Sean Hickey
Sean Hickey

Interview with Sean Hickey, conducted by Clint Edwards.

Sean Hickey is a composer, born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1970 and currently based in New York. As a teenager he took lessons in electric guitar. At Wayne State University, Hickey's composition teachers included James Hartway and James Lentini. He has worked in a variety of areas and has been commissioned by a number of musicians and organizations. His works include music for piano, orchestra, chorus, church, and chamber configurations. A disc of his chamber and orchestral works for Naxos American Classics, Left at the Fork in the Road, was released in November 2005, and broke the Billboard Top 100 Classical Chart. Hickey is also a published poet and writer of music reviews and travelogues. He is an ASCAP member and is published by Cantabile Press. - From Wikipedia

Clint: This summer has really started off with quite a bang for you. You recently premiered your Cello Concerto in Maryland followed by a solo piano premiere in Alice Tully Hall in New York City. Is this a typical week in your compositional life?

Sean: It’s entirely atypical and unlike any week I’ve had thus far in my career. I had the Cello Concerto premiere on Saturday in Maryland, with a second performance on Sunday in another city followed on Monday by the Alice Tully premiere of “Cursive”, a piano piece I wrote for pianist Xiayin Wang.

CE: With the premieres so close together, was there any overlap in the writing of the two pieces?

SH: No. The cello concerto was composed throughout the majority of 2008. It took me seven or eight months to write it. “Cursive” was written in the final couple of months of 2008, up until January, so there was no overlap. It all came together nicely since we are going to St. Petersburg next month to record the Cello Concerto with the same soloist and conductor.

CE: It’s convenient to have the same artists involved. Is the conductor Russian?

SH: Yes, he is. His name is Vladimir Lande, but he’s based in Baltimore, MD. He conducts a few different orchestras in the mid-Atlantic region. He’s a tremendous musician with great insight into the music. He is also the conductor of the St. Petersburg Symphony.

CE: The concerto was premiered by the cellist Dmitry Kouzov. Did you write the work with him in mind?

SH: Yes. Dmitry commissioned the piece. I wanted to write something that looked back at the concerto literature and of cello concertos, specifically the Dvorak, Hindemith, and Elgar concerti. I studied all of these works prior to writing this piece. I often will study pieces that are similar to what I’m looking to write to observe orchestral textures and ideas.

CE: Dmitry is an impressive player. Is the piece heroic?

SH: It is a heroic work. It starts off with a dotted gesture, which is like a fanfare. It goes from there maintaining a real masculinity to the solo part, which Dmitry has in spades. Though that is only a single aspect of the piece, since it is a three-movement work with contrast between the movements, and also internal contrasts within each movement.

CE: Were there any last minute changes in either of the works?

SH: There were some changes with the Cello Concerto. As with any orchestral piece I’ve written, invariably no matter how careful I am and how many eyes look over the parts there will always be some mistakes. Fortunately the conductor had rehearsed the piece two or three times before I came down to work with them.

CE: How did the conductor communicate any questions or concerns during that initial process?

SH: Through email and phone we discussed several things and then some of the players approached me when I arrived in Maryland with questions about their parts. I had to make a couple of changes on the fly. Orchestrationally, I didn’t have to make any changes prior to those performances.

CE: And will you be making any revisions before the recording?

SH: I have made, and will be making, a couple of minor changes, more to do with tempi and transition areas, fixing some of the seams that could be sewn together a little more effectively. It’s a three-movement work lasting nearly a half-hour for full orchestra, and my second concerto. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the work.

CE: How do you approach the challenges between composing a piece and then marketing it?

SH: I have a perverse love for the marketing of music. My day job requires that I do it all the time, and it’s in my nature to promote myself. Early on I learned a lesson that has always stuck with me. Years ago I wrote for various music publications in the city, such as New Music Connoisseur. When I had my first solo concert several years ago in New York, I booked CAMI Hall and I remember composing a press release. Barry Cohen, the editor of New Music Connoisseur, came back to me with a reply about the concert. In my introduction I said something to the effect of: “Dear friends, please pardon this bit of shameless self-promotion…” and he wrote back: “if you won’t promote my own work, who will? Promotion is promotion, and there’s nothing shameless about it.” So from that time on, I’ve spent a lot of my time working on the promotion of my work, and increasingly using the great social-networking tools on the internet to the advantage of that.

CE: With a full time job and a family, when you do you find the time to compose?

SH: It is difficult. It’s generally an evening activity and only in short bits, at the piano, even though I don’t play it well. When I was a bachelor, it was easier to find large stretches of time to work on a string quartet, but that luxury doesn’t exist for me anymore.

CE: How do you start a new piece?

SH: Pieces may start with a shape or a musical line. I may see something, almost like an EKG shape. Several pieces start with a distinctive shape, in particular “Left At The Fork In The Road”, “Fluff”, “Pair Of Pants.” After that, for me the act of composition is taking that beginning material and developing it.

CE: How does knowing the performer of a piece affect your composition process?

SH: Knowing their playing style is helpful and also knowing about their personality can affect things. In a case like Dmitry Kousov or Xiayin Wang, they’re both virtuoso players, but it’s not all just flash. They both have tremendous substance and musicality, and they bring that to the playing.

In the case of the cello concerto, most of my music involves musical quotation, though so sublimated into the texture, that it is almost unnoticeable. In the second movement, I came across an idea that reflected a well-known piece of 20th century music, though it wasn’t until several rehearsals into the process that the bass-clarinet and flute players were able to bring it out and notice it. It’s a quote from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, as a homage to the St. Petersburg Symphony.

CE: Over the course of writing “Cursive” and the Cello Concerto, did the performers have any input during the creative period?

SH: In the case of Xiayin, we met several times throughout the course of the composition, after I had a few pages to show her. She didn’t have a lot of changes and was very helpful. She’s not daunted by anything, and there wasn’t very much that we felt needed to be changed. She recognized what was going to be difficult, but I didn’t make a lot of changes..

Dmitry’s case was different. We worked together many times over several months and made changes as necessary. We also worked together in the past on recordings and in performances of my solo cello piece, “Beara.” In the case of the concerto, we had to work out double and triple stops and passages that couldn’t be played, and figure out solutions.

CE: Do you come from a musical family?

SH: I don’t come from a musical family. My dad was a bit musical, as was my grandmother, but they weren’t practicing musicians. When I was 12 and school was out my mother told me that I needed to do something, and not sit around watching the ‘Beatles.’ I think it was between Karate and the guitar. So I went with the guitar and we found a place to rent one for the summer. I remember opening up the box in the back seat of the car on the way home figuring out notes, noodling around. It may sound cliche, but that day changed my life. It’s still imprinted in my memory.

CE: You must have a strong ear, to pick out musical bits so quickly after getting the instrument?

SH: I remember I figured out a song, a rudimentary rock song right away, so I guess I do have a good ear, but what I don’t have, even to this day is strong reading skills, score reading. I know incredible sight-readers, but I never really learned it. I obviously learned how to read music, in college, and how to write music. But to sit down and sight-read a piece of music, like a flutist or violinist who grew up reading music…I mean I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin records trying to figure them out. My early years of guitar lessons never involved any music, by that I mean notated music. I would bring books and my teachers were always encouraging of my interest, but then they’d say: “aren’t you interested in sounding like Eddie Van Halen?” They’d write in tabulator or short hand how to play pieces, if I couldn’t figure them out myself. When I got to college, and studied music with a classical-oriented background, I remember being in a theory or ear-training class and trying to keep up, and then getting ahead of people and ending up surprising myself at how well I could do, but then being in an improvisation class with a violinist or flutist and it was a complete switch for them. The teacher would start us on a B-flat blues, and I could do that all day, but they didn’t know what to play.

CE: What influenced you to transition from the rock and pop side of music to classical?

SH: I didn’t come to classical music in a traditional way, not through family exposure, liking a ‘pretty’ piece of music, or having an instrument pressed on me. I came to classical music because I was a complete omnivore of popular and experimental music.

In the 80’s when I was listening to some heavy stuff…punk rock, hard rock, metal music… at some point I either read about or heard ‘The Rite Of Spring.’ Nothing is heavier than ‘The Rite Of Spring.’ It’s pandemonium, controlled chaos. Then I heard pieces like Shostakovich 5th, Mahler’s 1st and 5th Symphonies in my mid-teens and I started to think that I wanted to learn how to do this. I also took a trip to Chicago with my parents and saw the Chicago Symphony under Sir George Solti play Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments.” I remember seeing the stage two-thirds empty, stripped down to just the winds and brass. The bizarre sounds, harmonic language, and layout on the stage seemed incongruous to everything that came after it. That performance really stayed with me.

CE: Your first solo CD “A Left At The Fork In The Road” has several compositions for winds – did your early exposure to Stravinsky contribute to those works?

SH: I always loved the Stravinsky neo-classic compositions - the Octet, the Piano Concerto for Winds - the contrapuntal pieces. There’s nothing more satisfying than a really finely tuned woodwind chord when you can hear each individual layer. You can pick out each player and each chord tone, while also getting a glorious sounding total harmony.

CE: In addition to writing music you’re a published author or poetry, travelogues, and music criticism. How does literature impact your musical writing?

SH: In the past it has impacted my music but more recently contemporary world events have been more influential, and interpreting them through music. I did write a piano piece a few years ago as a memoriam to Kurt Vonnegut, the writer that shaped my life more than anyone else. I had the privilege of meeting him twice.

Poetry has been a major influence, particularly the Irish poets.

CE: Directly? Do you set it or use it as a basis for a piece?

SH: I use it more as a basis of imagery. The Irish poets, like Yeats and Seamus Heaney, are really great at conjuring images. I also wrote a song called “Nocturne” for Mezzo-soprano with a text by Li-Young Lee. It’s a great short poem, a very evocative word painting of things that “go bump in the night.”

CE: You have a knack for creative titles. Do they come before or after the music?

SH: Usually before. “Granfalloon” is a Vonnegut word and I really liked the sound of it. “A Left At The Fork In The Road” is an outgrowth from my twenties, when I used to write a lot of poetry and I found that a title could often dictate a form for a piece. “Pair Of Pants” came from the idea that a flute and clarinet fit together very well. They sit next to each other in the orchestra, they blend well, and can differentiate themselves from each other. “Fluff” is a solo flute piece.

CE: The piece is harder than the title would indicate.

SH: It’s not very fluffy. I wanted to write a piece for Stefan Hoskuldsson, who played on my disc. I wrote the piece in a relatively short period of time and initially felt that it was a light piece.

CE: What is coming up for you?

SH: As I mentioned, I have the trip to Russia to perform and record my Cello Concerto. I’ll also be recording in the fall with some Juilliard musicians, working on a trio I wrote called “Pied a Terre” for flute, viola, and harp. With those pieces recorded, I’ll be close to having enough for a second disc.