Seán Clancy: 45 Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football

Seán Clancy was born in Dublin and educated at Birmingham Conservatoire, King’s College London, University College Dublin and the Ecole Nationale de Musique. He is now a Lecturer in Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire and his work has been comissioned and performed by many of the world’s leading ensembles including the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, BCMG, Ensemble Krock and Orkest de Ereprijs.

To celebrate the release of Seán Clancy’s new full length album, 45 Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football with Birmingham Record Company we caught up with the composer to ask him about the origins of this interesting new work.

How did this composition come about? Was it composed for a specific event? And why now?

‘Around the summer of 2013 I became increasing interested in pieces that only had one overt action. Around the same time, I also got involved in studying different forms of attention spans and discovered that over the course of the past 20 years or so, the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes! I got to thinking about structures in popular culture, and how they can sustain attention for longer periods of time. Football being an obvious choice for me, has the ability to sustain attention for 45 minutes at a time (focus is reset at half-time with adverts, analysis etc.) and I wanted to see if there was anything intrinsic to a football match that made it so, or do we focus on a sporting event because of the extrinsic elements (the team that we support, do we have a bet on etc. etc.)

It was composed with Ensemble Krock in mind, who were brave enough to commit to the project without me showing them anything, and it has been performed live a number of times throughout 2014 and 2015 in Birmingham, Dublin, and Stockholm. The recording is released now, owing to fine tuning every aspect of the recording which for a 45 minutes piece, takes a considerable length of time!’

Ray Houghton celebrates scoring the winner against Italy in the 1994 World Cup

What is it about this game in particular that inspired you to write this piece?

‘I have particularly fond memories of this match. The Irish football team in the 1990s were relatively successful and there was generally a sense of positivity around the country when they played. This was our opening match of the 1994 world cup and the country was so excited. After Ray Houghton‘s goal around 11 minutes however, the match very much ran out of steam, and I was fascinated at how an entire country could sit around and watch something so uneventful. I wanted to see if I could write something that kept people focused for the same length of time by using the flow, or the structure of this relatively uneventful match.’

You mention that the piece celebrates that particular 1994 match, but also “the average attention span on a singular activity has diminished from 40 minutes to just 2 minutes”. Can you talk a little bit more about why you think that is?

‘Yes, as I mentioned above, around the time I was composing this piece I began studying different forms of attention spans and was fascinated (if a little shocked) to learn that over the course of about 20 years, the average attention span for a singular activity has dropped from around 40 minutes to 2 minutes. This roughly correlates with greater access to the internet and maybe people consuming more information in much smaller chunks. As artists, we can either use this data and go along with it, which leads to interesting results, or we can also ask questions; again, leading to interesting results. There’s no right or wrong attitude, but I think it’s important for people to be aware of both sides of the coin. This piece I think, airs on the side of asking questions…’

At the risk of sounding naïve, how do you translate the physical actions of a football match in to a 45 minute piece of music? Are there exact points where we could say, “ah yes, that sound was that goal, or that moment was that tackle” and so on?

‘It’s not naïve at all! I sat down and watched the entire match and wrote out the duration that each team had possession. For example Ireland: 0’00” – 0’38”, Italy 0’38” – 1’07” etc, etc. I then had two blocks of sketch material which I composed the music from (one block for Ireland, the other for Italy). Every time Ireland had possession I used block A, whilst every time Italy had possession I used block B. This happens for the whole duration of the first half with significant events (Ray Houghton’s goal for example) punctuated in some way. The tempo of the piece loosely correlates to the tempo of the match also. It’s almost like composing a musical soundtrack to a silent film or to put it another way, it creates an alternative existence for a structure that occurred through chance in 1994…’

What made you chose a guitar quartet or Ensemble Krock for that matter?

‘I wanted to have a relatively homogenous sound for a piece that asks questions about focus and attention, and a guitar quartet is possibly as homogenous a sound as you can get (They are all tuned the same and all occupy the same register). However, as Krock are an electric guitar quartet you also have the ability to radically change sounds at your will. (The best of both worlds). On a more biographical note, all I listened to in the mid 90s (even though I was quite young) was Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins. As this is a piece set in the 90s, I wanted to capture some aspect of that soundworld, and the electric guitar quartet is the perfect medium for that.’

What is it like working on a project with such strong collaborators as Krock and John Murphy? Does it add anything special to the final product knowing that as a group you have shaped and created something unique?

‘Yes, it makes it far more special. Krock were absolute legends throughout the whole process. We met in 2013 when they were over from Stockholm doing a composition department project. We immediately hit it off and shared many interests and a similar working method. I had the opportunity to test the electronics for the piece in EMS in Stockholm in early 2014 and this really allowed us to craft the overall soundworld of the piece and not just the notes. Similarly, John Murphy runs a fantastic studio in Dublin where he has recorded the best underground and leftfield music around. He has a fantastic pair of ears and is such a perfectionist with an acute attention to detail. He is also remarkably kind with his time and was always willing to entertain my tiny suggestions and my constant ‘it’s not quite right, maybe a little more of this’ which lasted almost a year. Knowing the people you’re involved with, liking them, trusting them and having the time to explore all avenues has led to a very rewarding experience and a piece that I’m incredibly happy with. I am eternally grateful to all of them and am forever in their debt.’

You’ve mentioned somewhere that ‘nothing else of note took place and the second half was completely devoid of physical drama.’ …but what about John Aldridge and Jack Charlton’s bust up with the illuminous yellow baseball capped FIFA official? Surely that incident warrants a piece of its own?

‘Ah that was the match against Mexico! I know you’re just testing my football knowledge now!’

Haha! So then, what is next for you?

Upcoming things I’m involved in:

Featured Composer in Soundings at the Austrian Cultural Forum London, 2-5 November 2015.

Currently writing commissions for Crash Ensemble and a joint large scale piece for Ensemble Krock and Workers Union Ensemble (Whom I’m composer in association with) to be toured in Spring 2016.

and…

Release of solo electronic music in early 2016 (Birmingham Record Company).

You can read and hear more of Seán’s work on his website or head over to the Birmingham Record Company to see what Seán and other Birmingham Composers are up to.