and then you…
‘Released in celebration of his son’s first birthday, Seán Clancy’s And Then You… is a touching trip into minimalism and synthesis. Over the album’s three pieces, Clancy explores the emotions he went through as he entered fatherhood, how the experience changed his perception of the world, and how it brought into his life a feeling of love he didn’t believe to be possible.
The album’s first piece, ‘And Then You Came Into Existence’, was composed the night before his son’s birth. Its 28 minutes slowly expand as layer upon layer of electronic sound is introduced, including a motif in homage to Carl Stone’s Sonali. ‘And Then You Smiled’ was born out of a recording made on Clancy’s phone as he played bonangs during a break from teaching a university gamelan class. ‘And Then You Had Sleep Regression’ is also derived from a life recording, this time of Clancy singing his son to sleep, before broad drone strokes move around the faint baby gurgles heard in the background, enveloping the listener in a warm bed of sound.
It’s a delightful release, and one that captures three significant moments for the composer during the first year of his son’s life – birth, the feeling of distance when away for work, and closeness when soothing him to sleep. It all makes for an affecting reminder of minimalism’s capacity to feel deeply personal and purposeful. In a time where there’s more throwaway ambience being flung about than we know what to do with, an album like this is more than welcome.’
Eoin Murray, September 12, 2019, The Quietus
‘The pairing of Clancy with Katie Kim might not seem like an obvious one, and yet both straddle genre divisions consciously, Clancy in particular dividing his output between instrumental composition that frequently draws on pop/rock language and work with synths. Both seem fascinated by texture as a primary means of expression: Clancy in his sparkling-clear instrumental writing and his noisier electronic work, while Katie Kim’s songs constantly blur the distinction between organic and synthetic sources in a wash of sound. And, perhaps most importantly for this collaboration, each play with stasis and the suspension of time, Clancy through process works like Five Lines of MusicSlow Down and Eventually Stop, and Katie Kim through the slow constant pacing of songs, and a habit of burying her vocals deep within the overall texture.
The music on the Salt album is similar to the basement-recording sound established in her breakout album Cover & Flood (2012), but crystallised, with the sound of each track sounding like the result of a carefully-made decision rather than a musician figuring her way. As an album, Saltrealises its expressive goals more efficiently (with half the number of tracks) and is all the more striking for it.
Katie Kim’s songs are generally built around a simple instrumental idea, such as a guitar figure oscillating between two notes or a repeating sequence of piano chords. Over this base she builds a gently rolling musical texture, using multiple instrumental layers, processed ambient synths and sound washes, topped by her carefully processed vocal lines. She sings in a deliberately, almost affectedly gentle and whispered manner, using extreme cathedral-like reverbs and delays, allowing her vocal line to emerge to breathe only occasionally. The effect on the listener is of eavesdropping into a deeply personal, perhaps even internal musical monologue.
For Salt Interventions, Clancy brought a clarity of touch to instrumentation as well as an attractive lightness of gesture. Keeping the main instrumental guitar/piano motif at the heart of each song – played by Katie Kim – he created a series of instrumental ‘interventions’.
The opening tracks, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Day is Coming’ (a surprisingly heavy experience on the album), felt somewhat overwrought, however, with strings that swept up registers too easily, creating a sense of cinematic emotiveness that did not entirely feel true to the songs. In subsequent songs, the balance felt better. For the middle sequence of tracks (‘Someday’, ‘Body Break’, ‘I Make Sparks’), the instrumental arrangements were subtle: a pulsing clarinet echoing the bass line here, pizzicato colourations over a constant rhythm there, tiny percussion punctuations and barely-there string swells.
The Crash musicians made their presence felt in ‘Beautiful Human’ with harder edges, violin/viola motifs that come in and out over a ground of guitar and bass lines from the lower strings that could almost be called thumping, the whole piece sweeping ever upwards before sinking back down for the last two tracks. ‘Thieves’, despite being significantly more understated, was one of the most striking songs of the night, though little changed from its album version; a somewhat affectless song built of very simple gestures, it was supported by tremolo chords from the strings that injected a tremendous warmth into something that could easily become mechanical in performance.
These new versions of Katie Kim’s songs give the listener a profoundly different experience of Salt in one way in particular: Clancy’s clarity of orchestration allowed her voice to be foregrounded in a way that is rare in her recordings, exposing both the emotional pull of her songs and the technical assuredness of her voice and songwriting. She is a songwriter of conviction, and these interventions illustrated her ability to not only create beautiful vocal gestures, but to develop them in the most subtle ways.’
Anna Murray, April 18, 2017, The Journal of Music.
‘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
‘Throughout Salt Intervention’s runtime, the Crash Ensemble’s mastery of dynamics and nuanced tension is wildly impressive. Sean Clancy’s sensitive arrangements bend and yield to the needs of Kim’s music, effortlessly veering between unobtrusive ornamentation and dissonant clamour.
This is particularly evident on ‘I Make Sparks’, a song that on record represents one of Kim’s most outwardly noisy tracks; a maelstrom of swirling feedback and pounding floor toms that recalls Low at their most untethered. Here, Kim’s radical untacking of the track leaves little more than her simple arpeggiated guitar and the Crash Ensemble’s ingenious playing ensuring that not an iota of the original’s dread and chaos is lost, as orchestrations alternatively perch upon proceedings like a gentle frost or loom menacingly overhead like potentially skull skewering icicles.’
James Cox, November 2018, The Thin Air
Four Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop
‘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
Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards
‘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
Seven Lines of Music Slow Down & Eventually Stop
‘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
Ten Minutes of Music on the Subject of Furniture
‘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
Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards
‘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
I See Now Why People Hide
‘Right in Decibel’s wheelhouse is Seán Clancy’s ‘I See Now Why People Hide’, which, like all of his current and recent work, is built around the concept of intervention (as opposed to, for example, appropriation or invention) – in this case on Martin Creed’s text ‘If You’re Lonely’. The piece is effervescent, built from chirruping four beat phrases of conjunct and repetitive quavers, gradually evolving, and separated by subtly-varied interjections of silence and creeping sound. It is reminiscent of the kind of thoughtful sunniness of a composer like Andrew Hamilton, albeit with hints of something queer and strange below the surface.’
Stephen Graham, March 27, 2013, The Quietus
‘“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
‘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
Whisper Whisper Whisper
‘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
The Shrivelling of the Aura With an Artificial Build Up (Not To Be Reproduced).
‘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
Eleven Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop
‘Sean Clancy’s Eleven Lines of Music Slow Down and Eventually Stop continued his exploration of various amounts of lines which do exactly that. Clancy does have an ear for a catchy melody and when combined in bursts over a repeated ground bass they can produce quite a striking texture.’
Adrian Smith, December 6, 2017, Journal of Music.
Five to Forty Seconds
‘If ‘Unnamed Ensemble Piece’ wasn’t literal enough a title for you, then perhaps Seán Clancy’s ‘Five to Forty Seconds’ will hit the mark? Original research by the composer (sitting in an art gallery for eight hours) turned up that most punters spend between five and forty seconds looking at each piece of art in a gallery. Clancy’s piece, for violin and piano, takes this idea and applies it faithfully, with each segment lasting between, you guessed it, five and forty seconds. When a piece wears its process on its sleeve like this, it is hard not to sit and count the seconds instead immersing yourself in the material. Fortunately, the material was interesting, and did indeed feel something like a walk through a gallery. Different styles and mediums connected by a curator, drawing you in a particular direction, linking ideas together in unexpected ways.’
Sam James, 26 November 2017, Birmingham Review
Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards
‘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
Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards
‘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
Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards
‘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
Seven Lines of Music Slow Down & Eventually Stop‘
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
Forty-Five Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football
‘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
‘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
Whisper Whisper Whisper
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
Whisper Whisper Whisper
‘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