“Last month Pierre R. Schwob, the founder of Classical Archives, called me and said, “You really should listen to music written by a young American composer named Sean Hickey. You can find some on Classical Archives.”
I followed Pierre’s advice. The first piece of Sean’s that I listened to was Left at the Fork in the Road, a composition for flute, clarinet and bassoon. I realized immediately that I was hearing music of extraordinarily high quality. As I listened to more of his works, I realized that Sean’s music was taking me somewhere completely new. I discovered a composer whose works are humorous, accessible (in the best sense of the word), meticulously crafted, fulfilling, and genuinely important.
Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation that I had with Sean.
Barry Lenson: The bio on your website states that you started out as a jazz guitarist. Now you have composed a large body of remarkably beautiful and complex works for various chamber ensembles, singers, piano, and even full-blown concertos for solo instruments and orchestra. How did all that happen?
Sean Hickey: I grew up playing the guitar from age 12 and studied jazz in college, first at Oakland University and then at Wayne State University for two and half years, before switching to composition. During that time, I got to meet and spend time with a lot of my fellow students. I was a decent improviser and a horrible sight-reader – and still am – while my colleagues often had the opposite problem (if you could call it that). I began by writing short works for solo instruments and grew away a bit from performing in general as well as jazz. I was in a successful band and, between regional touring and composing works, I gave a bit less time to practicing guitar. By the time I switched to Wayne State, I became a composition major, studying primarily with James Hartway and James Lentini. Both were tremendous teachers and are extremely talented composers. Both deserve to be better known. I kept studying jazz guitar with Steve Carryer through college.
Sean: I must say there is generally no formula. Often a title of a piece happens to come first, or sometimes a general shape presents itself to me. But more often than not, I struggle with staring at the blank page and feeling miserable. But many of my works begin with a simple gesture and that gesture, shape or cell often pervades a piece, or a movement of a piece, for a long time. Left at the Fork in the Road, the first movement of my Clarinet Concerto, Pied-a-terre, Cursive, Avatar and several works were born that way.
I generally find the process slow, methodical and tough to reconcile with my desire to complete a meaningful piece of music. But at some point – and this almost always happens – I find a breakthrough and can often finish a movement or piece in a matter of evenings, writing pages and trying to discard some of which seems to be too much of a good thing: inspiration I suppose. I don’t know. That’s a thrilling time of course, and often one when I function on a bit less sleep.
Of course, I tinker for a long time afterward, at the piano and at the computer, and have to draw the line somewhere and be content with a work being done. I tallied up the places in which I worked on a large orchestral piece over a period of two years. It added up to some twenty cities on two continents. Here’s to hoping that it all holds together.
Barry: Can you pick one of your compositions and share its story – how it happened?
Sean: They all have a different story of course, but I would share the story of a work premiered in 2014 for piano quintet, titled Terroir. Commissioned by the astounding pianist, Xiayin Wang and the legendary Fine Arts Quartet (with financial support from International Performing Artists), the three-movement piece is in many ways one of my more traditional works, and in my opinion my best. I was giving a brief lecture to the composition class at my alma mater, Wayne State University, and asked if I could borrow a piano for an hour of work. I shut off my phone, took a look out the window at wintry Detroit, and came up with the line and the two alternating chords, sketching out most of that movement in that hour, and making fairly concrete plans for the other two. The entire piece took five months to write and the premiere at New York’s Merkin Hall went off beautifully.…”