea of the flock. Any music that came about via these thoughts was purely coincidental: any connection to be found would be at a subconscious level. – S.S.
The titles from my Octet are taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens, Sea surface full of clouds. While writing the piece here at the American Academy in Berlin on the Wannsee, I told my fellow Fellows that I had a feeling that the piece I was writing had something to do with the color blue, and we started talking poetry. Ellen Levy and Ken Gross, both brilliant literary scholars, sent me running toward the water and the sky in all great directions, yet once I found these words, I kept returning to them. For each movement, I found the title at a different point of completion. Some were completely finished, some in the middle, and some started some musical possibilities for me. As titles go, these are not meant to provide anything that might be taken literally; a vague impression may, in the end, reveal more. – S.S.
In appreciation for a wonderful musical experience over the last week, I dedicate this piece to the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, with admiration and affection. The four movements are played without pause.