30 August 2021
Ian Shanahan (1962-2021)
Composer and recorder player Ian Shanahan has died in Sydney's Westmead Hospital on 27 August at the age of 59, after a long illness.
Born in Sydney on 13 June 1962, Shanahan studied composition and pure mathematics at the University of Sydney in 1980-85, where his composition teachers were Eric Gross, Peter Sculthorpe and Ian Fredericks. He later enrolled in the University's PhD program and completed his degree in 2003, supervised by Professor Anne Boyd, with a composition portfolio consisting of eleven of his works.
Shanahan was well-regarded as an expert in contemporary techniques for the recorder, and commissioned many composers, from Australia and overseas, to write pieces for him to perform. He received commissions from ELISION, austraLYSIS, Laura Chislett, and Roger Woodward, among others. Formerly the President of the Fellowship of Australian Composers, Shanahan was active in the promotion of new music as performer, lecturer, broadcaster and writer. From the 1980s to early 2000s, he held various casual and short-term positions and lectured at music departments including the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of Melbourne (where he was composer in residence in 1991).
Passionate about the music he admired - his favourites including representatives of 'new complexity', as well as Ligeti and Stockhausen - Shanahan could be judgemental and scathing about music that didn't meet with his approval, often for reasons to do with style. Over the last decade or two of his life, also a period marked by a long illness and related challenges, he burned perhaps more bridges than he built. He was controversial for his pronouncements on social media, which unfortunately left him outside just those conversations where his undeniable intellect might have had a role to play.
Michael Hooper - a former student of Shanahan's and academic (UNSW) sees Ian Shanahan as important to Australian music between 1988-1998.
'I think he's important for three reasons. Firstly, because although we might think of his kind of high modernism as being old-school by the late 1980s, and across the 1990s, there remained composers who were interested in carrying on that legacy. So from one perspective there is a clear commitment to the kind of individuality of musical thought that we recognise and value in Stockhausen or Xenakis, and part of that commitment was to ideas that would take some effort to appreciate, to arcane knowledge, and, especially for the religious Shanahan, to the gnostic. He liked composers who sounded like no one else, even when he didn't like how their music sounded.
'Secondly, he was rather circumspect about those Europeans I just mentioned, and he argued that, to quote from his PhD: "My compositional sensitivity to timbral and micro-intervallic nuances, as well as my fascination with formal non-teleology, could well have emerged from my exposure during the early 1980s to Japanese shakuhachi music." He was always obviously Australian, and he argued, perhaps half-heartedly, and again in his dissertation, for a non-nationalistic "Pacific music". That Pacific connection may well relate to the formative experience of being part of the 1990 Pacific Music Festival in Japan, and his involvement with the Asian Composers' League. Perhaps that's too grand: he was at home in Dundas Valley, the Duck and Swan, and in new music concerts wherever they were happening.
'Thirdly, the kind of uncompromising aesthetics of modernism to which he was committed seemed like they might, in the 1990s, be part of a balance with the overtly postmodern music being composed. Other composers, including many who wrote less forthright and less difficult music than he did, benefitted from the mix of possibilities that were widened by his music. To look at that point from a different perspective, it's worth remembering that in Sydney at the time he was actively composing there were healthy audiences for concerts played by Sydney Alpha, The Seymour Group, ELISION, and the Sydney Spring Festival, for example, and that community counted him as a member.
'From the late 1980s he was involved in the organisation of various organisations, which is indicative of the kind of positive contribution that was mostly absent from his later life - writing of his 'later life' is also to write of a period of serious illness, which does not excuse the harm that his comments caused, but which might give pause for thought.
'My memory of the 1990s and early 2000s (when I knew him best), was that his irascibility and, let's face it, not infrequent rudeness, wasn't the only Ian Shanahan one would encounter. No doubt not everyone went to the pub with him, but many did, and many who did were energised by conversation with him, including those who wrote music that was nothing like his, and who did not necessarily share his views about every topic. At that time there was more of the generous teacher, and it was readily possible to side-track him away from topics that were likely to result in pointless arguments of the kind from which Facebook profits. That isn't to say that the earlier Shanahan was unopinionated.
From the point of view of Australian music, his opinions were often present in the pages of Sounds Australian and, for a time, Ossia, and they no doubt influenced many others (for and against his perspectives). His PhD is worth reading, especially for those who know him only for negative comments on Facebook: it is startlingly articulate.
'I hope I don't sound too much like an apologist, but I might end with what I think of as the quintessential Shanahan: it's him ringing up, excited with some discovery - often about chess - keen to share his thoughts, and telling those discoveries to whoever answered the phone. It wasn't that he simply talked at the person who picked up, but that he really tried to explain, and he assumed that his interlocuter was following along. I barely followed any of his chess moves, and I certainly couldn't keep them all in my head, as he could, but I always appreciated the boundless enthusiasm that those hours brought.'
Of Shanahan's works, Hooper singles out 153 infinities for piano & optional percussion; Dimensiones paradisi for alto flute; Cycles of Vega for sopranino clarinet and percussion; Echoes/Fantasies for bass clarinet and percussion, and Lines of Light.'
A friend and colleague Kirsty Beilharz commented on the passing of Shanahan and listed some of the same works.
'Vale Ian Shanahan. You were eccentric, extreme: you carried your recorders in a gun case, you owned a suspension coil percussion instrument excised from a car in the garage; wrapped those nimble giant fingers around a sopranino or bass recorder in an instant; you had an intellect the size of Jupiter; you pulled off a Sydney university keyboard exam on recorder(!); you discovered the profundity of sacred gematria; you did not tolerate ignorance or banality in music - with neo-tonality and minimalism squarely in the firing line - shamelessly modernistic; your own compositions were defiantly resonant with celestial metallic percussion yet also exquisite and tender (e.g. Lines of Light, Cycles of Vega, Lingua silens florum, Zodiac: Crystal Orbit Improvisations, 153 Infinities).'
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Memories of Ian Shanahan
I'm very sad to hear of Ian Shanahan's death. Ian was a tenured music academic at Western Sydney University for several years and was always a stimulating colleague. Michael and Kirsty's comments above all resonate with me and while Ian could be exasperating and opinionated he loved a good argument and in some ways taught me to argue back. We recorded Butterley's 'The White-threated Warbler' together for the Tall Poppies CD of Butterley's work and Ian was an explorative and highly creative recorder player. Vale Ian.
Just wanted to say, I remember Ian coming to UC Berkeley and listened to his work. I'll miss him. Vale Ian.
Memories of Ian Shanahan
I'm very sad to hear of Ian's passing. I was a close friend from our University days in the early 1980's.
He was everything mentioned in this article. He was always very generous with his time. He would rattle off obscure maths concepts to me, and explain how he was using these in his latest piece. I, with my basic, average person maths knowledge, most often had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
By the way, the anecdote about him completing his keyboard exam on recorder is not totally correct; it was actually his keyboard harmony exam, which is even more remarkable. This also demostrates his force of character in convincing the examiners, one of whom was most probably Prof Platt, that he could do it on recorder.
I also remember how virtuosic his recorder playing was. More phenomenal because I don't believe he practised that much.