Sean Shepherd joined the faculty of the University of Chicago Department of Music as Visiting Assistant Professor in Composition at the beginning of this academic year. He has been described as "An exciting composer of the new American generation" (New York Times), and a “vital taste of the future” (Boston Globe). Shepherd has earned wide acclaim and commissions from major ensembles and performers across the US and Europe. His music has been commissioned and performed by the BBC, Chicago, Minnesota, Montréal, National, New World symphony orchestras, radio orchestras in Austria, France, and Germany. and many more.
Learn about Sean Shepherd below, and read his thoughts on Hyde Park, the Rodeo, and the interrelated efforts of music and fatherhood.
Your new work An Einem Klaren Tag – On a Clear Day is premiering at Carnegie Hall next week. Please tell us a little bit about the project.
It's a project that has been in the tumbler for a number of years now — a lot of versions and iterations have come and gone, but basically the idea of a substantial work for solo cello (Jan Vogler), orchestra (the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg with Kent Nagano, who is music director of the opera house there) and some combination of singers has been at the core of our planning and thinking. The fact that there will be 5 different choruses of completely different experience on stage and the premiere is happening at Carnegie Hall — those are very nice bonuses indeed! I've been working with German Poet Ulla Hahn, and we've shaped and hammered this cycle out, sometimes word for word. It's really about a concern for our collective present and our collective future. Some of this poetry is intimate, some anguished, and some is funny — there's been a lot to shape, support, and respond to musically, and building this world together has been a terrific and humbling experience. It's more than double basically anything else I've ever made, both in terms of minutes (about 60)and forces (more than 200 people), and it has preoccupied every minute I've have had not otherwise taken since I've moved to Chicago. I am aware that these big moments for a composer can be fast and fleeting so I'm trying to take it in and enjoy the ride for the next few weeks.
What do you enjoy about living and working in Chicago, especially Hyde Park?
Chicago is a fantastic blend of World City — connected, current, cool — and is also just a comfortable easy place to be. I lived in New York for a long time, and appreciate Chicago's easy vibe (but still with great food and culture and all the things I love about cities) more than I ever might have guessed. Hyde Park has wrapped its arms around my family, and we just fell right into a great life here. I like a short commute and being closely connected with campus. As a freelancer for a long time, I appreciate the sense of belonging I feel at UChicago and in the Department.
Very fun fact...growing up, you (and your family) were participants in the rodeo in Reno, Nevada. Do you have any similar hobbies now or other creative outlets?
I have a lurker Tiktok account (the best! Being a content devourer is far more fun than being a content creator!) and they are on to me with #horsetok and #farmtok and I see tons of funny animals and it brings me back to my childhood in the safest and least expensive of ways. Hobbies are maybe for a different decade — free time is not really a thing at the moment. I don't think I've even seen an hour of TV since my daughter was born and we moved to Chicago. But my son is three and we are excitedly shopping for bikes for the summer — my husband Jake and I used to bike all over New York City when we lived there. So if we can get our kids to fall into our old habits and find them again ourselves, it will be good for everyone's cardio health.
Is there anything that music has taught you about being a parent, or vice versa?
I think the energy and attention needed to be a present parent is very similar to the active and devoted focus needed to even begin to write music. For me, that energy is in limited supply, so there is a real conflict and tension when it comes to my priorities on a daily basis. It's easy to say that one's family is always the priority, but when the deadlines loom, it's harder to live that in reality. It's a challenge, and something I thought and worried a lot about before we even had children. While that remains unsolved, I do think my experiences as a parent are affecting my interactions with students in a positive way. Many issues in being a parent and being a teacher don't really correlate directly, but a few seem to!
What musical artists and genres do you enjoy listening to?
We are having fun with old Broadway and bringing it to our kids. My son has been hearing a lot of the Sound of Music lately, and like any three year old, he can be hot or cold depending on the day. But he knows the words to quite a bit of it already! As far as music for the car — I listen to the alt bands/artists with a flare for harmony from the last 15 yrs or so: Young the Giant, alt-J, Foster the People, Passion Pit, Sufjan. I do deep dives on concert music of the last fifty years at times, (most recently I spent MANY hours with Takemitsu and Unsuk Chin) but it's usually tied up with my own working rhythm, and so more often I'll find a podcast — BBC History, Smartless, etc.