In Conversation with Sean Ferguson

Dean Sean Ferguson shares his eclectic taste in music, what’s exciting him about the field of composition, and one of the most valuable things he’s learned in the classroom.
Image by Owen Egan.

Prof. Sean Ferguson began his new tenure as Dean of the Schulich School of Music in July 2022.  

Dean Ferguson has been an active part of the McGill landscape for years, having started his time here as a student, earning both his master’s and doctoral degrees in composition. He joined the McGill faculty as an Assistant Professor of Composition in 2003 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2009.  

An experienced senior administrator with a deep understanding of the School, Prof. Ferguson previously served as Dean from 2011 to 2016. He was also the Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) from 2009 to 2011, and its Associate Director (Artistic) from 2006 to 2009. Prof. Ferguson’s research focuses on computer-assisted composition, psychoacoustics applied to musical harmony, live electronics, and digital musical instruments. He teaches composition and co-directs the Digital Composition Studios.  

Though for now Dean Ferguson may be spending less time in the classroom, he continues to focus his efforts on our students: “As the ‘old’ new Dean, I’m looking forward to once again working to help maintain our position as Canada’s finest music school. I’m excited about the future and eager to start the year with fresh energy.” 
We connected with Dean Ferguson by email as he hit the ground running for this new school year, and learned what piece made him want to become a composer, the advice he would give to his starting-at-university self, something he looks forward to in his workday as Dean, and so much more! 


Is there a composer / genre / single piece of music that never fails to transport you?  
The piece that made me want to become a composer was Verdi’s Requiem. I bought a box set of the piece when I was 18 (on vinyl, of course!) and listened to it so often that I wore it out and had to buy a new copy. There are so many amazing moments in it, but every time I listen to the Tuba Mirum from the Dies Irae it never fails to make my heart beat faster. 

If faced with obstacles or uncertainty, how do you keep moving forward? 
When you’re Dean, sometimes things can honestly seem pretty bleak. In those circumstances –and in the face of many other kinds of challenging situations – it’s helpful to think back to similar situations and realize that no matter how impossible and overwhelming they seemed, they didn’t last forever. Of course, the older you are the easier this is to do because more things have happened to you (but then you start forgetting them…). 

What are some of the things you look forward to in your regular workday as Dean? 
Although I’m an introvert, I really enjoy talking with people. It’s often possible to come to solutions when exchanging ideas with colleagues that I would never have arrived at on my own. 

I’m not always comfortable addressing large groups of people, but I do find individual or small group meetings to be stimulating and enjoyable. 

What is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned in the classroom (either as student or instructor)?   
That not everybody learns in the same way. I don’t have a great memory and I tend to remember things as part of a logical chain of linked consequences (e.g. I never learned my times tables, I just add very quickly). I remember once explaining all the steps that I would use to arrive at a particular piece of information to a class and a student finally putting up their hand and saying “Sean, could you just write it down and we’ll memorize it?”  

If not for music, what might an alternate career path have been? 
In my teens I became very interested in photography and I think if music hadn’t come along I might have enjoyed continuing in that field. 

What enables the best kind of music-making and music-learning experiences?   
The exhilaration of creating music out of thin air and sharing it with others. For me, music is a social activity that enriches the lives of those who are lucky enough to make it and those who are lucky enough to experience it. 

What is exciting to you about your field right now?   
In the field of composition, for me the most exciting development in recent years has been the degree to which things we’ve learned from music perception, music cognition and psychoacoustics are able to be incorporated into compositional practice. I think composers have a deeper knowledge of the underlying mechanisms through which even quite complex music is heard and understood by the listener than they might have in the past. At one time, integrating this knowledge into one’s composing was something that required individual programming skills or access to large research institutions. Today it’s possible for composers to take advantage of these concepts much more easily using their own laptops. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?   
There’s nothing so beautiful, pure, or meaningful in human existence that it can’t be ruined by taking it too seriously. Music should be a joy. 

What should every student leave Schulich knowing?  
Remember to always double the leading tone and ensure that V progresses to IV before resolving to I. 

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase for where you are right now, what would it be?   
“Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” 

We would love to know what composer (or artist, or ensemble, or album, or genre) you would suggest we all go and listen to right now!  

Martin Hayes is an Irish fiddle player originally from East Clare. He made a recording in 1999 called Live in Seattle with the recently deceased guitarist Dennis Cahill. On that album there’s a 27-minute set of tunes that begins with the beautiful slow air Port na bPúcaí and ends with an ecstatic reel, with lots of delightful music in between. You can find it on iTunes or YouTube (but be sure to listen to this particular version). There’s a strong element of improvisatory ornamentation and melodic variation in this style, and their performance has a lot of spontaneity and playfulness. The material is simple, but I love what they do with it. This track always makes me smile. If you can, listen to the whole thing when you have time to relax and enjoy it. 

What are some recent things you’ve enjoyed? (book, podcast, board game, tv show, movie, album, etc.) Any recommendations?  
I’ve enjoyed playing board games with my son for many years. We’ve tended to play pretty involved ones that can require multiple plays over many sessions to complete. For example, we played through to the end of the Gloomhaven game campaign with my eldest daughter during the pandemic and it took us months. But recently we’ve been enjoying lighter games that the whole family can play in an evening. We’re having a lot of fun playing a game about hiking called Parks, which I highly recommend.  

What is something people might be surprised to find on your playlist? 
Terrible synthesizer music with sequenced drums at 180 bpm that I listen to instead of a metronome when I’m running.  

When you're not school-focused, how do you relax?  
I love to play tin whistle in traditional music sessions in local pubs. I call it “Irish group therapy.” No matter how bad a day I’ve had, 10 minutes into the session I’ve forgotten all my troubles! 

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