Classical guitar virtuoso Sean Shibe brings the energy to Baroque at the Edge 2021 with real dance tunes from the 1600s, played on the guitar’s ancestor, the lute, alongside 20th-century music by Ravel and Poulenc.
Sean is one of the leading guitarists of his generation, and has already won a host of awards including the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Young Artists in 2019, and a Gramophone ‘Concept Album’ Award for his recording softLOUD.
We spoke to Sean ahead of his digital 8 January concert to talk lutes and – obviously – loafers.
When did you first pick up a guitar, and what did you like about it?
I was 7. I didn’t like it. I remember crying at how impossible it was to tune. Inexplicably, I decided to also play the lute. That’s also very hard to tune. There are a couple of things that make the guitar stand out for me: its tremendous tonal palette, and its place in the popular consciousness. The ubiquity of the guitar aids its naturally potent mythology. Perhaps this mythology is best defined against that of the lute, the instrument of the aristocratic and ecclesiastical communities. Julian Bream talked of it as a ‘noble’ instrument. But the guitar is pregnant with darker and sometimes pagan associations: the Moors who brought it to Spain; the peasants that adopted it. It is wild, untamed. Part of this idea lives on in the way people see the instrument in the present day – ‘this machine kills fascists’, Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar, and that sums up how the instrument has evolved into one of protest.
Who have been the main influences on your career so far?
Your programme for BatE mixes 17th-century French and Scottish dance music with pavanes and sarabandes by Ravel, Satie and Poulenc. What lay behind your decision?
The connections that exist between these styles and pieces are pleasing, logical, and deserve to be given an audience, and this is music that I’ve enjoyed exploring over lockdown.
You’re playing a lute for part of your concert, but you’re often happy to play lute music on guitar. What made you turn to the lute on this occasion?
There is some lute music that just doesn’t ‘sound well’ on the guitar. That is particularly so in the case of the pieces by Ballard in this programme, for instance. The lute is the only instrument that can perfume these musics appropriately. That said, there are some pieces in old Scottish lute manuscripts that, with a little adaptation, sound extremely well on the guitar. I’ll be playing those as well, on the guitar. So there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.
Do you play any other instruments?
I played the piano but failed to practise it. After I sat my Grade 5 exam my teacher told me that if I passed with a Distinction she would eat her hat, as well as lose the remaining respect she had for examiners. Although I did receive a pass with Distinction, she didn’t eat her hat. Suffice to say, following this I stopped playing the piano.
You like to dress well – and unconventionally – in your concerts and publicity. Where did your passion for fashion come from?
Growing up as a third-culture kid in an ethnically homogenous country was, in retrospect, an alienating experience. Most of my aesthetic and behavioural idiosyncrasies can be traced back to this, and resultant attempts to reclaim or (re)construct an identity. That and Capitalism.
What interests do you have outside music (and fashion)?
Which musicians, of any type, do you admire most?
Those who are kind, despite it all.
What person, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
Either of my grandfathers, both of whom passed away before I could form any substantial idea of who they were.
How do you relax?
Baths, meditation, exercise, and avoiding my emails.
Tell us something about yourself you’d like us to know.
Recently I’ve begun waking up with a start at 4am with utter terror, and I don’t know how to make it stop. Also, I’m single.
Boots or shoes?
Dinky dainty shoes. Like a silly leather loafer
Sean's concert, ‘Danse Éternelle’, will be released online on Friday 8 January at 7.30pm. Tickets are bookable now.
Imagine if Vivaldi was a folk-fiddler, Purcell a protest-singer, or Bach a techno-geek ... Baroque at the Edge invites leading musicians from all genres to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them.
No rules, no boundaries – just Baroque music set loose.