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Sean Shibe, a shape-shifting artist, redefines the idea of a classical guitarist

On his new album, Sean Shibe ditches his nylon-strung classical guitar for a Fender Stratocaster.
Iga Gozdowska
Courtesy of the artist
On his new album, Sean Shibe ditches his nylon-strung classical guitar for a Fender Stratocaster.

The young Scottish classical guitarist Sean Shibe defies expectations. His new album is titled Lost & Found – and one thing he apparently lost was his traditional, nylon-strung classical guitar. What he found instead was a sleek black Mexican Fender Stratocaster.

The album is a fully plugged-in affair, without a trace of the standard Spanish classics or Bach transcriptions many guitarists thrive on. Instead, Shibe artfully gathers over a millennium's worth of compositions, which, on the surface, may seem like odd bedfellows.

And if you think electric guitars are only for shredding and blasting big noise, think again. In Shibe's arrangement of "Peace Piece," by jazz pianist Bill Evans, the textures are gauzy and the colors are muted. I've rarely heard an electric guitar sound so featherlight.

The 30-year-old Edinburgh native, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, likes to keep his listeners on their toes. Last year, he released an album of Iberian and French music that glowed with crepuscular introspection. On the cover, Shibe appeared monk-like with a freshly shorn head. The booklet photos showed him, clippers in hand, lopping off his thick locks.

Lost & Found flows with a chameleon-like duality. Shibe's inspiration comes via the enigmatic 18th-century poet and printmaker William Blake, whose metaphysical work plays with opposites and disguise. "A radical searching for the revelatory," is how Shibe sums up Blake in the album booklet. "The illustrations that accompany his writings disregard convention and present a vital auteurship of craft and philosophy," he adds. In that spirit, electric guitars don't sound like themselves on Lost & Found. And Shibe himself, perhaps mirroring some of Blake's paintings, appears androgynous on the album cover, swathed in a pink tulle dress.

Another touchstone of mysticism, represented by two tracks on the album, is the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen, whose piece "O Choruscans Lux Stellarum" gets a megawatt makeover. In place of sacred vocals, Shibe offers a psychedelic swirl of celestial light — a kind of "star-way to heaven."

Shibe thinks of his new album as an "overflowing toy box" of compositions, but actually it unfolds like a clever mixtape. Music by Meredith Monk, Chick Corea and Olivier Messiaen rub elbows with Julius Eastman and Moondog, the Viking-clad composer who, beginning in the 1940s, performed on the streets of Manhattan and slept in doorways. His lighthearted love song "High on a Rocky Ledge," thanks to Shibe's refined strumming, takes on the gravitas of a solemn prayer.

Throughout the album, the guitar substitutes for other instruments by way of Shibe's crafty, and reliably tasteful, arrangements. Yet there is one piece meant to be played on electric guitar — Continuance, music written for Shibe by the rising young British composer Daniel Kidane. Meditative chords that float like clouds are pierced with beams of multi-colored light. The ethereal sounds emanate from the other electric guitar Shibe deploys on the album, a 35th anniversary edition of a PRS Custom 24-08.

Lost & Found is a beguiling album, where music of innocence and experience interlace. And where a masterful, mercurial artist, compels us to question what a "classical guitarist" should sound like in 2022.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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