The BBC Mu­sic Magazine In­ter­view

Scot­tish gui­tarist Sean Shibe talks to James Naugh­tie

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: RICHARD CAN­NON

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’

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