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Kelley Sheehan

Chicago-based young music pioneer Kelley Sheehan (1989) works as a composer, an improvising electronic music performer and an art director/editor of a webzine, enthusiastically promoting the music of her peers. Her pieces are full of discovery, collaboration and unpredictability.

“I started in my undergrad period as a piano major but only because I didn’t realise that you could get a degree in composing. The second I realised you could, I switched. That’s a funny story that people usually laugh about, that I didn’t even know you could do that in school!” With her background in performing, Sheehan still has a hands-on approach in working with instruments. “If I’m writing for an electric guitar, for example, I want to have an electric guitar at home. So I can experiment with it and see what sounds are possible.”

In recent years, Sheehan has turned to working with electronic instruments, often building them herself. An increasing part of her artistic practice is as a performer, improvising either solo or in collaborations. In her compositions, she tries to merge the world of live improvised electronics with the classic concert hall. For example in Talk Circus, where she uses a no-input mixer: a tool frequently used in noise music because of its possibilities for creating harsh feedback and its unpredictability.

“When we were rehearsing that piece, I was always saying things like: the general idea here is that I want a clicking sound, or a droning sound. And then the end result would hopefully be somewhere close to what I had in mind. I guess that’s where my work is gravitating towards. From ‘I want this sound at this moment’ to ‘this is what I hope will happen’, depending on the electronics that I’m using or the movements that I’m using.”

But although she allows for improvisation and unpredictability in her work, she says: “At the heart of my work, I think I’m very much a structuralist.” When making structures, the qualities of the sounds she’s using are the starting point. “For instance, in my piece Four Sharp Corners the musicians have to drag their violins slowly across a table. So I have to create movements that are long and slow. I always start with sounds and then my structure comes from how best to place those sounds in time. And for some reason, my pieces always come out shorter than the typical new music piece. I wouldn’t say it’s deliberate, but I wouldn’t say I’m unhappy about it either. I kind of like that they do their thing, say what they wanna say and I’m happy to end it there.”

The sounds that Sheehan gravitates towards often tend to be the more noisy ones. “I just love these gritty noises. And I always have. There’s just so much to those kinds of sounds. You can listen to them for a long time and still not hear everything that’s inside them.” With the noisiness comes a sense of playfulness: she even wrote a piece called Circle Speak for a electronically amplified toy maze that makes sounds that the player manipulates by playing the game.

Circle Speak will be presented in an extended installation version for multiple players at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek. It’s an exciting idea for Sheehan, who is a collaborator and a team player at heart, and besides writing her own music actively works on promoting the work of her peers, both as a performer and as artistic director and editor for the webzine Cacophony. “I really like the sense of community that it gives me. Getting to promote diverse voices is really an important part of my artistic practice. I think it’s really fundamental for artists to support each other. Especially right now.”