Sean McCann “I like the idea of simple ideas being regarded as more than that, because nothing is really simple.”

Photo: Ame Reimer

Ever the working man’s maestro, Sean McCann has curried quite a bit of cred here at TMT over the past several years, churning out release after release of graceful, impressionistic chamber music sculpted for the modern age. An avant tailor whose sonic fabric conveys the most inward fringes of opulence and squalor, McCann has gradually refined his work into a fine and chalky substance while taking up the mantle of his own label, Recital, issuing all kinds of magic from the likes of Loren Connors, Ian William Craig, and, of course, himself. 2013 saw McCann going full renegade composer with the release of Music for Private Ensemble, an entirely self-recorded symphony that quickly earned a place in our hearts, as well as a spot on our Favorite Albums of 2013 list.

Since then, McCann has gone a bit dark, keeping to the label stuff and slowly brewing his grand follow-up to Private Ensemble. Planned as a thematic successor, Music for Public Ensemble weaves together a scattered and motley bunch of collaborators into a classical opus of discrete yet unified sound. After much anticipation, Music for Public Ensemble has arrived at last, and it is every bit as beautiful and unknowable as we could’ve hoped. I dropped by McCann’s apartment in East L.A. to chat about his process, the Recital Program, and the significance of insignificance.

So you’ve been working on this album for an incredibly long time, yeah?

Yeah, like three years I guess. I started it once but my computer died and I lost everything because I didn’t back it up. So then I had to start again. That was in 2012 or something like that.

How does it feel now that it finally exists? I know the last time you spoke to TMT you had just finished Music for Private Ensemble, and you were already making moves on starting Music for Public Ensemble.

Yeah, I knew that they were going to be paired together. And I think I’m going to do a CD edition where it has both of them together on it, just because they’re shared in their music stylings. They feel like birds of a feather. It’s nice though to be done with it, because my brain’s been chained to this idea for a long time musically, so I’m ready to do something else. Something less grand in scope, I think. It was kind of fucking me up trying to get so many people roped in on it, and including everyone that I wanted to. I had never done a double record either, so it was like, ‘How do I lay this out?’ and it was kind of paralyzing deciding that that’s what I wanted to do because it took up so much of my creative energy. I couldn’t really do much else with my own music. I could do the label stuff because that’s more mechanical… but anyways now I’m ready to do more smaller projects. I’m gonna do a radio play, with some sort of weird story and a bunch of voice actors, or something like that. So that’ll be the next thing. I’ve already talked to a couple musicians about doing music interludes and stuff, so maybe I would help write the music, but I don’t think I would play. Just kind of organize it all. I like the idea of utilizing other people.

So you’re still keeping it all in that theatrical realm then?

Totally. I like that idea of utilizing other people’s talents and then morphing it into my own cocktail. It’s really fun to work with other people because they’re excited and it makes me more passionate about it in one sense, because it’s other people’s creative energies poured into it, and it’s new ideas.

A big part of Music for Private Ensemble was how you recorded the entire project by yourself (aside from Kayla Cohen’s vocals at the end), so what was the significance of opening up the composition and recording process to this huge outside group?

I think that I had made a lot of music up until that point, and I had been churning it out really quickly, a lot of cassette tapes, a lot of CDs, and stuff like that. I hit kind of a brick wall I think, and I needed to slow down. And I think… this is maybe not the best comparison or it might not even be true, I don’t know if you like Björk at all, but she does this cool thing where she uses different musicians on every record. It’s all reliant on other people’s influence to tap into herself differently. And I really like that idea of being like, ‘I’ve done enough of my own shit, I’ve done enough of my own research. So I need to bring some other people in to learn some new things.’ And that social environment is important too, it’s just fun to correspond with friends and work on projects together. Being less insular, etc.

It’s funny because when I read the liner notes for this album I recognize all these names, like Cameron Stallones, Kayla Cohen, Graham Lambkin, Ian William Craig, but when you actually listen to the record and try to scan for anybody, you just kind of end up getting caught in the swoon of everything. Did you want the album to have this sense of anonymity?

Yeah, I think that part of it is that I edited it all, so that kind of transformed it into my own thing pretty quickly. But I agree, I mean I listen to it and obviously I know every part and what everybody lent to it, but I still can kind of separate it out as this imaginary kind of band that’s separate from myself and everybody else. I feel like it’s pretty gooey and it molds together well, and it’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s Cam’s part!’ [laughs] I think maybe Graham Lambkin’s part is the most obvious to me.

Yeah, there’s that one super high-pitched tone that comes in on “Pearling,” is that him?

Yeah yeah, it’s funny because I contacted him, and I really admire his work, so we would correspond. I sent him a couple tracks and he said one of them sounded too much like Robert Ashley so he didn’t want to do it [laughs]. And then I sent him this track that I recorded in 2013, it was one of the first things I ever did, these violin parts with Troy Schafer and Matt Erickson, who was in that band Sudden Oak. Their releases were some of the first Recital stuff, so it felt right. So I sent him this slowed down violin section with a couple of other sounds, and he sent back this completely brutal electronic sweeping thing with the sound of him blowing bubbles or something. It was really nice and refreshing, his editing skills are amazing. But anyways, I feel like it is hard to tell who’s who on the album.

There’s a much more pronounced vocal aspect to this album compared to your previous stuff. What got you going down that train?

I think it was wanting to push myself into uncomfortable territory, and also just to bring more to the stage. I love sound poetry and text-based stuff as well, and I thought trying to interweave that with beautiful, classical-tinged music would be really interesting. Even though it’s really hard to do tasteful text stuff I think. And I don’t necessarily think Public Ensemble is tasteful text stuff, I have no idea. But I wanted to try it at least, even though it makes some people uncomfortable. At first it was making myself uncomfortable, but it was fun though. It’s more about just not caring and just kind of going for it. Cameron asked me to play a show the other week, and I just read this Dick Higgins poem for like 20 minutes over the sound of me in the bathtub, and then I had this Schoenberg piece transfigured and slowed down in the background too. Someone told me that they heard the person behind them say that it was pretentious and then they left. Which is fine, if that’s how they feel. It’s not my intention, it was more just kind of exploring myself, or just setting a mood for people. But I guess that’s how I feel about this record too, I want to bring more elements to set the scene, so words are a part of that. It was probably a little bit heavy-handed now that I think about it, but it was fun and it was a good learning experience [laughs].

I feel like even though your music tackles this image of the classical composer, it seems like you always make a big point of keeping the meanings in your work subjective, and refraining from assigning too much to anything. Does your work bear much concrete meaning to you, or is it all fairly cloudy from your perspective?

It’s very cloudy. It’s all just snippets of dreams and fleeting feelings. I’m a pretty romantic guy I would say in general, and I value when you can tap into that in music in any way. So yeah, it’s more just flickers of ideas, there’s no real point to any of it. It’s pretty immediate, you know? I don’t know if you’ve seen, I did a book that’s in a similar vein to that [Pacifics], where it’s just as meaningless, but you can kind of stir up something very quickly, and then it evaporates.

There’s a lot of description in the liner notes about how these pieces were constructed, and the instructions you gave to your collaborators. Do you consider that kind of understanding of the composition integral to listening to these pieces? Do you think context is important?

No, I don’t. I mean I like that kind of stuff, I like liner notes in general. If I’m interested in something, I love reading more about it. So it’s not essential at all I’d say to know that, but it’s just kind of fun for me to include it. It’s probably more for myself than anyone else, and in case people are interested in that. But no, I don’t think it’s important that you know how the pieces were made necessarily.

That one photo you included in the liner notes with the sheet music notated by different colored strokes of paint is really cool.

Right, that one was fun for sure. I do like actually writing down music, and there’s a fair amount of that on this record, but most of it is done on a computer.

So are you a big notator?

No, I mean I know how to write music, but I would say no, I’m not. I’d say I use the computer and ProTools to adjust notes, because I do a lot of transposing and building chords and building things just through pitch alterations and stuff. But yeah I like doing both. I want to do more formal composition stuff.

Yeah, you talked about this same process of pitch-shifting sections to fit with each other in our last interview with you. That just seems like such a bizarre process to me, you literally just start with all these totally discordant recordings and have to meld them all together?

Yeah, I still use a lot of that for sure. Although I feel like I rely on that less than I used to. It’s fun for me, but it can kind of drive you mad, because nothing’s ever done. You can keep changing these melodies until you’re grey. So I value both, but I think in the future I’m going to abandon that, because I’ve had my time with it and I’ve got to move on.

It’s interesting because if you just listen to it and you didn’t know about how these pieces were assembled, you wouldn’t think, ‘this totally did not start out harmonized at all’.

Oh really? See to me it’s super obvious when I hear it. I know when it is and when it isn’t, so I’m pretty biased, but I’m glad to hear that you don’t know.

A big part of what I love so much about Recital is what a clear aesthetic you’ve established — everything is so regal, so pastoral, even when the music is sometimes incredibly bizarre it’s all just so calming to take in. What is it about the aesthetics of classical performance that speak to you?

Well, I think it’s framing things in a way that’s pleasing to myself. To me music and art in general is about creating an environment, this intangible feeling, and I feel like framing it in a way that’s kind of regal like you said, can present simpler ideas in a more professional and respectable way. For example, I did this Eric Schmid CD where it’s recordings of voicemails that people left on his cellphone. So it’s just these text pieces, and random voyeuristic style recordings, and I like the idea of presenting that in a way where it could be a classical CD, or it could a jazz CD, but it’s this super abstract thing. So it’s kind of elevating this avant-garde document to be more approachable, at least visually, because I think it should be. I like the idea of simple ideas being regarded as more than that, because nothing is really simple. So there’s that, and I think it’s kind of just setting a scene that reflects what I enjoy. It’s very narcissistic; that’s just what I like. I feel like it’s a pretty approachable aesthetic, and it’s really fun and therapeutic to work on.

There’s a part of the album you put out last year, A Castle Popping, that grabs me so much. It’s on “Cosmopolitan Voice Piece” — there’s this gorgeous, gentle piano reverie that starts to drift in towards the end of the track, but the whole time it’s there there’s this absolutely insane sound going on in the background, like somebody gargling on mothballs or something. It’s so jarring, but it’s so heavenly too, and there’s a lot of that kind of vibe going on in Public Ensemble as well. Do you consider this music to be calming overall?

Yeah, I think so. The goal for me is to expand the realm of beauty, and what’s accepted as beautiful. But I love that juxtaposition there, because that’s what life is like. It’s kind of confusing and harmonic at the same time. So yeah, I like putting two opposites together just to see what happens. And I really like Fluxus stuff as well, the kind of humor in that, and levity, and meaninglessness as art. So that is always inspiring to me.

I’m not familiar with Fluxus, what is that?

Fluxus is this art movement in the late 50s and early 60s that started in Germany. It was a lot of humorous playing on the seriousness of the art world and the music world — George Maciunas started it, and John Cage was part of it. One of their lines which I really like is, ‘the sound of you putting your foot in a boot that’s full of water and sloshing it around is as beautiful as a symphony.’ And it’s just that principle kind of applied to everything. Dick Higgins coined the term ‘intermedia,’ which is a play of all different kinds of art forms, that there should be no distinguished barrier between sound and performance and poetry and dance and all that stuff. Just kind of this melding of art as, that’s life. So that principle and all that stuff is really inspiring to me and fun to investigate.

I know you’ve namechecked people like Robert Ashley and Gavin Bryars as influences on you in the past, who are some of your other favorite modern composers working today, not including any of the people who worked on this album?

Hm… I’m a little out of the loop with current music, to be honest. I’m pretty roped in the past, but I like this guy Gerhard Rühm a lot. He’s actually from the past, but he’s still alive. He has this album called Pencil Music, where it’s just the sound of somebody on a piece of paper just, [grabs pencil and starts scribbling], for 20 minutes. But he also does these beautiful piano pieces, and he also does text stuff and sound poetry, so I love his breadth of music and art. He’s an inspiring character, and he still performs. But otherwise, other modern people, I don’t know man. I try to work with people that I really admire, so you said ‘people that aren’t on this record’, but I kind of hit up everybody that I really admire. Like, ‘alright, let’s do it!’ So that leaves my options pretty thin. I don’t listen to a lot of new music.

In the pamphlet that comes with the album, you say that the album was “edited and arranged” across Los Angeles, but that it’s “architecture” was designed on a snowy business trip to Telluride, Colorado.

Yeah, I was there for this Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight or whatever, and I had a couple days of downtime, and at that point I had enough sketches and ideas of stuff where I just kind of made the dream list of people that would play on it, and what types of pieces I want, how many choral pieces, how many string quartet things, etc. I’m a pretty list oriented guy, so that helped me finish the record, otherwise it would have gone on forever. So that was a lot of fun.

Nice, I’m from Colorado so I was just wondering if you think that setting may have affected the album at all?

Yeah it was snowing a little bit, and I’m never really in the snow, so it was really beautiful. I ate quail, there was really good quail there which probably affected it, I don’t know [laughs]. But yeah, the environment definitely was encouraging, so I think that’s important. In that instance I needed a trip like that to get a different perspective and be like, ‘I gotta finish this thing.’

You might’ve already gone into this, but since you always seem to be moving onto the next thing by the time the last thing is done, where do you think you’re going from here? Going to let this one marinate at all?

Well I finished the record a couple months ago, it just takes so long to put out a record these days, so it’s been done for a while. I have this CD coming out where it’s bathtub recordings of this guy Mike Pollard who used to run that label Arbor in the past, and he has a new label too that’s really great. So Mike and this guy Eric Schmid who I did a CD and a book by, and then myself and this other guy Aaron Kaplan, and it’s just recordings of us in the bath, just taking a bath. So it’s a double CD and it’s a very singular idea that was just fun to be like, ‘OK, VERY self-indulgent.’ But that’s fine. And then this radio play is the next thing I think, and this guy I kind of know online asked if I wanted to compose a piece for vibraphone. So more smaller snacks as opposed to a three-course dinner.

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