Conveying much of the sentiment of our current contemplative state of mind, Sean Hickey’s recent composition responds with sweeping gestures.
Completed during these vexing pandemic months, his work reckons with the big questions of our time; the piece contemplates our humanity in relation to our past and future, relating ardent musical scope to the literary inspiration after which it is named: Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
And with a single human breath—at the piano—Hickey commences Sapiens: a one hour-long, eight-movement suite for solo piano, the initial idea for which was roughly shaped when reading the bestselling book in 2017.
“[Especially] in uncertain times I find some comfort in reading history—geologic and human—as a way of noting that my time on this planet is surely finite, and that all problems—when measured against planetary history—can seem pretty trivial. Sapiens reminds me that many of the concerns of today have plagued us—an intentional term—for millennia,” explains Hickey.
“Initially, the plan was to have the piece premiered in late 2020 with simultaneous, or near-simultaneous, premieres on three continents,” explains Hickey. While COVID-19 has derailed such plans like all others, Hickey was able, after several attempts, to connect with the sought-after writer and TED-talker Harari, who has now received the score in its latest state of completion and has permitted the use of his book’s title.
“It’s important to note that my work is inspired by the book, a point Harari and team wish to make clear, and it is in no way endorsed by the author,” he remarks, while freely acknowledging the great impact of Harari’s work: “No book before Sapiens has had anywhere near the impact on me. Nothing so sweeping had ever before been attempted, and nothing so engaging, enthralling and readable has ever caught my attention….I am honored to have the blessing of the author, and some of my initial sketches will be a part of a forthcoming project called Mind to Music.”
First published in 2011 in Hebrew, and in 2014 in English, Harari’s compelling notion of collective myths that fundamentally explain our species’ survival throughout time and space has become one of the most celebrated sagas of our time. Harari’s Sapiens’ moral compass does not end on a high note, but rather with a critical conclusion of our achievements: “Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as disconnected as ever.”
Harari’s writing effortlessly, but intensely, questions the relevance of all progress made, as it relates to the dilemma of our values throughout our journey’s evolution, subtly promoting activism.
Revered by fans ranging from Bill Gates to President Barack Obama, Harari has garnered critical acclaim among international leadership of various disciplines and his critical viewpoints (which are further elaborated in his following works) have since transcended the literary platform into a global movement.
A new illustrated version of Sapiens is currently going to market, in an effort to shift the demographic of its readership, even further widening access of Harari’s worldwide audience.
While Hickey’s Sapiens has not yet come to life in a performance or recording, Hickey did allow me to view the beautifully crafted score, and I have sampled its sound world at the piano, while approaching its original significance by reading Hickey’s personal notes.
Program note for the Jericho section of Sapiens by Sean Hickey
Progress on Hickey’s Sapiens during the last two years has accompanied a period in his life he describes as devoted to “near- constant activism, organization, and protest.
“Sapiens was and is the work I needed to compose to get me through this bleak time, just as reading the book allowed me to better understand our shared humanity. With its audacious subtitle, the book attempts to explore and explain why our particular species has survived while most others have perished, and how we are set apart from all other species due to our ability to understand and give meaning to things that do not necessarily exist—the shared myths of language, money, religion, love, nationhood, politics, and a host of things not seen but with which we have a shared understanding,” describes Hickey.
“Almost immediately after I began the book, I would begin to sketch out some ideas for an extensive piece of music, some dealing generically with the concepts and parts of the book. This proved to be ineffective, but the idea for the piece stayed with me for a year, and it would eventually take shape during the act of its composition. In no way have I tried to create a chapter-by-chapter illustration of the book (or of humankind), nor have I followed closely its overall outline or timeline. What I have attempted is a musical response to the human challenges, breakthroughs, concepts, or ideas that we as a species have carried with us, developing along the way, these past hundred thousand or so years.”
Similar to its muse, Hickey’s Sapiens is defining breakthroughs of human creation while struggling with universal dilemmas, which explains the work’s dramatic search for elements of hope and continuum, even if Hickey’s Sapiens ends in the abyss of silence.
“The piece begins not on the piano, but at the piano, with a single human breath, as I imagine the first music to have been, somewhere near the dawn of our species. If it is, like most, intended to die off, I imagine the very last music to sound more or less the same,” he says.
The piano as instrument of choice for this work is indicative of the composer’s deference for the piano’s singular capacity to capture a fully diverse orchestral sound. While Hickey has previously composed several works for solo piano, and many works for piano ensemble in varying chamber music combinations, the guitarist admits to never having been truly comfortable with the instrument himself, and in composing for it, having had to overcome a certain intimidation.
“As my initial ideas took on some shape, the thought of exploring a musical homage to humankind on one of humanity’s great inventions began to appeal. I imagined the modern piano as a sort of meta-instrument, its reverberations present at the dawns of humankind, the cognitive and agricultural revolutions, and some of the most notable inflection points of our troubled and triumphant history; a voyeur, painter, scribe, and reporter across the millennia of our existence,” describes Hickey.
In his program notes, Hickey clarifies some of his reasoning of Sapiens’ construction and overall form throughout sectional descriptions of each of its parts: Pre-History, Lascaux, Fertile Crescent, Jericho, Mean Temperament, Double Helix, Confirmation Bias, and Commonwealth. Each part, inspired by various points in our history, becomes a quasi-musical landmark that connects with the unfolding storyline. Like Harari’s Sapiens, the movements speak to the subject of our shared myths, including money, language, religion, love, and sovereignty.