The BBC Music Magazine Interview
Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe talks to James Naughtie
As I sit down to talk to Sean Shibe, I notice a large music case under the table. But it doesn’t look as if it contains the acoustic guitar that I might have expected. ‘That’s my Strat,’ he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, the shooting star of the classical guitar world spends a good deal of time with his Fender Stratocaster. You can spot it on the cover of his new recording softloud, sharing the space with classical guitar, lute and a set of drums any rocker would be proud of. The truth is simple. Shibe is a child of his time. ‘Life’s too short,’ he says. ‘We have to be ambitious. I want to be as adventurous as I can.’
The album juxtaposes acoustic and electric guitar, Scottish lute songs with a performance of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint that had the composer himself exclaiming that it’s ‘one of the best recordings of Electric Counterpoint ever! I thought I’d take a dutiful listen, and couldn’t take my headphones off…’ (Spoiler alert: this magazine’s review, published next month, agrees.) The Scottish guitarist has recently performed that electric Reich alongside Dowland and Bach, and new music by James Macmillan next to pieces originally scored for nine bagpipes. ‘Sounds absurd,’ says Shibe. ‘But it’s very successful.’ He’s in demand for performances across the genres – although the dread word ‘crossover’ never passes his lips – as well as the traditional staples of his instrument’s repertoire. He’ll be playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the spring.
Only 26, Shibe’s career is already on a steep trajectory. Six years ago, he became the first guitarist to be named a BBC New Generation Artist. He was nominated in the Instrumental category of this magazine’s 2018 Awards for his debut album, Dreams and Fancies. The Young Artist award from the Royal Philharmonic Society in May was another sign of what lies ahead. Yet what’s striking about
I’m still coming to the decision that I’ll always be a musician. There should always be a healthy doubt
his conversation, which is soft-spoken, thoughtful and questioning, is that he’s aware of the peculiarities of a life devoted to music. He sometimes still wonders why he is practising six hours a day. ‘I think I’m still coming to the decision that I’ll always be a musician. There should always be a healthy doubt, even though I know there’s no other thing that I can be doing,’ he reflects. ‘It’s only now that I’m starting to enjoy this on a deeper level.’
We speak in London, where Shibe lives in Goodenough College in Bloomsbury, which has been offering peaceful accommodation and inspiring company to post-graduate students for more than half a century, an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. The atmosphere is easy and yet shot through with a commitment to academic seriousness. In addition to his practice schedule, Shibe has a rigorous exercise regime, and is concentrating on learning properly his mother’s native language, Japanese. ‘My pronunciation is quite good, apparently, but my grammar is awful,’ he says. That takes time and concentration when the guitar is put away.
Most of his life so far has been spent in Edinburgh, his home city. Both
Shibe’s parents are musical. His mother is, as mentioned, Japanese, his father an Englishman who was transplanted to Scotland as a boy. Shibe grew up surrounded by all kinds of songs and sounds. There was, for example, a good deal from the Scottish folk tradition – Dick Gaughan is a favourite of his father’s – and the reason he first picked up a guitar, aged seven, was a matter of luck. ‘My mother saw a guitar in the window of a music shop on her way to work. Simple as that. My sister had started to learn to play the piano, so there was lots of music around. My mother was very musical anyway, and my father passionate about it. That started it all.’
Shibe went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and then with Paolo Pegoraro in Italy. When talking about inspirations, he mentions John Williams but it’s Julian Bream who gets top billing. For a couple of generations, certainly in this country, it was Bream who opened up the guitar and lute repertoire, showing how much could be done. Shibe, mind you, isn’t one to be utterly in awe. ‘I’m told that maybe 90 per cent of his concerts had a bit of car crash in them. The other 10 per cent of course was incredible.’ What sort of car crashes did he have in mind? ‘Technical problems. Just faltering at the wrong moment. And the reason is easy to understand. As a performer he was pushing himself to the limits to achieve the depth of colour he was aiming for – stretching the technical heights beyond where they wanted to go – and so there were places where even he was bound to fall. But what a musician!’
The pressure to reach even higher is always there in a musician of quality.
Yet Shibe believes the stresses on young musicians now are tougher even that those existed for the Bream generation. ‘People are pushed into too many competitions for one thing. It doesn’t help,’ he says.
Shibe is also conscious of the limitations of the guitar – what he calls its ‘deficit’. ‘The deficit is in the guitar’s volume, of course, and the difficulty of sustained projection,’ he explains. ‘You also find that only a few first rank composers wrote for the instrument. There’s a vast 19th-century repertoire, but I think it’s fair to say most of it comes from composers of the second or third rank. It’s hard to find the big pieces.
‘Then there are the venues. They can’t be too big. It’s a simple as that. Wigmore Hall is about the largest that can take the guitar. It’s a special place, but all the time you’re aware that you’re dealing with an instrument that doesn’t want you to push it too far.’
A young virtuoso, therefore, has to find ways of compensating for that deficit. ‘The joy that I’ve discovered is in the fabulous colours in the instrument, and the way you can use them to create illusions,’ he says. And that’s a constant theme. Life for Shibe is really about working out how to make the most of the instrument he loves.
‘Getting back to Bream, he’s been the leviathan. Think of Dowland and all the lute music that’s now played all over the place. He started that. And he commissioned composers to write for the instrument,’ says Shibe. ‘For my next recording I’m going to be working with pieces that were written for the clarinet and oboe – there’s so much of that to be used. Piano music is obviously more
‘The joy that I’ve discovered is in the fabulous colours in the instrument’
difficult – the textures and so on – but basically there’s a broad range that suits the instrument. Finding it is an adventure.’
Part of that expedition is a collaboration with contemporary composers. ‘I’ve got seven or eight I’m working with to try to get something on the go, and I’m pretty positive about that.’
It’s telling that Shibe has chosen to record with Delphian, an independent label based near Edinburgh. ‘Often the choices the big labels make are smart.
But I feel that one of the reasons I don’t want to go there is that it’s what you would expect me to produce. It’s what everyone is producing,’ says Shibe, who has strong ideas on the changing fate of his instrument. ‘The guitar is especially prone to the forces of populism. It seems the first instrument to fall to commercialised classical music. The reasons sound noble – wider audiences and so on. But often what happens is that “accessibility” becomes a veneer for profit.’
His individuality and determination are obvious. If he can’t craft a path for himself that is distinctive and satisfying you suspect that he might think about some different kind of career. ‘Looking ahead, there are a couple of different things,’ he says. ‘There’s music that I love – Britten, Bach: all the lute suites – that’s one. Another direction is what I think of as the easy route of Spanish repertoire. But part of the solution to my frustration has to lie in exploring more unusual territory. In terms of the next album it’s not a final destination but it’s definitely a direction.’
It will certainly involve more side-byside performances with his Stratocaster. ‘I’ve been discovering new sounds and new experiences. The classical guitar has the limitation we’ve been speaking about. I suppose I’m implying that the electric guitar is a much more literal instrument – you press a pedal to turn up the volume and it responds. There’s a tangible manifestation. The classical guitar is an instrument that’s vastly contrapuntal. Electrics are more linear and sustained, doing something totally different. But my Strat over there is a very versatile one, and that’s the thing. I want one that does many different things.’
Shibe has approached his career in a way that’s measured – there isn’t a long list of tiring concert tours for the sake of it – but that is also full of the exciting and unexpected. The reaction to his early recordings has been enthusiastic, even ecstatic. ‘Not just great guitar playing, but for two members of this year’s jury the best they had ever heard,’ said one of the BBC Music Magazine Award judges. A conversation with him would convince anyone about the seriousness with which he’s trying to carve out a repertoire that will stretch him and his instruments. Being a fine player of the familiar repertoire is never going to be enough.
He speaks of ‘healthy doubt’ and you sense it whenever he speaks about the guitar. He believes in it – loves it – but still has to discover for himself, by his own effort, exactly what it can do.
BBC Radio 4’s James Naughtie meets the exceptional British guitarist who refuses to take his career for granted, but who is taking care to explore every musical avenue available to him
Sound respect: ‘the guitar doesn’t want you to push it too far’
Amplified thoughts: ‘the electric guitar is a more literal instrument’