Meet the Composer: Sean Shepherd

Meet the Composer: Sean Shepherd

Complete silence. A couch to nap on. A window with a view. What are other key elements for crafting a new piece of music? And what is it like to hear your music performed by the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time?

We asked composer Sean Shepherd these questions and more, as the Orchestra prepares to perform Silvery Rills on April 3 and 4. 


Tell us briefly about Silvery Rills and what to listen for in these concerts?
Speaking briefly should be easy—at four minutes, Silvery Rills is the shortest piece I’ve ever written. There are still several changes of character and some real contrasts of loud and soft, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of piece. Brevity being the soul of wit, this kind of piece, and REALLY getting to the point, is harder to write than one might think.

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Crafted. Extroverted. Direct.

The Minnesota Orchestra gave a reading of your music in 2006 at the Composer Institute. What do you remember from that experience?
I said it at the time—and I feel it even more today—that the week I spent at Orchestra Hall was fundamentally important for my understanding of writing for and working with orchestras. I needed to hear the piece I had written (while still a graduate student) exactly as I had written it, which is what the Orchestra does so beautifully at the Institute readings and concerts. I didn’t write a new piece for orchestra until years later, but the difference in those two pieces was vast. Understanding the “instrument” of the orchestra is a lifelong process, but I took a huge leap in 2006. It’s a special honor to be back and on a Minnesota Orchestra subscription program, for certain. 

What advice do you have for audience members in terms of approaching unfamiliar music?
When I met my boyfriend (now my husband) in New York, he had come from an acting background and was very knowledgeable about theater of all kinds, and he would take me to a huge variety of performances (some incredible and some awful), from traditional to experimental, that I would have never sought out myself. I reciprocated with the contemporary and classical music scene and for a few years we were each able to experience our own worlds through the fresh eyes of a newcomer. It felt invigorating to interact and come to terms with ways these fields get pushed and prodded with new work and new productions. When I would sit down for a two-hour show about which I knew nothing, I would take a deep breath. I knew my time was valuable and it might feel wasted in the end, but the closer I paid attention, the more richly I tended to be rewarded. 

What excites you about new music that is being composed today?
Just looking at my fellow Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute alumni over the years is exciting. We’ve all gone in such different directions. Missy Mazzoli is writing deeply passionate and colorful operas. Andrew Norman’s canvas has become sprawlingly huge, with a new 50-minute piece, Sustain. Nina C. Young is continuing her beautiful work with both acoustic and electronic music, which seem to inform each other. Anthony Cheung and Wang Lu, the Brangelina-esque glamour couple of new music, both have glorious new discs out. 

What are you listening to lately?
Thanks to streaming services, it’s easier to have access to collected recordings by one composer or ensemble than it used to be. I’ve been doing some deep dives on composers I always felt I could know better. Basically, one composer for weeks at a time—Takemitsu, Boulez, Hans Abrahamsen, Roger Sessions and Unsuk Chin have been in rotation recently.

What is your ideal environment for working on a composition?
Complete silence. A piano or keyboard at hand. A couch to nap on nearby. Maybe a window with a view. No emails to respond to. Several months of time and space. A huge piece to write and sink one’s teeth into. No deadline to worry about quite yet. (This is rare.)

Who is your biggest supporter?
Outside of my family, my two closest supporters, composer Steven Stucky and composer-conductor Oliver Knussen, have both sadly died in recent years. I treasure the time I spent with them, and their supportive words of advice from years ago are things I try to remember. Perhaps it’s a realization of one’s age; I don’t expect to replicate those relationships, but they stick with me.

What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far?
A piece I wrote for the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s opening concert of this season was the first piece on a program featuring Yo-Yo Ma playing Shostakovich. As I was getting changed for the concert a few minutes before, I realized with horror that my suit pants didn’t make it to Germany with me. So along with my beautiful new suit coat, I wore khakis onstage! Mr. Ma was delighted and very amused; he called them my lucky pants.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with our audiences?
I’m writing some chamber music which includes saxophone for Music Academy of the West and it feels fun to revisit an instrument for which I haven’t written in 25 years. 

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
Get outdoors in beautiful places, all year long. I skied a lot when I was young. I’ve been able to get back to it in recent years, and it’s always amazing how refreshing it is to feel the speed and the cold air.

More: seanshepherd.com

Minnesota Orchestra Staff