Sean McCann: Interview
“The idea of music being stripped down to pure melodies and arrangements is fascinating to me.”

Over the last few years, Sean McCann has released a staggering amount of work. The volume of his output is impressive, but what makes the composer such a gem is all his records are stylistically diverse yet consistently excellent. While his music often explores a myriad of sub genres within the world of drone and ambient music, his latest, Music For Private Ensemble, finds McCann focusing on the world of contemporary classical composition.

Tiny Mix Tapes spoke to McCann about what prompted his fascination with contemporary-classical composition, his relationship to the underground tape-label world he’s helped grow, and the many guises he’s worn over the years.


I’m always fascinated by how people get interested in the world of new music/contemporary-classical composition. What sparked your interest in the genre and what specifically made you decide to pursue the style on Music For Private Ensemble?

My interest in this type of music was a natural and gradual discovery beginning with John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I like the organizational aspects of this music, that it is not solely improvised. And even if it is improvised, there is still a system dictating rules and structure to the piece. I admire the absence of heavy-handed processing. There is nothing to glaze over one’s blunders or lack of effort. The idea of music being stripped down to pure melodies and arrangements is fascinating to me.

I saw this genre as an exercise for myself. A test. I knew if I tried to focus on this type of intentional music, I would improve as a musician.

I know you mention John Adams, Gavin Bryars, and the fluxus group as influences for Music for Private Ensemble but are there any other artists that have been inspiring your work? I get a very Lovely Music Ltd. vibe from a lot of your recent material…

Yes, Mimi Johnson’s label & Robert Ashley are tremendous influences, however more on my life as a whole rather than my own music (so far)… David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and of course John Cage also inspire me greatly. I have been in a phase of purely ingesting all of these composer’s works, not yet figuring out how to respond. What really lights up my interest is how their work transcends just being music - becoming conceptual and philosophical.

I also have been inspired by “standard classical” music such as Chopin’s piano Nocturnes, Borodin’s String Quartet no.2 and piano quintets, and Loren Rush’s work.

How do you see your work in relationship to what a lot of your drone/ambient contemporaries are doing? Do you feel a strong kinship with any particular composers/musicians?

I feel like my newest work lies aside from drone and ambient music. However, my “final” ambient album is to be released in the coming months on Root Strata. Recorded in 2010 and 2011, it audibly displays my progression into more structured composition, while still retaining a certain fog and distance that I have since worked to abandon. It is my strongest music in that style.

My roommate Matthew Sullivan and I share a deep interest in abstract music and sound poetry, and he and I discuss artists and share what we have recently discovered. I do have a few other friends that I know to be interested in older composers, however, having a serious conversation about music with anyone is not normal for me. When with friends, shooting pool and drinking is a much more common activity, for better or worse.

In the past, I never set limits or rules pertaining to my music. I would instinctually add track after track of any/every instrument, process it all with questionable effects, and hope that it turned out with some semblance of my overall vision.

In many ways, your musical output seems to work in phases. For instance, it seems like your early work like Open Resolve is of one particular style while The Capital is another and Music For Private Ensemble seems like another exploration. However, all these works sound like your compositional voice and each record a natural evolution from previous work. How do you view the progression of your musical style over the course of your career so far? Additionally, has your compositional process changed with each release?

I enjoy challenging myself musically, thus why things have gotten drier and more structured. For me, exposing the foundation of pieces is more dangerous and difficult, but ultimately more rewarding and lasting.

Compositionally, I have gotten more comfortable with including space and silence in my pieces. Exercising a “less as more” philosophy has been enlightening. Having a tendency to overdo things musically, I tend to record too many different elements on top of each other. I have slowly learned to strip away some of the obtuse and extraneous elements. I want to focus further on the composition of each singularity, rather than multiply and blur the pillars of a piece.

I would love to one day write a solo piano or violin piece and be completely happy with its form.

To what extent is Music for Private Ensemble notated? I know you have an interest in aleatoric and graphic notation. Did those elements factor into how these pieces were created?

The piece “Character Change” was traditionally notated. The other pieces were “post-composed,” using pitch-shifting applications and countless hours of editing. For example, I have all the stacks of violin as one group, the flutes as another etc., each comprised of maybe five to eight to 12 tracks. This way I have access to every note, and can transpose and arrange as needed. I work best this way… but I am trying to train myself to use only traditional notation.

Perhaps it’s too soon for this question but where do you see your work heading with your next releases? Do you plan on pursuing a more “formal/classical” compositional style for awhile?

My next major recording project will be Music For Public Ensemble. Likely a double record on Recital; I am enlisting friends and acquaintances to lend their musical abilities and instruments to my workflow. I am going to ask each musician bring their own ideas and write their own part (if they so desire). Scavenging an enormous amount of material from these people, I will take it back to my rabbit hole with a pot of coffee and thoroughly edit the performances into a complete piece. The scope will be greater than Music for Private Ensemble. I am predicting that it will be released in 2015.

How do the methods behind your collaborative works vary in relationship to your solo material?

My personal recordings habits vary in the sense that I feel no rush whatsoever to complete a piece of my own. Time is never a negative factor in polishing any piece of my music.

When collaborating, I tend to feed off of the other person’s approach to working on music. For example, when working with Maxwell August Croy on our LP (coming out in early 2014) we developed a rigorous and demanding recording style. Pausing only to drink espresso, we would record for hours on end and finish the day with a slew of usable material. Contrastingly, when Matthew Sullivan and I work together, a much more casual and free event ensues. Pausing frequently for a chat and a glass of wine or vodka; fumbling around is part of the process. Each approach has informed my own solo practices.

How do you decide which solo releases of yours to put out on Recital versus other labels? Are your personal releases for Recital designed to highlight particular aspects of your work?

If another label approaches me, and I have material to give them, and I respect the label’s output, then I am willing to work with them.

However, lately I have slowed down my recording schedule and output so much that I don’t have the time nor material to do many LPs other than major full-length albums.

I do work a full-time job, so completing a record takes a significant amount of time. But frankly, I value these time limitations… They force me to age and refine my musical thoughts.

However, my “final” ambient album is to be released in the coming months on Root Strata. Recorded in 2010 and 2011, it audibly displays my progression into more structured composition, while still retaining a certain fog and distance that I have since worked to abandon. It is my strongest music in that style.

What is the selection process like when curating Recital releases? I know you’ve mentioned that you try to highlight “classical, minimalism, and overwhelmingly melodic music” in the past but, is each batch of releases meant to function as a near classical concert program like selection of works?

I am quite picky about what I want to release. However, occasionally, I will get a demo that is so beautiful and interesting that I will want to release it. One example is Ian William Craig, a trained opera singer who works with an array of reel-to-reel machines to process his voice. His work would fall under the impressionistic and overwhelmingly melodic category. It is quite stunning. I will be doing a vinyl record by him next year.

Additionally, my interest in older musicians has been developing more and more. I have been reaching out to composers I dearly admire to see if they have any material that would be suitable to release on Recital. Resurfacing and reintroducing older or “lost” material is quite appealing to me. I will be issuing a record of unheard pieces by Annea Lockwood next year.

And as far as the concert program, it can be perceived that way if you hear it that way! I often wish I had not included the word “program” on my website; people often think it’s part of the label’s name, which is just Recital. I do like the concept of doing a “line-up” of musicians working towards a singular idea. I will eventually be releasing an album of voice-based material by myself, M. Geddes Gengras, Matthew Sullivan, and Jeff Witscher. I hope to continue this series with other instruments/situations too.

You’ve touched upon the idea of imposing limitations on your work and I was wondering if you could speak a little about the role that limitations have played to date? Do you set parameters when you record?

In the past, I never set limits or rules pertaining to my music. I would instinctually add track after track of any/every instrument, process it all with questionable effects, and hope that it turned out with some semblance of my overall vision. I would rarely go back and remove anything, just add more.
I am not trying to “put down” all of my older work, as there is something innocent and often wild about my previous methods. I recognize it as a phase I needed to go through; throwing all my paint on the canvas at once.

Nowadays, I am using maybe just 20 percent of all the material I record. I have begun honing in the ability to delete material that simply does not fit. This comes with having a more concrete musical vision. Initially, it was hard to let some of the recordings go, as if I was losing parts of myself every time I relinquished material. But as with human nature, I eventually came to terms with sacrifice, and matured in the process

Do you have any plans to perform Music for Private Ensemble live? I saw you play at Human Resources in March and was impressed with what you did by just mixing excerpts of the record on the fly. It seems like these pieces could be performed by a chamber group of sorts as well. Is the idea that these works are for a “private ensemble” that can only exist through the recording process?

I can think of nothing more musically gratifying than seeing my pieces performed live by an ensemble. So yes, this is a very serious goal of mine. But, before this happens, I need to develop more as a composer and begin reaching out to collaborate and perform with other musicians. This is partially my reasoning behind undertaking Music for Public Ensemble. It is an exercise that I need to work through to move on to the next step.

I do have some concerns about playing live though: I don’t like people standing up when they watch me play…as I do not like to stand and watch performances. It is difficult to focus and can be rather uncomfortable; they should be sitting down. I also do not like it when the music is too loud. Often I play too loud by accident. This is all due to lack of preparation and adequate sound reinforcement. The ideal performance atmosphere would be a formal, seated occasion, performed at a comfortable volume. I would want to ensure these standards if I were to start playing shows again.

I suppose I can see doing a West Coast tour when I complete Music for Public Ensemble…. perhaps with some other musicians as a small chamber group. If people like that then maybe we could perform in New York or other places. It is an alluring prospect.