Seán Clancy

Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided

Drawing on ideas from conceptual artist Sol Le Witt and minimalist composer James Tenney, the Irish composer makes music for piano, gamelan and synthesizers

“Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are. Silence is the creation of space,” writes Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan in her book Shifting The Silence. Dublin based experimental composer and musician Seán Clancy’s sonic fabric of choice extends well beyond silence, but he approaches sound with a similar philosophy. He takes one sort of tone, one kind of texture, one rhythmic shape, and lets them expand, carefully sequencing them and marvelling at the interactions of their waves.

Clancy’s methodology is a synthesis of artist Sol LeWitt’s visual minimalism transcribed into music, drawing on some of the musical theories of composer James Tenney. Yet his approach feels safely distanced from both, occupying a nook of its own. In spite of the numerical references in the titles of his compositions like Ten Minutes Of Music On The Subject of IKEA and Five Lines Of Music Slow Down And Eventually Stop, Clancy’s work might be best described as an antithesis to precise mathematics such as those found in Iannis Xenakis’s early oeuvre. Alongside a significant lyricism embedded in the compositions – especially on 2019’s And Then You… dedicated to his son’s birthday – his scores are characterised by an emancipating sparseness and openness to interpretation, which allows the pieces to shift significantly from performance to performance.

Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided is no different. In what is one of Clancy’s vaguest scores, only the lengths of the titular sections and the pitches are specified precisely. Their order and the decision whether to play them at the same time or one after another are left ambiguous. Similarly, rhythms, durations, the choice of instruments and their timbral characteristics, and ultimately the number of people playing the piece are all entrusted to the performers themselves to decide.

In its recorded form, the single, 44-minute long cut is performed by Clancy himself on gamelan elements, piano, and synthesizers. The composition often moves at a glacial pace, yet it’s anything but cold, as the composer’s choice of instruments and timbres projects a soothing warmth. Its first section is all about the shimmering reverberations of gamelan gongs. Individual sounds appear again and again, with every occurrence the same as the one before yet slightly different and unique. Their placement is sparse at first, making the silences that absorb each hit just as important as the sounds themselves. The cadence speeds up, then slows down again, repeating this dance until the emptiness between tones fills up with humming, saturating electronic effects, reaching ambient-like atmospheres and announcing the piece’s second section.

As the title suggests, the composition’s parts are of unequal duration, yet each of them encompasses a feeling of having no beginning nor end, even when the softness of the electronics and metal percussion is swept aside by a stabbing, grave-sounding barrage of piano chords. Here, the undulating rhythmic motion of the piano is akin to a restless tone generator. As the keys pile upon each other, they begin to form a dense texture, only for it to disappear within the disjointed and disquieting low frequency murmurs of wavering gong hits. Swirling and uneasy, the album’s final section leaves behind a lasting, beautiful but grave sensation.

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