Kelley Sheehan : noise, perception, and interaction

Kelley Sheehan is a Chicago-based composer and computer musician moving between acoustic, electronic, electro-acoustic, and performance art works. In any medium, her work broadly focuses on noise, perception, and interaction. Cacophony magazine has described her work to be “frenetic, almost acrobatic.” Kelley has either performed or has been performed at numerous concert halls or art spaces such as the Experimental Sound Studios (Chicago), The Art Institute of Chicago, Constellation (Chicago), and The Tank (New York).​

She is co-artistic director and performer of Noisebias, a contemporary ensemble as well as co-founder of The Plucky Plunkers, a improvisational music duo that is focused on commission and performing works for the toy piano and multimedia colloborations. As an advocate for New Music, she is Co-Artistic Director and Editor at Cacophony Magazine, a Chicago based magazine dedicated to the advocation of contemporary music making and performance.​


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

In elementary school, I used to put my ear flush against my desk and run my hand along the laminated surface that would be next to my ear. I’d then sit up and do the same gestures across the desk and the difference in timbre fascinated and delighted  me. I’d spend a lot of time listening to my fingers scrape across the surface – essentially improvising before I knew the word. 

Now, when I compose, my headspace is still of one who is placing an ear against a surface in order hear another, secret but accessible, world. And of one who is trying to get others to do the same.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

I think of pieces that are influential before I think of any specific composer, oddly enough. I have a mental index of works that are important to me. These are works that fascinated me so much that I poured over the score for long spans of time. Trying to pull these works apart through my own analysis was, and to an extent, still is, an important influential process. Off the top of my head, in my undergrad years,  some of the works that I cherished were Varese’s Ionisation, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and many of the works by Sciarrino. 

Over time, works have been added to this index. Pieces that pop into my mind immediately are Chaya Czernowin’s The Quiet, and  the works of Rebecca Saunders. The biggest change over time though, now that I’m not solely working in an academic environment, is learning more from my peers in the new music community of Chicago and from performance collaborations with excellent minds in a live environment.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

In terms of process, I start all my works by collecting a sound world, which can be a very time consuming and hands-on process.  I usually end up spending a lot of time with the instrument(s) or specific performer to coax out sounds that interested me but also fit into the overall atmosphere of the work. 

Simultaneously, structure is a parameter that is always being mapped out. The goal is to place these sound worlds into an underlying framework that allows for gestural ideas to just exist. As I work through composing a new piece, I’m constantly accessing the work to assure the right balance of form and sound. 

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? 

To keep momentum on projects, then I have to keep a regular schedule, usually composing every day. At the start of a work, I use paper and pencil only and I safeguard scheduled composing time. I’ve found the ritual of composing helps me get into the groove of things. If I’m engraving or working out electronics then I can do that anywhere.

What other technology, if any, do you use?

I’m often using softwares like Max MSP or Puredata for electronics and the purpose changes depending on the project. I’ve used these for live processing, fixed media, video manipulation, the list goes on. But lately I’ve stepped away from these softwares to generate electronics and visuals using only coding languages such as javascript. Additionally, I love to include hardware that can be manipulated, such as effect pedals, contact microphones, or small amplifiers that produce feedback loops easily.

Please describe a recent work.

Three Movements, perhaps as the title suggests, is a purely acoustic chamber work that consists of three continuous movements. It also refers to the musical material and movements of the performers: each sound was constructed from three individual horizontal or vertical movements across each instrument. 

Lastly, the underlying structure of these movements are built from three repetitious cycles designed to propel this sparse environment forward.

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