Sean McCann, ‘Music For Private Ensemble’

Posted by on August 15, 2013

Sean McCann, Music for Private Ensemble

Recital, June 2013

The last time I checked in with Sean McCann was on the eve of his Vanity Fair album release, a collaborative outing with fellow LA-based musician Matthew Sullivan, marking the inaugural release of his Recital imprint. Around then, McCann indicated that he was moving away from doing cassettes toward recording more fully realized works on formats that were better suited to the sounds he’s after. McCann wasn’t kidding when he said this; he has virtually dropped out of the experimental tape scene altogether over the past few years. Perusing the Recital website, you get the sense that he has sought refuge and inspiration in the dusty corners of his local library and university archives, plucking out worn musical scores and neglected texts, while avoiding the glow and scroll of online cassette culture. McCann further expressed a desire to move away from creating music built on improvisation and synthesizers, focusing more on composition and the pure voicing of his instruments, namely violin. Here we are, a good year and a half since the release of Vanity Fair and over two years since The Capital, his last full-length solo effort, and we are given Music For Private Ensemble, where McCann emerges not only with a lucid expression of this new direction, but as a bona fide modern composer to be taken seriously.

To be clear, though, the component parts of Music For Private Ensemble are not altogether new, seen in the light of McCann’s back catalog. Heck, the massive string swells, speed variegated tape work, and odd time signatures of “An Unknown Gentleman” off of Vanity Fair provides the basic blueprint for Private Ensemble’s second side, even some of the more grand choral and orchestral gestures heard throughout the album appeared on several of The Capital’s tracks. What is noticeably different here, though, is the clarity, depth, and range of sounds employed: McCann reportedly multi-tracked upwards of 100 instrumental layers to achieve a full chamber orchestra sound, playing all of the instruments himself. And McCann, the conductor and orchestra of one, has arranged these sounds with a level of maturity and sophistication that is damn near peerless within the contemporary experimental underground.

“Introduction,” a three-part suite, launches Private Ensemble off into what feels like a series of false starts and tuning exercises, with drum rolls and string swells building tension and anticipation before a massive cymbal wash marks the transition into the somber string arrangements of “An Exchange of Courtesies I & II.” It’s here where you become acutely aware of the scope of McCann’s ambition as a composer, where you could easily envision this music wafting through grand concert halls or accompanying big-budget films. “Character Change” reinforces this notion with its layers of jaunty glockenspiel, flute flourishes, and ominous bassoon tones, highlighting McCann’s versatility and talents as an instrumentalist.

If the A-side leaves you wondering whether or not McCann has simply abandoned his roots and is heading towards the black-tie set, then the flip side will be a clear reminder that, while his overall sound is more overtly classical, his underlying avant tendencies remain intact. “City With All The Angles (for Dick Higgins)” features ornate orchestral elements overlying the moaning, groaning, sound-as-sound tape work strategies of his Fluxus forerunners. This odd, yet compelling, contrast in sound arrangement spills into the subsequent track “Our Days of Generosity Are Over,” gradually calming to the dream-like closer “Arden,” which features the airy, vocal drift of Kayla Cohen (a.k.a. Itasca).

Given the uncertainty of how long it will be before we hear from McCann again and whether Music For Private Ensemble could ever find its way out into the public in some live context, I can only offer that it’s worth your time to track down the deluxe edition of this album, which includes an additional forty-five minutes worth of material, offering another glimpse into what will surely be amongst the finest releases of the year.