Just a couple weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of sitting down in Edinburgh for a drink and a chat with Sean Shibe, the 25-year-old Scottish guitarist whose sensitivity and dynamism have already earned him a formidable reputation in today’s classical scene. After hearing about him through a feature in Classical Guitar Magazine I reached out to his agent and was pleasantly surprised to be put directly in touch with Sean himself, who subsequently (and very graciously) agreed to meet with me for this interview. Sean was the perfect person for me to connect with as a classical guitar student writing about Scottish culture, and a whole host of questions were buzzing through my head as I went down to meet him about how he interacted with music and culture and what his experience was like as an incipient performer in the modern era.
Fresh off a long train ride from London, Sean was stylishly dressed with gray suit and an affable grin that deflected from his daunting résumé as a YCAT artist, the first guitarist admitted to the BBC’s New Generation Artist program, and the only guitarist to ever have received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship. His soft, persistent gaze belied an intentionality in his listening that is rare among his and my generation; what you can’t hear in this text are the long pauses Sean took after each question I asked, allowing himself time to carefully process and respond with authenticity and integrity. He was equal parts insightful and inciteful, willing to take a thoughtful look at his art and his tradition while also challenging the musical and social boundaries he encounters as a growing and emerging artist. It was such a pleasure for me to have conversation – I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did!
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Footnotes have been added to satisfy the curiosity of any particularly inquisitive readers concerning the people and ideas discussed by Sean and myself.
CW: Tell me, how do you like being interviewed? For you, is the process of verbally externalizing the motivation behind your music and why you’re doing what you’re doing something that you find helpful?
SS: I think it depends for me. Some interviewers turn up not having kept track of your achievements to date, and that can really bely your ability to banter naturally. So there’s that on one hand, and also, was it Frank Sinatra who maybe said that talking about music is like dancing about fishing, or something like that; who knows how accurate that quote is, but there’s an element of abstraction that makes the process difficult. But it can also be fun as well, to try to express something fundamentally extraverbal in a way that’s enjoyable and relevant.
CW: I can imagine how frustrating or disappointing it must be for an interviewer to come in and act as if a position or opinion you held two years ago is still exactly where you’re at today, to not allow room for personal growth and flexibility in how they address you.
SS: Definitely, and there are a lot of interviewers that I’ve found are more caught up in their own heads than in trying to figure out what’s in somebody else’s. Interviews that have always been interesting to me are those in the Paris Review, which is an American ex-pat magazine founded in the 1960s, I believe. Their approach to interviewing is really interesting, albeit not something I’d necessarily want to do on a regular basis; they have a sit-down conversation, work out a script, send it back to you, and then you and the interviewer work out whether or not that’s what you were really trying to say. They try to avoid catching someone out or discovering something that the person let slip, and so it’s less like an actual interview and more like a collaboration aimed towards trying to find the truth. I forget who it was that wrote Murder of a Journalist, but she wrote that the underlying instigator for all journalistic practice is malice! Most journalists trying to work out what you’re trying to hide, and since when you’re dealing with a topic so subjective as music there’s so much room for misunderstanding and miscommunication, I feel like this collaborative approach is the most necessary and the most productive.
CW: I’d love to talk some about your debut album, Dreams and Fancies, which, if I may fangirl for just a minute, is really superbly done. It’s really incredible how you breath life into these larger Bream-era pieces that can often be somewhat inaccessible to listeners and even to other players. For those extensive, multi-movement, modernist compositions, how do you approach sustaining a narrative arc throughout such large amounts of material?
SS: I don’t feel able or very qualified to make very technically-minded advice here or even give a system that I work by, except to say stick with your own system. When I approach a piece of that magnitude I learn it quite slowly and make sure I can play it faithfully to the score. It’s by maintaining a close connection with what’s on the paper that I feel I can access a deeper truth and work out what the composer was just trying to say. There was something I read recently called “Helsinki Bus Station” that’s a metaphor for artistic process; essentially a guy keeps getting on different bus lines that represent different artistic directions, but never stays on one for long enough to reach the final terminal. The idea is that you have to stay on the bus to find your own artistic direction, and I feel like that’s where people trip up; they’ll stick with something for a while, but then they’ll get a bit of advice from somebody else and change their direction. If we stay on the bus, we’ll take a bit from each of our influences but will try to remain honest to what we think has integrity and I think that’s how we will reach something that will become naturally coherent and structurally sound.
CW: So it really comes down to you and the music interacting with each other, synthesizing your own experiences and letting that synthesis then engage with the actual musical material, letting something honest come out from that.
SS: Yeah, exactly.
CW: I understand you studied the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and would love to hear about your experience there. Do they have an overarching teaching philosophy as an institution, or does the guitar studio have a particular style that they seem to emphasize?
SS: When I started there the conservatoire was beginning to implement a new curriculum that tries to emphasize a multifaceted artist who is really comfortable in cross-genre collaboration. This is an idea that I definitely rejected at the time, but now feel that I want to embrace more. In terms of the teaching philosophy, the one-on-one relationship you have with a professor at an institution is really crucial, and I stayed at the conservatoire because I felt very comfortable with the amount of learning I was experiencing and with the relationship I had with my teacher at the time. If I were to be that age again and have to make that decision again and know what I know now of the institution, of its problems and its neurosis, I would still make the same decision to go there, but it would be for the same reason I stayed, which is that the teacher is someone who I believe is really exceptional in the amount of freedom that he offers his students.
CW: Is teaching something you see yourself doing in the future?
SS: Right now I don’t see it. I mean, I wouldn’t say I teach, but sometimes people will come around and will play things and I’ll tell them what I would’ve done or things I feel they may need, but is that teaching? Maybe on some level, but there’s never been responsibility and that’s probably the difference. That’s also something I don’t want to charge money for, right? Let’s just spend some time and talk through it and if it’s helpful that’s great and if not then that’s all I can give. If I do teach, I would want it to be in a more altruistic way, not as a transaction. Also, I feel like conservatoires are not very good at teaching and fostering creativity; there’s a hypocrisy that fundamentally exists in the institutions, and I feel like it’s linked to what the market needs and what the government funding wants to exist. I want to give what I can, and I certainly don’t feel that I would be best disposed to giving what I have in the confines of a conservatoire.
CW: Growing up in Scotland and then coming into the classical guitar, do you feel that Scottish culture and how you’ve experienced it has influenced how you interact with the guitar or with music in general?
SS: This is one of the questions that I feel may not have a very long answer; any interaction I have that does link Scotland and the instrument I play is essentially one of trying to express something that I’ve experienced, like the 2014 independence referendum or certain social identities that exist here, through whatever I have as a means of expression, which is usually music. In terms of identity I feel like Scotland is sort of unique in that it’s very ethnically homogeneous; it’s very white, and growing up as a non-white person – my mother’s Japanese, my father’s English, and I was born in Scotland – you do go through the process of being “othered” from a very young age. Having people constantly ask you “where are you from, where are you really from” doesn’t really build a strong sense of national identity or national pride; not that I would necessarily feel this otherwise. So there’s a degree of separation that I feel I have always had that leads me to feel a vague discomfort at what I see the establishment as being, the silver-haired white men who control all of what goes on, especially in something as necessarily conservative as classical music. There’s a certain feeling of being at odds with the system.
CW: I’m glad you touched on that, because I was going to ask you about your Japanese heritage until about a week ago I saw an interview you did with Gerald Garcia fairly recently where you answer that question in a similar way that I found highly compelling. So do you have anything in the works right now, beyond the softLOUD project?
SS: Recording softLOUD is my main focus at the moment, and what I’m bringing to that album is something slightly different than was in the original program. For contracting reasons I can’t record “Farewell to Stromness,” but I have found some work by James MacMillan, who is really a fascinating composer in many respects. He wrote one work for lute which is called “Motet I” from Since it was the Day of Preparation, and it’s great lute writing, which can fit well on the guitar, but this is taking a lot more adjustment to make it fit than a lot of other lute writing I’ve arranged. But I think it’s a necessary and highly effective bridge between the Scottish Baroque, which has elements of counterpoint that’s referenced in the lute literature, and the twentieth-century counterpoint of Reich. So that’s what I’m focusing on for the next couple weeks, but after that there’s a Bach focus. I’m also going to learn “Ingwe” by George Lentz, a Luxembourgian composer now based in Sydney, who wrote this 60-minute piece for solo electric guitar. It’s unique in that I feel like a lot of electric guitar music is quite derivative and tends to be made up of superfluous lines referencing the instrument’s rock origins. This is a piece that eschews all those references and creates a musical language and expression which I haven’t heard before, and I feel cements the instrument as an effective proponent of the 21st century reality and all the chaos and postmodernism that come with it.
Sean’s debut album, Dreams and Fancies, released by Delphian Records, is available on Spotify and Apple Music. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
More information about Sean can be found on these webpages:
Many thanks to Sean for offering his time and company to have this conversation.
 Out of pure curiosity, I did some research and found that the quote we were looking for was “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and is attributed earliest to actor/singer/comedian Martin Mull
 The Paris Review was founded in 1953
 Sean is paraphrasing Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse”
 Sean is referencing photographer Arno Minkkinen’s “Helsinki Bus Theory”
 Sean studied with Allan Neave at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS)
 A fun fact: when Sean talks about the age when he made his conservatoire decision, he brushes over the astounding fact that he was the youngest person ever to enter RCS when he enrolled at the age of 15. He received honors of the first class upon his graduation