By Mary L. Holden
Before you meet composer Sean Callery, who is making news in the world of music, here’s a word that might be new to you: electroacoustic. In six syllables is the definition of music made possible by the combination of electricity and sound—sounds produced by humans with musical instruments combined with charged particles produced by machines.
The first known use of electroacoustic music as an art form—taped music (music recorded on a machine), electronic music (pure sound, as in a sine wave) and computer-generated music (sound design that is based on digital programming)—was in the 1940s when taped music was placed into music written for an orchestra.
Callery was born several years after computers found their musicality, but his career was born of the marriage of electricity and sound vibration. He’s been recognized as an artist who understands electroacoustics and brings it to the public in compositions that support popular television shows and films. He said he didn’t start out to combine natural sounds with “machine sounds,” but his goal is always to find a unique musical contribution to the story, for television and film.
Born and raised in Rhode Island, Callery studied classical piano during childhood. As a teenager, he educated himself in various musical styles and began playing jazz piano on weekends in local nightclubs. He studied composition and earned a degree in piano performance in 1987 from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Right after graduation, he moved to Los Angeles.
Callery has written the scores for three films and for TV shows such as “24,” “Homeland,” “Elementary” and “Bones.” In 2007 at the Fimucité International Film Music festival on the Canary Islands, in Spain, Callery got to conduct The Tenerife Orchestra and Choir performing a musical suite from the “24” series. He describes it as a “pinnacle experience.” The sound of the choir above the strings in this piece “denotes freedom, mourning, rebirth.” These large themes in sound can be heard at this link: youtube.com/watch?v=_nb6r7xDGzg
MyLIFE: What are some of your favorite sounds in nature and in technology? Any least favorite sounds?
Callery: I grew up in Rhode Island near the ocean, and I love the sounds of water—especially the breaking waves. As an infant, [I had] a lung problem [that] necessitated steam treatments, and I love the sound of steam. As for a least favorite sound, I don’t know if I have one but when I experience low frequencies (below 60 hertz) at very loud levels, I feel nauseous.
MyLIFE: Is it easier to compose for a television series or a movie?
Callery: The creative process is similar for each—I learn the story, see the picture and put myself into it, to hear it. What differs is timing. For a film, it can take a year or more due to the two or three hours it can take to film a scene that may get cut and re-cut to fit timing, while a TV series has regular deadlines and a methodical flow. What’s interesting is that people are watching TV series in a different way now. Instead of watching each episode over time, they bunch them together and watch marathon-style. It’s called “binge watching.” It is interesting to contemplate how this type of concentrated viewing behavior changes the way the music is received.
MyLIFE: You’ve won three Emmys out of 13 nominations. What does that kind of recognition feel like to you?
Callery: It is extraordinary to be nominated because the Emmys are based on judgment from my peers. The very first nomination, however, will always be probably the most special.
MyLIFE: Do you have an opinion about how music will continue to evolve?
Callery: As long as humans have beating hearts they will have things to communicate, and they’ll be creating music for a long time. The traditional and classical musical forms will continue to co-exist with those of a more experimental and nonorganic nature, and each will grow. There are always fears that technological advances will corrupt the prior time-honored tradition of art and its execution. Years ago people thought we would never have live orchestras on television shows again. However, there are more live orchestral performances on TV now than there were 10 years ago.
MyLIFE: Tell us something new about your life/music/career/philosophy.
Callery: There are two things. One is that if I was not a musician, I would be a cartoonist! The other is that I’ve always been drawn to the term “beginner’s mind.” I’ve worked with music students at a New York university and it’s great to see the creativity that arises from the minds of young students. To me, it represents both curiosity and reciprocity—learning and helping other people is the recipe for long-term happiness.
Every Tuesday morning, Callery plays piano and sings with a Dixieland group in the neighborhood where he lives with his wife, Debbie. They met at the art show of a sculptor and have been married 14 years. “She tutors students from some of the overcrowded schools here in Los Angeles,” he said, “and she is an inspiration to me.”