Of What’s To Come
Thursday, April 27, 2023
Kelley Sheehan approached her Hildegard Commission piece as both a composer and an instrument maker, not only with a conceptual understanding of a range of instruments, but also a vocabulary of sounds to explore in any instrument or object as instrument.
The Hildegard Commission highlights outstanding women and other marginalized genders in the early stages of their composing careers, supporting them with a commission, mentorship, and access to a network of leading working collaborators. The winners of the 2022 / 2023 commission focused on sound art exploring the poetry of Constantine P. Cavafy and their compositions were presented at National Sawdust.
Instruments have always been a learning process, and Sheehan began on piano and guitar. “They’re both not about the breath, something more internalized, but about the hands,” she tells me. For her, they were about her hands and using them to figure something out.
A maker of DIY electronics and instruments, composer, and computer musician, Sheehan turns speaker instruments into microphones by reversing the clarity of the speaker. “It becomes a surface that a performer can bow or speak into,” she says.
Living in Somerville, Massachusetts, Kelley became interested in the speakers as microphones during the pandemic. She credits her life in Somerville, the improvisation that she has been doing there, and the support that she’s been given for her interest in the speakers as microphones. Previous compositions have been attributed to life in Chicago and especially to the music that the city produces.
Cavafy’s poetry is overtly philosophical while being personal, and so is the music that Kelley makes. The poem that she chose, “The Wise Perceive Things About to Happen,” associates the ability to hear the sounds “of what’s to come” with intense study, and that a hidden sound reaches those who do.
Inspired by the speakers and by Cafavy’s poem, she went about composing for soprano, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, violin, cello, electronics, and piano. The piece culminates with a vocalist whispering the poem into a speaker.
"Cavafy’s poetry is overtly philosophical while being personal, and so is the music that Kelley makes. The poem that she chose, “The Wise Perceive Things About to Happen,” associates the ability to hear the sounds “of what’s to come” with intense study, and that a hidden sound reaches those who do."
Her work merges electronic and acoustic sound into one organism. “The organism is usually how things relate to each other. For the Hildegard piece, the organism was how the group worked together to make sounds. The electronics and the acoustics are intertwined and cannot exist without each other. They can’t be separated,” she says.
The very beginning of the piece is a duo between the vocalist and percussionist. They both make white noise—it’s a composite noise that would be hostile if it wasn’t. Intertwining electronics, acoustics, and performers, Sheehan tells me, is a trend in her composing, which, though it does not exist in a bubble, is in a lineage of the music that she loves, including the things she listened to growing up.
Rush, the rock band, was her dad’s favorite and she grew up listening to them a lot. They were her first concert. She sometimes thinks about their meters and phrasing and how they’ve inspired her music in unexpected ways.
What attracted Sheehan to Cavafy’s “The Wise Perceive Things About to Happen” was that towards the end, the poet writes about some people being able to hear what others can’t. Doesn’t music bring forth the material of which it is made, sound, which is often overlooked in its raw form?
“For this piece, there is something overt and also something happening underneath the surface that is slowly revealed,” Sheehan says. Her mentor Du Yun, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, multi-instrumentalist, and performance artist, really pushed her to “go for it” when in the beginning Sheehan questioned if her speaker idea was too weird. “That’s the whole point of it,” she told Sheehan during their many in-person meetings, or as she was going over videos that Sheehan would make.
Sheehan is interested in curating spaces, offering environments to audiences. National Sawdust’s spatial sound system was a bit of a mystery to her, and she is impressed that National Sawdust can make such a thing work. It will be special to hear her composition, her organism, and its use of speaker-mics, immersively.
About Adolf Alzuphar
Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also contributes to The Brooklyn Rail, and to the LA Review of Books.