Glasgow Cathedral Festival: Sean Shibe

As part of what he called his “Drive to [19]85”, some years before Sean Shibe was born, the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp used to speak of one of his side projects as “a small, mobile, highly-intelligent unit”. Only oldsters like myself are likely to look at Shibe and see a Fripp de nos jours, but that description fits him rather well.

Of all the many returned festivals and seasons across Scotland this autumn, the live reappearance of the Glasgow Cathedral Festival, with a very diverse programme that crossed genres with style and featured established names alongside the freshest new talents, was a particular achievement by the handful of young people who made it happen. Their resources are slender by comparison with some of the other events you can read about on VoxCarnyx.

Shibe’s one-man international journey was therefore an ideal Saturday night headliner, revisiting his back-catalogue under the title Disjunctions, rather than promoting his new Pentatone recording, Camino. The bulk of the programme was taken from his soft/LOUD project, which became his second Delphian album. The quieter part is taken from lute manuscripts in Scottish collections, which show the pan-European outlook and communications of the country in the 17th century.

The bulk of them were from Wemyss Castle and Balcarres House in Fife, but it is not where the music has been found now but where the tunes originated that speaks of Scotland’s cosmopolitan past. Performing them on a modern classical guitar, Shibe can exploit the full range of melodies, rhythms and tonal colour to be found in the notes.

Before switching to his Fender Stratocaster for louder electric music from living composers, the guitarist included an “intervention” from his third Delphian disc of the music of Bach, his most recent award-winner. The brief suite not only underlined the recital’s international message, it also  set up his encore performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness, prefaced, as Shibe likes to do, with a reminder about its ecological message.

Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is a contemporary classic, and Shibe has become one of its foremost performers. The complexities of its rhythms and the technicalities of performing live over several pre-recorded tracks of his own playing now appear second nature. Those whose record collections also include the African-inspired sonic experiments of David Byrne and Brian Eno, with and without the band Talking Heads, will recognise similar sources to those Reich explores, and Shibe’s performance made the most of them in the reverberant acoustic.

That was even more audible in the last work on his programme, LAD by Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe. A memorial work, composed for nine bagpipers and consequently not often performed, Shibe has made this a personal showstopper, using multi-tracking, sustain and slide to adapt it to his electric instrument. Heard in isolation, especially booming in a big space, it might have come from anywhere in the world and any era – and that was possibly exactly the point.

Keith Bruce