The class of 1988 includes a composer, a performer, an inventor, a photographer, a radio host, an athlete and a polyglot. His name is Sean.
By Katherine Duke ’05
To quote a 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile: Sean MacLean ’88 is “a rarity in this day: a multilingual Renaissance man.” By the time he arrived at Amherst he was already a successful pianist, and at 22 he composed Pange Lingua, an award-winning choral piece based on a hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Yale School of Music, launch the Standing Wave Audio production company, write music for PBS documentaries and invent the Remora, a 6-foot-long wooden extension that turns his guitar into a harp guitar. An outdoor sportsman and published travel photographer, he speaks French, Spanish and Japanese.
Since 2005, MacLean has been a host on Seattle’s Classical KING FM 98.1. His show, NW Focus, is live on Friday nights. “Other nights, it’s a preview of local concerts, using recordings,” he says. “Listeners discover the wealth of Pacific Northwest talent and often show up, on my recommendation, to try a new concert experience.” He also gives piano per- formances and lectures, and he MCs benefit galas that have raised more than $1 million for local music education and arts groups. Here he is, in his own words:
The Pressure of Live Radio
The live radio show is a blast, because the pressure is high for everyone: my engineer, me and especially the performers. We have an audience of about 300,000. Everyone performs more generously when the mic is open and live. I’ve taken to making videos of the performers after the live show, designing my own grip gear: cranes, dollies, Steadicams.
Making Music with Glasses and Floss
I do not get to program all my own music. That’s done by our music director. But occa- sionally I get to fill up the hour with my own picks. The response from listeners who have never heard Latvian choral music, Ethiopian flute or Thomas Newman’s unused movie cues—employing only wine glasses and dental floss—makes me love my job.
The Lowdown on the Remora
The need for deeper bass strings arose from my dissatisfaction with the guitar’s bottom end. To make a purely acoustic instrument that could play the deep low notes, I’d have to make it huge. Enter the cantilever design that [luthier] Bill [Cumpiano] helped me figure out. The treble component of the Remora strings is conducted through the guitar’s saddle. But the deep, fundamental bass note has to be electronically picked up and mixed into the acoustic signal. There is nothing “electronic” sounding about it.
His Big Secret to Getting Work Done
I picked Amherst over a music school like Jul- liard because I saw too many of my musician friends in high school come back narrowed and neurotic from their time at conservatories. Ultimately, though, my decision to major in Japanese was a bit of “liberal-artsing myself into a corner.” By my third year, I relaxed into my calling: composition. My senior thesis was six poems of Wallace Stevens set to voice and piano.
Finally, my big secret, the only reason I ever was able to get any work done as a composer: Somehow, I got a copy of the music building key. I would go to the best piano in the best practice room and work all night undisturbed. Jerome, the famously grumpy janitor, would find me in the morning and curse me out for being in there. That key, though. It represents the best of what an education can offer: the best teachers, in the best facilities, with unlimited access to the space wherein you can discover yourself.