Sean Quinn, Composer

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

It was upon hearing a double-feature of the ELISION Ensemble in Melbourne that I truly fell into the throws of the musical language that I use now, and I avidly follow their work and those who work with them. I’ve gone through many phases in my short but fast-moving career. Anything from Darmstadt modernism, minimalism, graphic scores and electronics and everything in-between; as soon as I got into the real world of composing I knew I had to try everything I could to decide what worked for me, and by no means have I found that definitive, mysterious ‘voice’ that we all search for. But the aesthetics of ELISION’s ‘Soundhouse’ and other ensembles and composers surrounding the boundaries of contemporary music certainly drove me towards my current line of thinking.

“Who” has a much broader answer, but of course names like Liza Lim and Rebecca Saunders come to mind as immediate influences, particularly in relation to my methods of notating music. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely approach music differently to those composers, but I have drawn upon some of their methods in my own manner of relative manipulation of elements. I think also the music of Chaya Czernowin has taught me a great deal about the idea of ‘abandon’ and ‘non-conformity’ in the best sense. Also understanding my music from every angle; knowing how to unpack the music from the opening title through to the final barline, and being definitive about my approach/what I strive for in music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Patience. A virtue that I unfortunately don’t have a lot of. I’ve never really wanted to wait for things to happen, and neither does my brain. I say patience – or more definitely, being patient – because of the expectation that composers wait until they’re well into their lives to begin their careers. I’ve never liked the idea of an ‘emerging composer’ title, as it suggests that once one is no longer emerging they are not learning or developing any longer. Even in the space of the past year, with pandemic pandemonium placing us all into lockdown – and a particularly harsh one at that in Melbourne – I had a lot of time to contemplate and write, which was both cathartic and existentially terrifying. The very essence of my process, involving contact and immersion in music, had been completely yanked away. Nonetheless, I don’t think I would be in the position – whatever position that is presently – had I not been given that time and space to work and been thrust into the online-international sphere as I was during the lockdown period, and I feel very fortunate to have had these opportunities to work so widely with people.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Commissions are both wonderful and woeful, more the former than the latter. It’s the expectation and deadline that presses on me often when I’m working on a specific piece. Right now I’m working on a number of works with quite broad briefs, which can be exciting but also poses challenges around channelling ideas into a single work and not going overboard with details, or as Brian Ferneyhough put it, ‘keep a couple of instruments in reserve’. There are different challenges one must overcome with either kind of commission, be it hyper-specific or completely open, one must learn to adapt quickly to situations. One of the deepest pleasures however is that of conception; dreaming-up new plans and ideas and then seeing them come to life on the page. The process of going from brain to hands to pen to paper is electrifying!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Though I can’t speak for orchestral experience, I know from my work in solo and chamber music that everything comes down to that first conversation that one has with a group/performer. Revealing the human/s behind the musicians can be tricky, especially via Zoom. But the manner in which one relates to their performers and trusts them is crucial to any process of working. That is something that I am a little afraid of when it comes to larger scale projects; that trust is liquidated into the reality of rehearsal time being limited. But also the conversations had after rehearsals over coffee or wine are always an immensely satisfying experience, especially with people who you consider as idols. I’m not one to fanboy or grovel at people’s feet, but I do enjoy the aspects of socialising as part of my job as a composer; not only in a purely transactional sense, but as a human talking to a human. Many conversations can be life changing, especially with my contemporaries – both performers and composers – who are working in both alike and opposing fields as we uncover, debate and put the world to rights. Probably the most exciting part of my work generally!

Of which works are you most proud?

That’s tough. I like to take pride in all my work, but often with a hint of self-loathing in the mix to balance it out, haha.

My first foray into proper chamber music came from a commission by the German-based up and comers Ensemble Zeitstoff, a group of students who have invested their lives in making new music together. The work I wrote for them, waiting for voice and mixed quartet, possessed a new approach to the compositional voice that has started to form over the past 12 months; new uses of form, a broader use of text – also written by myself – as well as getting my head around the mind-bending instrumentation of the ensemble, saxophone, piano, tuba, percussion and a versatile vocalist/violinist. We’re continuing to work closely as a cohesive unit, and many exciting things await!

I couldn’t not mention of course the opportunity that put me on the map so to speak; the work incubation that I wrote for Richard Haynes as part of his revival of the ghosts of motion project. having the chance to write for such a wonderful player and person, and to have a recording on an album released was just insane! I was so deeply honoured to have been chosen for that opportunity, and would have to say that work has been one of my chuffing moments as a composer. The commission gave me a lot of space to work with the instrument in a very defined language, which is reflected in its heft and stylistic emanation. I will be forever indebted for Richard’s work with me and the opportunities that have arisen from that work done.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It can vary depending on a variety of vectors. I think of myself as a bit of a chameleon; changing my skin based on emotional/psychological states. Generally my music looks at ideas around physicality and human reactivity. More recently I’ve been exploring the concept of notation representing a physical intent rather than a concrete result. Areas around harmonics and multiphonics; gritty, earthy sounds are often what I’m drawn to and the various methods in which I can achieve them. Also looking at intent as being something to do with a personal experience of the score. I spoke a little about the importance of trust, which is prudent to the perceptions of my current language, often centred on giving performers as much information as I can in my scores to achieve “a sound”. Whatever that sound is based on the forces/filters that act upon a single gesture, that is what the audience will experience in any case which may vary vastly from performance to performance. Usually I am fairly liberal with my understanding of rhythm and areas such as microtonality, all of which are used as a means of implying a transformation or transfiguration (longer reactions vs more immediate reactions) to the material I provide. All performers, instruments, environments (etc.) are different, and possess different psychological implications. Thus I tend to be very flexible, though more definitive when I need to be.

How do you work?

Pen and paper are my main tool. I started on notation software and found that it only frustrated me having to wrangle with the software for hours on end to little effect, as well as feeling that the software was beginning to write the music for me in some ways. I have been working on manuscript since high-school and typing it into software, and eventually decided that I needed to just work with one or not at all. Improving my handwriting has been a part of what I think as my ‘practice’ as a composer/musician. Just as performer does scales and studies, I work through pages and pages of manuscript trying to do my best work – sometimes to the detriment of my printer – and of course white-out [Tippex] comes in very handy.

I’ve also started working purely with pen rather than pencil and then recopying. Though I love a good ‘rewrite’ session, it has allowed me to be more definitive about the way I work, and slows down – not by much but somewhat – my process of making choices. It also gives me more satisfaction working in this way and working with performers, and have found it to be more organic and honest in presenting the grit of my practice to anyone who receives my scores. Notation is personal, it’s dirty, it’s human; and that’s what I love about working with my hands.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I’m not really sure to be honest. It ebbs and flows in the classical world. I think being busy/having something to do shows degree of success. Of course, getting put onto Symphony Orchestra seasons and being commissioned by ensembles and soloists of international renown is gratifying, but can dry up quickly unless one is consistent with their approach to creativity. To me success is knowing that what you’re doing isn’t just making yourself happy, it’s about making others happy too; and vice versa. Giving people experiences of learning and listening are some of the most exciting prospects of my job as a composer, and if someone walks away from that experience emotions – be it vehement distaste or absolute joy – that to me is success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For all who aspire, I say immerse yourself. Go to concerts, talk to other musicians of many different fields, watch masterclasses (live/online) of a variety of differing perspectives, read books/articles on people and their work and find your crowd. Having a wide base knowledge of the industry is imperative to becoming embedded in the fabric of it.

For those currently musicking: Listen to the world around you, but know when to put the mute button on. Gather as much information as you can through your learning, but always be sure to take time away from composing/playing/performing. Artists will always run into burnout, but finding ways of coping and deferring its clutches are key to survival. I often find taking time away from music altogether and looking into other art-forms, such as galleries, dramatic arts and film can always bring me back to my music making more hungry than ever.

Strive for everything, be ruthless with your choices and don’t let ANYONE tell you who to be or what to do… within reason 😉

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

I’m not one to think about audiences that much anymore, but personally I think programming has a lot to do with audiences. Programming teams seem to have an idea of the ‘classics’ from the 18th/19th century canon being what people want to hear, which is far from the truth. Humans long for new and exciting experiences. That doesn’t mean throw all the Brahms, Mahler and Beethoven in the bin, it just means programme less of it, or look into more obscure corners of the repertory; broaden people’s palettes of understanding. Balance it out with more music from the 20th/21st century, especially in regards to a wider range of aesthetics and people, but not just for the sake of it. Encourage repeat performances of works; so many works, especially in the orchestral world, fall into obscurity because they are played once and never again. Give this music a life, and let the audience engage with it. Create legacy for the adjacent generations of music to parallel that of the classical canon.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Hopefully writing more music for fantastic performers, and hopefully living somewhere in Europe.

What is your most treasured possession?

A mechanical sharpener that belonged to my Mum’s grandfather, and has been used in many generations of working. I use it and fondly think of the power it puts in my hands to create every day.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing! It’s my job, my hobby, my passion. Music runs through me, and I will never not enjoy making music with and for people!

What is your present state of mind?

Ravenous, erratic, ecstatic, determined!


Described as ‘protean’, ‘formidable’, ‘innovative, thorough, precise and imaginative’, Sean Quinn is a composer and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. His compositional voice is driven by a sense of constant metamorphosis; music that learns, adapts and reacts to itself and its surroundings, featuring nestings of various elements, extremes of range and aptitude as well as highly gestural approaches to rhythm. It has often been described as ‘intricate’ and ‘poetic’, but also delves into darker, ‘writhing’ and intensely intimate elements of musicality.

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July 4th, 2021 – Sean Quinn http://www.seanquinncomposer.com

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