composer works long hours bringing his music to life
By Stephen Anderson
At 2 a.m., the window of room 204 in the Langroise Center for Performing and Fine Arts is blocked by cardboard. It’s been taped up from the inside as an emphatic “Do not disturb” sign, although no one but security is around to disturb at this time of night. From behind the door, muted by an inch of wood, comes a stark but melodious sound. It rises from a slightly-out-of-tune Chickering piano used in the daytime for classroom demonstrations, and once a week by a church group for hymns.
The piano is school property, and the room is normally locked. College of Idaho student Sean Dahlman, however, has a key. Tonight, like most nights, the room has become his “office,” and he will work though morning and several pots of coffee if need be. He plays a sequence, repeats it, repeats it again, and then moves forward with sweeping whole tone bravado, interspersing memorable riffs from Satie or Debussy. “I just play,” he says. “And I play the same thing for a long time.”
The smell of Folgers mingles with the sound of French Impressionism. If things go well, perhaps at daylight Sean will emerge with a composition. These are not study habits most college students are familiar with. Even most music composition students work during the day and sleep at night, but Sean is among those artists for whom insomnia is essential to the craft. Not that his composing habits are strictly nocturnal.
“If I’m walking, if I’m in class, I will see a motive or an idea and I’ll quickly write it down,” Sean says. “My biology notebook has more ledger lines than actual biology notes.”
Before college, Sean’s home was not the green couch on the second floor of Langroise but illustrious Sun Valley, Idaho, famous outpost of movie stars and Ernest Hemmingway. Back then, he played bass guitar for the rock band, “Toast;” needless to say, more than a musical stone’s throw from Satie. But after high school, Sean applied for a grant from The Sun Valley Center for the Arts, got it, and came to the C of I. Now in his senior year, Sean has emerged as one of the few students at the College devoted almost entirely to writing music.
What sets Sean apart from other student composers is not when he writes, but how—sitting at the piano rather than at a computer. Music notation software such as the program Finale has become the medium of choice for most students composing at the college level. But Dahlman, a traditionalist, believes using Finale involves an unacceptable degree of disconnect between the composer and his music.
“When I’m writing music on paper, that’s my handwriting, those are my signatures, those are my colors, those are my notes,” he said. “And when I write on a computer, I feel like that’s almost lost.”
Even Sean admits that for the transposition process, he can’t escape using Finale. But for him, the balance of the work has to fall on the side of piano. Often, he sits down and “jams,” playing long, meandering, sometimes hypnotically circular pieces that can go on almost indefinitely.
“For me, I’m using the piano to just find my music,” he said. “It’s already there, it’s like I’m digging, I’m looking and I don’t know what I’m going to find… there’s no destination. It goes where it goes, I don’t question it.”
Dahlman enjoyed a personal success in January 2014 when his original composition was performed to accompany a screening of the film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors at the Boise Art Museum. The original score by Hans Erdmann was lost on the only surviving copy of Nosferatu, and Sean’s piece was played in its stead for the Idaho Horror Film Festival event at BAM.
The public recognition is nice, but Sean has no intention of letting up. He’ll spend countless long days and late nights working on his next composition, working on his honor’s thesis, and preparing for an ambitious two senior recitals before graduating this spring.