Reviews

‘The RTÉ Contempo Quartet takes the lunchtime slot with three widely contrasting items. Seán Clancy’s new piece for string quartet, Four Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop, (commissioned by RTÉ) gets its first performance today… This is an egalitarian exercise in writing equally for four instruments, maintaining momentum until the material finally fragments and falls away. The work that emerges is coolly abstract, its steady undulations evoking minimalism, before the texture breaks up to create a dynamic field of sonic interplay. The Contempo players vividly bring out its patterns and textures.
Michael Lee, March 9, 2017, Golden Plec

‘I was especially moved by the young Irish composer Sean Clancy’s“Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards.” Trite Hallmark-style phrases like “You Are 4” were projected on a screen, tracing life events from graduations to retirements to condolences. As greetings come and go, a flute, violin and piano play compact, beautifully simple yet elusive musical phrases. The piano part is similarly fixated on subtly changing themes.’
Anthony Tommasini, April 13, 2016, New York Times

‘The opening program at Scandinavia House contained a number of well-conceived pieces. Sean Clancy’s “Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards,” scored for piano, flute, and violin, and performed by members of Ensemble neoN, featured a slowly varying musical theme accompanied by projections of 55 phrases culled from greeting cards. Throughout, slight variations in the basic theme, particularly on the piano, quietly underlined the emotional arc of an average life. At first, it was bouncy and cutesy as the phrases announced the birth of a baby and subsequent young birthdays, followed by joyous occasions such as graduations, weddings, and new jobs. But, there were also sympathy messages marking the disappointments of life: careers and marriages lost, illness and, finally, death. For me, this was the most memorable piece of the entire festival.’
Steven Pisano April 26, 2016, Feast of Music

‘The piece de resistance was Sean Clancy‘s Fourteen Minutes on the Subject of Greeting Cards. Short titles from actual greeting cards were projected behind the trio of piano, violin and cello as variations on a brief series of cells unfolded dreamily, measure by measure, each with its own distinct time signature. Suddenly the infant is three, then he’s getting his license; woops, he’s had an accident. By now, it was obvious where this was going. Or was it? Hint: as a minimalist cavatina, it had brought MATA artistic director Du Yun to tears.’
Delarue, April 13, 2016, New York Music Daily

‘Seán Clancy’s Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards was entirely different. Written for flute, violin, piano, with the projection of various lines from greeting cards. The music is quiet, modest, with slow, sustained tones in the flute and violin, and equally slow, miniature phrases on the piano. The projection creates a narrative of life, from birth to death, and with the music the experience was a poignant lament.’
George Grella, April 13, 2016, New York Classical Review

‘The next piece, Seán Clancy’s Seven Lines of Music Slow Down & Eventually Stop, was briefly discussed by the composer. He is clearly enjoying working with this ensemble and had little to offer in the way of abstract introduction. The piece is what it is, and should sound like a machine slowly dying until it winds down to a point where it is only ‘fit for scrap’. The ensemble took a brief warming time with their instruments, which served to offset any tension before launching into a lush melodious landscape that wound and unwound itself around both players & listeners. The six instruments pulsed joyously. A mesmeric vibraphone line seized the attention for the early section, demarked personally by the music played between 152 (at the start of the piece) & roughly 110 BPM. A shift in the double bass line to the spaces between some of the other rhythms eased the mood into one of heightened emotion. Having read the sad news of an old friend’s death earlier in the evening, I had not begun processing it beyond the initial shock and reaction. My thoughts were brought to the incredibly strong & loving person that she was as this profound composition slowed to 100 BPM and lower. A huge empathy swelled from the music and I was carried away by the repetition. Human heart rates range from 100 – 60 BPM. As phrases stretched and relaxed toward the closing 48BPM mark, the corporeal slowing nature of ‘the machine’ referred to in Seán’s introduction had given rise to a feeling of the ideal as it calmed down to a gentle sleep rather than rotting to scrap.’
John Breslin, April 2016, New Dots

‘I had read the description for the second piece, Seán Clancy’s Seven Lines of Music Slow Down & Eventually Stop, before it started and I imagined being able to hear the effect of the transition from Dublin to Birmingham ‘without really knowing how one got there’ – this experience I can certainly relate to! The slowing down however was not what I had anticipated – it wasn’t a sad dwindling demise but a soft, expressive, sometimes insistent and enjoyable relaxation. When the stop came it was actually unexpected to me but it also felt satisfying and decisive.’
Lucy Anderson, April 2016, New Dots

‘For composers these days, emigration can be a matter of course, and wayfaring the new music circuit can entail, from one week to the next, bumping into the same person in a Glasgow basement and a Berlin spätkauf. How valid is it, then, still to label music according to national identity? These two new albums – each the debut release of a composer born in Dublin but based in England – have little else in common other than a healthy disregard for a ready- made Irish artistic identity.

Over the past few years, Seán Clancy (b. 1984) has been part of a new movement orbiting around the Birmingham Conservatoire’s composers (which also includes Joe Cutler, Ed Bennett and others). These composers share a record label and broadly similar compositional preoccupations; all that is needed to cement the group’s identity, it seems, is a name and a good old-fashioned polemical essay (preferably one rubbishing other compositional trends). Clancy’s recent musical output comprises works the titles of which specify their duration and subject, and it is as yet unclear whether these works form part of a particular series or whether this is now Clancy’s guiding aesthetic. In either case, Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football (2014) for electric guitar quartet is a stylish introduction to Clancy’s oeuvre.

This is in part down to its subject. Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football invokes a semi-mythical event in Irish cultural history: the famous 1–0 victory the Republic of Ireland football team secured over Italy in the USA ’94 World Cup, a high point of positive national feeling in contrast to the grimmer current economic reality. From a formal point of view, the entirety of Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football is modelled on the first half of that football game, with Ireland’s single, twelfth-minute goal marked by a standout musical event and the pitch content of the harmonic material at any given time determined by which team is on the ball at the corresponding moment in the game. In this way one could, if one felt like it, play the album and a video of the game along-side each other – as in the apocryphal story that one can listen to Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon simultaneously with watching the movie The Wizard of Oz (after smoking a joint, presumably).

Stylistically, Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football is a continuous weave that at times has a post-minimalist air and at times appears like a doppelgänger of post-rock. The guitar playing (executed with panache by the Swedish Ensemble Krock) is a mesh of ostinatos and arpeggios, melodic motifs and dyadic chimes; the time signature changes often – 5/4, 7/8, 4/ 4, 6/8 and so on; and there is frequent antiphony between the left and right stereo channels. The electric guitars play with a chorus signal-processing effect, with occasional moments, too, of distortion and what sounds like a very close delay effect. Whilst to call the work diatonic would be inaccurate – there are no cadence points or other traditional tonal apparatuses – there is always a tonal centre, albeit one often virtually implied rather than actually heard.

In seeking precedents for Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football one might cite previous compositions about sport like Honegger’s Rugby (1928), an orchestral representation of a game of rugby, or Kagel’s Match (1964), wherein two cellists situated at opposite ends of the stage act out a musical tennis match (with a centrally-based percussionist acting as umpire); at a stretch one could even go back to Pindar’s Odes. But this would be to miss the point. In thematising this particular game of football, Clancy’s work delves into Irish cultural memory, in which the game represents something deeper-felt. A nostalgic air is palpable. More proper comparisons, then, are with Barthes’s Mythologies (and its remarks such as ‘cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals’) and Warhol’s screen-prints of gaudily coloured cultural icons, equal parts sacred, seductive and superficial. The ‘pop’ element further informs the instrumentation and style, which, as I have said, mirror the post-rock of bands like Explosions in the Sky. Caveats about national designations notwithstanding, Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football does seem a major new ‘Irish’ composition.’
Liam Cagney, January 2016, Tempo 

‘Opening with a work by Sean Clancy, Ten Minutes of Music on the Subject of Furniture starts things off gently. Repetitive and atmospheric, the piece creates a wonderful ambience. The prepared piano also offers some interesting timbral characteristics to the work.’
Alice Goodwin, November 19, 2014, Golden Plec

‘The most striking pieces were saved for the end. Clancy’s work for flute, violin and piano is an “artistic intervention” on video artist David Theobald’s Deepest Sympathy and “offers a biography of an unnamed protagonist from cradle to the grave, with all of their trials and tribulations neatly summarised in a collection of pithy phrases on greeting cards”. It is spare & hypnotic.’
Michael Dervan, April 23, 2014, Irish Times 

‘The subject of Seán Clancy’s Findetotenlieder is death. At least, that is one of its starting points. Clancy’s piece, which caps off his year as apprentice composer-in-residence with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), excerpts thirty lines from Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s Obit, a text collage pitched somewhere between or across bathos and pathos, which is comprised of selected lines from the obituary section of the New York Times. Clancy builds these excerpts into a structure of six sung verses, with short instrumental interludes between each verse.

In setting the texts to music Clancy can’t but help transform their effect. Music tends to the dramatic, or perhaps in a more basic sense simply to the intense, in a way that blank text on a page does not, notwithstanding music’s capacity for banality and text’s for profundity. As such, Clancy’s piece sometimes makes explicit a sense of grandeur that, depending on perspective, might not be as obvious in the original.

That being said, the Clancy nevertheless works in a broadly similar emotional field to the Orozco. Death, or more specifically the memorialisation of different lives defined-in-death, comes off less as the tragic or the sentimental phenomenon we usually encounter when death is put into dialogue with music, and more like the carnivalesque figure found in Ligeti and Beckett, although hints of the night are present here as they are there.

In Findetotenlieder Clancy is also playing with notions of artistic intervention (LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’, whose lyrics likewise concern death and memorialisation, is mined at the structural and sonic levels), and with the ‘death drive’ of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which is invoked musically through the use of repetition and textually in Clancy’s notes to the piece.

So Findetotenlieder operates across multiple resonating levels. Musically, it bears many of the hallmarks of Clancy’s mentor within the residency, David Lang. Brawny musical pulse accentuated by thumping bass drum bursting through bar lines, sharp and bright colours, and punchy shots from brass and strings all feature here.

However, Clancy’s world is a little stranger than Lang’s, despite the evident admiration in Findetotenlieder for proportion and harmony, even, dare I say it, for beauty, as credible aesthetic ends in themselves. The weirdness and terrifying nullity of jouissance, another concept from Lacan, is evoked here (though not as much as it might have been) by repetitions-too-far. This happens particularly in some of the interludes, although a more classical sense of dramatic form comes into play as the piece moves on. Clancy’s music seems still to be thinking through the relationship of balance and estrangement, both in affective and purely musical terms. If anything Findetotenlieder seems to come down in favour of the former.

The final two verses provide an emotional culmination, with soprano Susan Narucki enunciating clearly after her somewhat smudged delivery of the first few verses. Narucki announces an intense valediction on the lines ‘Made a kingdom of popcorn’ and ‘Lived in two worlds, white and black, both bitter’, with a forthright and potent BCMG sounding off around her.

The seeming incongruity of the former line of text points up an inherent dilemma for the piece; its text sometimes doesn’t seem as if it wants to be sung, at least not in such a straight, infra-narrative way as it is here. The problem is comparable to John Adams’ problem in Dr Atomic; namely, how to make non-poetic or dramatic text singable, musical, and sensical in and as a continuous dramatic narrative. This tension is sometimes unresolved in the Clancy, with lines bumping and running into each other seemingly without poetic or musical justification.

Having said that, the piece often achieves a productive tension between conventional expectations of music-dramatic narrative, and the actual absurdist, anti-narrative feel of the music as experienced. The exploration of tensions such as this — between found and original material, between narrative and rupture, particularly as these might be seen to correspond to elite and vernacular values, and between innovation and intervention — seems to be at the heart of Clancy’s enterprise as an artist.’
Stephen Graham, February 9th 2012, Journal of Music

‘“British cheese crusader”, “Prodigious Collector of Light Bulbs” – these were two of the entertaining newspaper obituary headlines heard in the evening’s new piece, Findetotenlieder. The composer, Seán Clancy, came across them in Gabriel Orozco’s artwork entitled Obit, and set them for soprano and ensemble. A promising idea, evoking the media’s fascination with the Lacanian death drive… As a result, the piece is often intriguing.’
Ivan Hewett, February 7th 2012, The Telegraph

‘Clancy is among a number of young Irish composers in the early stages of their careers sketching new contours for the face of Irish art music.

Clancy’s Findetotenlieder rejects any emotional or psychological representation in the soprano in favour of the Tristan Tzara, Burroughs-Gysin route of sifting through the myriad dead letters of the printed mass media: the departed leaving behind them here not the memory of a warm touch but a shroud of absurd phrases and images.

Findetotenlieder is well weighted formally, the use of contrasting ensemble forces over the six verses creating good balance. A trombone and trumpet duo opening bobs along on a hidden 4/4 pulse before the whole band joins in, driven by bass drum; later, Narucki’s bell-bright soprano lilted over a beautiful passage for string quartet. Between each movement the tonal discourse gets caught in a too-literal repetition of a given bar or phrase, communicating a feeling of dread which relates to the repetition-compulsion and death drive of psychoanalytic theory.’
Liam Cagney, February 6th 2012, Musical Criticism

‘His Findetotenlieder sets a text from visual artist Gabriel Orozco’s Obit, a collection of surreal descriptions culled from newspaper obituaries. A song by the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem is apparently implicated in Clancy’s settings, and they also owe something to Barry, as well as to his own teacher Howard Skempton and perhaps to Richard Ayres.’
Andrew Clements, February 5th 2012, The Guardian

‘Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has appointed Seán Clancy as Apprentice Composer-in-Residence for 2011.’ Read More
Birmingham Post, March 2nd 2011

‘In a rehearsal room, percussionist Julian Warburton is rehearsing a new work for solo marimba, under the eye of its composer, Seán Clancy. They are preparing for a concert at a school in Yardley as part of a series in which the group – known internationally for developing new music – brings performances to less affluent parts of Birmingham. The performance, says Warburton, will be “as serious as if we were playing at the Proms”.’
Charlotte Higgins, March 25th 2011, The Guardian

‘Seán Clancy’s Comedias Nuevas is an ambitious theatrical piece for three voices, which has the singers melodramatically throwing sheets of music in the air, chanting, clapping, mumbling, making animal noises, and crouching in contorted positions.
Michael Dervin, December 7th 2009, The Irish Times

‘The solemn atmosphere was initially continued with the opening of Seán Clancy’s Comedias Nuevas. The introduction of this work had the most interesting harmony of the night, held between the three voices as they articulated changing vowel sounds with their mouths. Music as a visual art was here being made manifest and explored, and the humour of the piece in the incomprehensible jabbering of the women was welcome.’
Liam Cagney, December 8th 2009, Musical Criticism

‘Seán Clancy’s A Plague on Both Your Houses, for solo bass, was like a throat-clearing, exploratory improvisation.’
Michael Dervin, August 27th 2009, The Irish Times

‘It was left to the final composition, however, to really justify that ‘‘rock band’’ accolade. Written by Paris based Sean Clancy, Whisper, Whisper, Whisper at last unleashed Crash on a thundering piece of dissonance that belied its title. Gyorgy Ligeti and Gerald Barry were in there somewhere. It’s not normal but it certainly makes you think.’
Sunday Business Post, December 7th 2008

‘The most orthodoxly avant garde was Whisper Whisper Whisper* (2007) by the youngest of the six composers, Seán Clancy…This gritty little essay in mechanised expressionism took the Crash players closest to mainstream chamber music.’
Andrew Johnstone, December 1st 2008, The Irish Times

‘But it takes the rhythmic vitality, stabbing pulse and ebullient directness of Sean Clancy’s sextet ‘Whisper, whisper, whisper’, with its wild piano interlude, to finally lift the funereal pall.
The audience reacts with whoops of approval.’
Pat O’Kelly November 29th 2008, The Irish Independent

‘This programme’s festival commission from Seán Clancy also had an extreme title, The Shrinking of the Aura With an Artificial Build Up (Not To Be Reproduced). The music was at its most interesting when building up patterns that created moiré-like effects.’
Michael Dervin, December 18th 2007, The Irish Times