Jack Sheen. Photo: Hugo Glendinning (detail) View full image

Introducing Jack Sheen

As we welcome conductor–composer Jack Sheen to the Maestro Arts family, we ask him some questions to find out more about his work and his vision of classical music

What were your earliest musical influences?

I wasn’t brought up in what you’d call a ‘classical music household’. I grew up listening to my parents’ favourite pop records. When I was about nine, I discovered heavy metal and started playing bass guitar. From there, throughout my teenage years I basically sought out anything different from what I could find on the radio, and after going through experimental and electronic music, hip hop and free jazz, I eventually stumbled across composers like Ligeti and Stravinsky.

Why did you become a composer?

When I was around 15, in a music class someone mentioned a ‘living composer’. The word ‘composer’ always felt arcane to me, so the idea of people sitting in a room by themselves writing music for orchestras sounded bizarre, but exactly what I wanted to do. Up until this point I wasn’t reading music, so I taught myself to read and write music, got some piano lessons, and switched to orchestral bass for a bit in my local youth orchestra in Stockport.

I quickly found that I could transfer everything I’d been interested in before to my understanding of orchestral music. I’d listen to quite detailed electronic music in headphones every day on the way to school, and hearing the meticulousness of how those sounds were produced was a fantastic lesson in orchestration – the practice of combining different sounds to make new timbres.

Once I opened up scores by composers from the 20th century, I saw that done in a different way, which was exciting and completely new for me. I really learnt to read music by following scores by Stravinsky, Bartók and Ravel, rather than through reading the single lines involved in playing a solo instrument.

What made you want to become a conductor?

I wanted to play ‘classical music’, but I realised there was no way I could learn an instrument to a high enough level starting so late. I saw videos of conductors and very naively thought, ‘Well, this is just waving your arms around, I can totally do that!’ But more than that, I recognised that it was the most direct way of being involved in the total sound of the music, which is what I was after.

I began conducting my compositions as soon as I could, then got lessons at university and began conducting the student orchestras, opera productions and new music ensembles. I also got on the masterclass circuit as soon as I could. Since then, I’ve trained extremely rigorously in it, and for many years it was the main focus of my life.

What does your own music sound like?

My own compositions come from a rich tradition of music that tries to get away from the dramatic linear-narrative forms that have tended to dominate Western classical music. As a composer I’ve always been interested in music that’s somehow more trance-inducing. To this end, I often make long-duration works which disperse musicians around large, non-seated, non-concert hall spaces, creating an immersive environment through which audience can create their own path, freely moving and settling as they wish.

A lot of my concert music can sound a little like a snapshot into these sorts of worlds, pinning it down onto a stage for a little while. I also enjoy writing for pretty unusual combinations of instruments too. For example, my debut album, Sub, is an hour-long piece for five alto flutes, two bass clarinets, two trombones, piano, percussion, four violas and an electronic backing track. It was basically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write for this kind of alto-saturated ensemble!

What are the similarities between conducting and composing?

People often ask me about the connection, which I don’t think anybody has quite figured out yet. What I will say is that I find it interesting that with both, you spend the majority of your time alone, in a room, in silence, imagining sounds in your head and engaging in some way with written notation. With composing you imagine sounds in your head and write them down, whereas if you’re conducting you look at the score and imagine it in your head. The two are the same, but opposite, and involve the same amount of depth.

When I write a decrescendo in an orchestral piece, it’s more than just ‘everybody gets quieter now’: it’s about orchestrating specific shifts in weight, timbre, density, grain over a certain period of time, and translating that through the limits of the instruments in the orchestra. Whenever I see a crescendo in, say, a Brahms symphony, I’m imagining it with that same amount of detail, but instead of trying to write that down, I try to bring it out with the performers in the room from the clues left in the score.

How are you able to find time to do both?

I find myself more and more building up pieces in my head before sitting down at a desk with manuscript paper. Then, I need a lot of time to write stuff that I just throw away – exorcising all the bad ideas – so I need to carve out time for that. Once a piece is rolling, though, I can compose anywhere, anytime, even between rehearsals. Recently, I was lucky to conduct at the Lucerne Festival and was at a stage of the piece where I could go and compose for a couple of hours in my hotel between rehearsals, which was a real joy. A lot of music was written in those moments.

You often work on projects that cross various art forms. Why is this important to you?

It’s fun and fascinating! That’s essentially all it boils down to. I love working with artists from different disciplines and seeing how they interpret and utilise ‘the orchestra’, both as a sound-making force and as a cultural ‘object’, of sorts, with a very particular history and set of socio-cultural associations.

I want to see the orchestra and orchestral contexts opened up to as many different artists as possible. Obviously, this comes with a lot of extra responsibility for the conductor – particularly in works that use non-standard notation, such as text scores, graphic scores, improvisation, extra-musical performance – but it’s always refreshing to get into new lanes and rewild things that we as classical musicians can take for granted.

For the last few years, I’ve co-directed the London Festival of Contemporary Music. We try and put what many might consider ‘hardcore’ contemporary classical music alongside performance art, dance, art film, electronic music, poetry and more, with the idea of showing how connected these seemingly disparate practices can be, and to introduce people who are interested in one thing to something else. Through this, we’re rewarded with curious, warm, enthusiastic audiences, most of whom would never experience contemporary classical music otherwise, and we as musicians would never experience playing for.

I really value wide perspectives on all art and believe that the next important step for classical music is to bring it into dialogue with wider cultural conversation, rather than changing the art itself or the rituals that surround it. This is a responsibility for artists and curators. But I don’t have any big political agenda or anything, if I’m honest: as a conductor, I just want to make the music I love the most and a lot of that happens to be made now.

What are your hopes for the classical music world?

I would like to see more risk in classical music. I want things to be visceral and confusing rather than safe and didactic; more imagination and more rigour. That doesn’t mean never programming a Mahler cycle again, but if we do that, how can we make it unusual and new, and raise bigger questions as opposed to ‘what does Mahler sound like in a beautiful concert hall?’

Similarly, in contemporary music, we need to break open commissioning culture to allow artists to explore new formats, instrumentations, spaces, durations, and more. That’s how you push music into new territory. If we’re trying to get composers to write ten minutes for fifteen players or a five-minute orchestral piece to pop at the front of a programme, we’re not going to get anywhere. Composers aren’t going to be able to explore ideas they feel are rich and vital. And if audiences are our chief concern, who knows who we might pick up along a path which is more winding and tentacular.