Shock-waves and silence from Sean Shibe at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Fennessy, Gubaidulina, J.S. Bach, Lentz: Sean Shibe (acoustic and electric guitar). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.3.2020. (CS)

Sean Shibe (c) Kaupo Kikkas

David Fennessyrosewood (2011)
Sofia GubaidulinaSerenade (1960); Toccata (1969)
J.S. Bach – Suite in E minor BWV 996
George LentzIngwe (2003-09, rev. 2018)

I don’t expect that Wigmore Hall had previously heard anything quite like the primal scream that exploded from Sean Shibe’s electric guitar at the start of the second half of this recital. 

The wail of existential despair that is the first section of Georges Lentz’s Ingwe must surely have cracked Gerald Moira’s mural, The Soul of Music, in the cupola above the curved Wigmore Hall stage.  The candle sconces shook, as did my heart, as the almost painfully loud storm of sound assaulted Wigmore Hall’s quasi-religious reverence and calm.  For some patrons the bewilderment, and the ear-splitting volume, were too much, and there was a steady stream of departures throughout the hour-long work.  Those who left missed a performance of astonishing stamina, commitment, discipline and technique wizardry by Shibe, whose absolute immersion in Lentz’s music was spellbinding.

In fact, ‘The Soul of Music’ was a fitting figure to observe Shibe’s performance from on-high, gazing as he does at ‘The Genius of Harmony’ – a swirling ball of fire the red rays of which explode out across the world, as a human musician looks on, as if in a trance, seeking inspiration from Psyche, the human soul.

For Ingwe, which means ‘night’ in indigenous Australian language Aranda, is, in the words of Lentz, a reflection of his own dark night of the soul, a low point in his own ‘great spiritual “downward journey”’ – of ‘the “night within”: darkness and pain in my own life, depression, loneliness, the suicide of one of my closest friends’.  It was inspired, one December night in 2004, when the Australian-domiciled composer was driving through the desolate outback of New South Wales and, upon stopping at a small town, Brewarrina, heard an Aboriginal guitarist, tuning his electric guitar for a performance that evening.

Ingwe is itself an episode from a larger sub-cycle, Mysterium, which is the seventh segment of Lentz’s ‘life’s work’, Caeli enarrant.  In scale and imagery, it is grandiose: aggressive and apocalyptic at times.  The challenge is surely to make Lentz’s ‘effects’ – shuddering power chords, nerve-testing feedback, screaming sliding scales, deafening crescendos – more than just an extended and violent cri de coeur.  Dressed in a red-orange jumpsuit – one with pockets sufficiently copious to contain the required guitar gadgetry – Shibe, alone on the Wigmore Hall stage, cut a lonely figure but exuded a burning intensity.    

By coincidence, earlier that day I’d read Langston Hughes’ reflections on a performance at the 230 Club in Chicago in January 1942, by the blues singer Memphis Minnie: ‘Midnight.  The electric guitar is very loud, science having magnified all its softness away.’  The metaphor is a fine one, and at times in Ingwe it seems that the only answer to the barrage is silence.  But, ‘softness’ has not entirely been destroyed: with light tapping and brushing, his fingers climbing beyond the fingerboard to the taut peaks from which delicate sparkles evince, Shibe intimated a universe beyond the bombardment, one which had absorbed and quelled the distressed echo of electric pain.  At such moments, there was meditative mystery.  The last of the work’s eight sections is, however, a sinking into an abject, inescapable void, as the guitar’s lowest string slides ever lower, transmuting from music into noise, a terrifying tremble, against pulverising chords, each one louder than the last. 

Ingwe speaks of the vastness of the Australian outback, the barrenness of which is, for Lentz, a metaphor for his own spiritual vacuum, and for the emptiness of the universe.  Wigmore Hall seemed to me the wrong venue for Ingwe‘s limitlessness: its gracious walls held in the sound, rather than letting it reach out to the end of the earth.  On a practical level, something is not right if many in the audience have to place ear drum-protecting fingers in their ears for most of a performance.  That said, one cannot but admire Shibe for his courage to challenge and unsettle, as much as for his expressive commitment and technical excellence.

Such qualities were similarly communicative in the first half of the recital, during which Shibe’s acoustic guitar provided palette-cleansing pristineness and stillness before the raging, at that point unforeseen by many in the Hall, to follow.

David Fennessy grew up in Maynooth, County Kildare, and began his musical career playing electric guitar in rock bands.  His six-part rosewood (2011) is inspired, as are many of compositions, by a place – namely, the chapel created on the island of Orkney by Italian prisoners-of-war during the Second World War, which was the venue of the work’s first performance in June 2011: ‘My vivid memories of visiting [the Italian chapel] a few years ago guided me … Without wishing to somehow create a musical evocation of the place, notions of calm, reflection, open spaces, echoes and resonances permeate the music.’

The title refers to the wood commonly used in the construction of guitar fingerboards, and its sweet floral aroma seems to have infused Fennessy’s perfumed sonorities.  Shibe conjured the whimsy and magic of vibrations and vanishings, unfolding the intricate gestures and ceaselessly changing perspectives with gentleness and discernment.

The quiet directness that Shibe achieved in rosewood also characterised Sofia Gubaidulina’s Serenade (1960) and Toccato (1969), in which harmonic sweetness was blended with occasional rhythmic capriciousness, the repetitions of consonant intervals or single notes providing a calm foundation for the quasi-extemporised fragments of the multiples voices that seemed to be interacting within the modest confines of these works. 

The Toccata vanished into a silence from whence the Prelude to J.S. Bach’s Suite in E minor BWV 996 emerged.  In the ensuing dances, which were probably composed for a lute-harpsichord, Shibe defined the rich interplay of polyphonic strands with astonishing clarity and dexterity.  Like a bardic poet, he told the Allemande’s tale with beguiling fluency, while the courtliness of the Courante was enhanced by careful pointing of the harmonic sophistications and subtleties.  In the Sarabande, Shibe was again a medieval minstrel singing of feelings deep and true, while the Bourée and Gigue danced with grace and intricacy respectively.

His black shirt glistening with silver threads, Shibe was a Merlin who cast a captivating spell.  At the extremes of both silence and shock-wave, this was miraculous and mesmerising music-making.

Claire Seymour

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