Detroit Free Press
, December 2005
The week after composer Sean Hickey's debut CD was released in November, the album sneaked into the 100th and final spot on the Billboard classical chart. "Left at the Fork in the Road" sold 119 copies nationwide that week, according to the Nielsen Soundscan service that tracks CD retail sales.
"Obviously, it doesn't take a lot of sales," says Hickey, a 35-year-old Detroit native. "But not too many new releases make it to the chart at all, so it's something. One of my goals was to make the chart."
Hickey helped his own cause by firing an e-mail blast announcing the release on the Naxos label to 850 friends, musicians and industry contacts. It says something about the size of the classical record market that one guy with a computer can whip up enough interest to put a CD on the chart. Hickey is trying to work every angle.
The first rule of building a career as a young composer in America is that there are no rules. You need talent, passion, guile and luck. Mostly you need the stubbornness to pursue your calling in spite of a culture that treats classical music with virulent indifference, if not outright hostility. Hickey -- a former rock guitarist and a self-described record junkie who once worked at the now-defunct Harmony House Classical store on Woodward in Royal Oak -- is inventing his career as he goes along.
"Networking is crucial," he says. "The role of a composer in society is to spend about half of one's time on your craft and the other half in promoting what you do. I really wish it wasn't that way. But my music is not going to promote itself."
Hickey lives with his wife, actress Catherine Jhung, and their 10-month old son, Shannon, in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in perhaps the smallest three-bedroom apartment in the country: 870 square feet. A music room stuffed with a grand piano doubles as Hickey's office for his day job: He's in charge of sales and marketing for Naxos on the East Coast.
On a recent morning, he sips tea at the kitchen table while Catherine keeps track of Shannon. Hickey is of medium height and slight build, his thin face accented by a goatee and mustache, pale eyes, toothy grin and wavy dark brown hair, with an independent curl that droops over his left eye. He has an earring in his left ear.
The conversation skips through many subjects, from his metro Detroit youth to his musical heroes, life as a composer and the coup of having a CD released on a high-profile label with international distribution -- easily his biggest break to date, promising to elevate his reputation and profile.
"There's no financial gain," he says. "But it's the best calling card you can have."
"Left at the Fork in the Road" showcases Hickey's chamber music. He writes tonal, highly rhythmic music that's easily grasped. Clarity, immediacy of expression, precise craftsmanship and a tannic, neoclassic bite are virtues.
Still, Hickey hasn't completely assimilated his influences -- Igor Stravinsky, Frances Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Alberto Ginastera among them -- and some works fall prey to a glossy facility.
He is more comfortable with short forms and direct emotion than large structures and veiled mysteries -- legacies, he admits, of being weaned on three-minute pop songs.
The son of a Ford executive, Hickey grew up mostly in West Bloomfield. He became addicted to pop radio at 9 and took up the electric guitar at 12. Hickey started college studying jazz guitar at Oakland University and played around town in a rock band.
Classical music was also in his ear. At 16 he heard the Chicago Symphony play Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Hickey describes the color of the music as an epiphany. Around the same time, he bought a cassette of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and was bowled over by the power of the final movement.
"For variety of color, dynamic range and sheer force and power, rock 'n' roll couldn't compete with the massive sounds of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," Mahler's Fifth and First symphonies, Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" and the First Symphony of Shostakovich," Hickey wrote in an e-mail last week.
A violinist friend asked Hickey to write a piece for her when he was 19 and the experience cemented his growing desire to study composition. He transferred to Wayne State and eventually began organizing concerts to showcase his music at the public library in Royal Oak.
After graduation, he worked as an assistant manager at Harmony House Classical before landing a job with Allegro Distribution that eventually took him to New York. Hickey worked as a classical and jazz specialist for BMG before joining Naxos.
Most aspiring composers stay in school as long as possible, earning a PhD before looking for a teaching job. The academic environment can be nurturing, but it can also morph into an ivory tower trap, promoting insular music divorced from real life and the broader listening public.
Hickey has gone a different route, eschewing an advanced degree from one of the hot conservatories.
Since moving to New York in 1999, he has been writing music furiously and furthering his education by immersing himself in scores checked out from the library, taking a few private composition lessons from composers Gloria Coates and Justin Dello Joio, and dissecting recordings -- an entire wall of the apartment, floor to ceiling, houses some 3,500 CDs.
Meanwhile, he's developed relationships with scores of musicians and industry folks, parlaying his contacts into an expanding circle of performers who have championed his music in small concert series around the city. He's won some modest grants and spent $2,000 to rent CAMI Hall, a small venue in the shadow of Carnegie Hall, to present a concert of his music in 2002.
"What you have to do is get people to believe in your music," says James Lentini, Hickey's main composition teacher at Wayne State and now dean of the school of art, media and music at the College of New Jersey.
"If you get players and others to believe in it, then you can build avenues to get more performances and get better players to do it. That's what Sean is doing, and you have to give him credit for that."
Hickey's CD is a good example of making his own luck. Spearheaded by maverick owner Klaus Heymann, Naxos built a profitable label by ignoring star performers and warhorse programming in favor of fresh repertoire performed by quality musicians unknown to most consumers. The low overhead means the disc sells for about $8.
When Hickey joined the Naxos sales team in 2002, Heymann had no idea he was also a composer. But Hickey began sending Heymann tapes of his performances and soon found himself on the team making decisions about which composers Naxos should include in its American Classics series. Last year Heymann pulled Hickey aside and said he'd like to record his music.
Clearly, Hickey's relationship with Naxos helped grease the wheels, but Heymann says he was impressed by the quality of the music and the performers devoted to Hickey.
"This was definitely not a vanity project," Heymann says, speaking by phone from Naxos' headquarters in Hong Kong. "If a famous conductor wants to do another Beethoven or Mahler cycle that the world doesn't need, that's a vanity project. But a young composer who writes good music, that's not a vanity project."
As in most of Naxos' deals, Hickey was responsible for delivering a finished master recording, which the company would manufacture, package and distribute. When a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund fell through, Hickey financed the entire $11,000 production cost from his own savings.
The title track for flute, clarinet and bassoon reveals an agreeable melodic terseness. "Tango Grotesco" for solo guitar reflects Hickey's love for South American rhythms. "Sagesse for Soprano, Tenor & Chamber Orchestra," based on text by French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, suggests a sensitive ear for vocal writing.
"I really like the way he develops his ideas," says flutist Stefan Hoskuldsson, who appears on several works, including a solo work, "Fluff," written expressly for him. "In the piece he wrote for me, in the middle section, he starts with a rhythmic idea that he carries to the end very effectively."
Hoskuldsson, who joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2004, first encountered Hickey's music three years ago as a freelancer. He is now commissioning two works from Hickey: a trio for flute, harp and viola and a concerto for the Iceland Symphony.
Both pieces represent important steps in the long march of Hickey's career. Not that he can afford to quit his day job anytime soon; he made $3,800 from his music last year -- $3,000 in commissions and $800 in performance royalties. Of course, it's not about the money. It's about art. But in this business, you better hustle.