written by Tim Hansen

Sean Harold

In the email ping-pong prefacing this article, JFund awardee Sean Harold warned me that his biographies “tended to be heavy on the sarcasm and light on actual detail.” For example, one iteration of his biography began: “Initially trained as a jazz bassist and improviser, Sean Harold turned his attention to concert works and electronic music as his obsessive-compulsive need to control everything around him quashed his attempts to quell his growing misanthropy,” while another simply read “Sean Harold was born in 1984. He has not died yet.”

I’ve written before about how a composer’s biography can reveal more about a composer than merely their history, and some might be quick to write off Sean’s approach to the dainty art of biography writing as a little too cute or cynical for his own good. But a brief conversation with Sean reveals him to be an intelligent and articulate artist who loves what he does and is deeply grateful for the opportunities he’s had, but who also isn’t afraid to point out the absurdities of the industry in which he works.

“It’s the ecosystem I find ridiculous,” he explains. “Specifically, it’s the reduction of both artistic merit and academic success to a prestige-based hierarchy. Prizes, alma maters, and connections are what impress people, which is unfortunate in a community that should care about aesthetics and dedication above all else.”

“The bios get me in trouble sometimes,” he continues, “but when you read most bios, you get the feeling that every composer on the planet was given a template: Formative years, massive success, weird hobby. And that’s their bio. Well, I didn’t like my childhood, I’m not a massive success, and all I do is play music. So I try to undercut those expectations every time I write a bio, because I think it’s funny that I can skew the tone just slightly, and change everything from self-glorification to self-abasement.

“And I mean, my music is 90% self-loathing, and 10% ripping off Bach, so I think it works.”

So the guy has a sense of humor and is more interested in making music than headlines, and it shines through in his music. He’s prolific, creative, and good at what he does. Specifically, Sean has three core musical loves: free jazz, where he started; concert music, which is why we find him amongst the esteemed alumni of the JFunders; and, perhaps a little unusually, hardcore punk. However Sean is very careful about not mixing the three worlds, which, given his vaguely iconoclastic tendencies could seem a little surprising. But once again, his reasons behind this are thoughtful and incisive.

“I recently did a residency where the master artist asked me why I quoted Schubert in my orchestra piece instead of a hardcore band when the latter would be so much more unexpected,” Sean tells me. “I told him that while hardcore always has an impact on what I do, the reason I don’t overtly use it in my concert music is that I feel like the context of a concert hall would destroy a big part of what I love about hardcore, whereas it would amplify what I love about classical music.”

For Sean, it’s all about context. He’s not interested in discovering a visionary new voice in art music, one that fuses all his disparate musical influences into one heaving punk-Penderecki conglomerate. For him, it would be completely artificial to even try. “What’s great about hardcore? It’s not just the music,” he explains. “The live experience of music is too amazing and varied to be discounted. And part of what I love about hardcore is singing along, and dancing, and the camaraderie you have with a group of people literally inflicting damage on one another. You can’t replicate that in a concert hall.”

This brings us to his JFund piece. And what project would a prolific, self-reproaching, satirical, Zappa-esque, Gen-Y, hardcore punk-playing jazz bassist tackle next?
If you said “a piece for ondes Martenot framed as a children’s picture book”, then you get a gold star.

“I was asked by Suzanne Farrin to write her a piece for the ondes Martenot,” he says. “The idea for Kinderstück (after Webern’s piece of the same name) came from my trying to grapple with the instrument. The ondes is so idiosyncratic, and its timbres are so often tied to one era or just a few composers – Messiaen, Messiaen, and Messiaen come to mind – that it took me a ridiculous amount of time to feel like I could even pretend I understood it. That led me to the idea of writing a children’s piece, not because I wanted to write for children per se, but because I felt like a child trying desperately to understand the ondes.”

Before writing a note Sean instead wrote a short children’s story, sort of an expression of the absurdity Sean felt trying to understand the ondes. However the story quickly proved a source of inspiration for the music itself, with the two elements ending up cross-pollinating each other, creating one cohesive artwork. Sean also secured illustrator Yoko Furusho to draw some pictures for the project.

I feel that I need to reiterate once more though that Sean doesn’t embark on these twisty paths of associative creativity to make some grand statement about the musical water in which we all swim. He’s just a guy who likes to make music. But there’s something undeniably refreshing about his attitude towards this whole New Music palaver.

“I’ve never considered myself an iconoclast,” he says. “I love Bach, I like being a part of academia, and I voted for Clinton in the primary, so I’m probably banned from the iconoclast clubhouse. But the beauty of concert music shouldn’t prevent us from having a sense of humor about what we do. And the system, as it stands, is a broken one that feeds off nepotism while heading into a weird realm of reverse patronage. I guess what I’m saying is that I take my work very seriously, but I find the scene utterly absurd.”