Sarah Hennies: Getting at the Heart of a Sound
How we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of her output, everything from her early collaborative work as part of an experimental rock band to a multimedia documentary to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations, it all shares a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involves a great deal of repetition. While Sarah Hennies prides herself on scores that are extremely economical (a score for a nearly 34-minute piece is a mere two pages), the sonorities feel extremely generous.
Sarah Hennies was a name that was barely on my radar before the pandemic, but after spending over six months mostly in lockdown I listened to a CD released on New World Records, a label that pretty much always piques my interest, featuring two works of hers, both of which were a little over a half hour in duration. One is a trio for piano, double-bass, and percussion with the peculiar name Spectral Malsconcities which was performed by new music stalwarts Bearthoven. The other is a duo for just piano and percussion called Unsettle performed by the Bent Duo, an ensemble which was also relatively unfamiliar to me. The music seemed to evoke everything I was feeling about this extremely precarious and terrifying time we’ve all been living in, despite the fact that both pieces were composed and recorded before the word Covid became an unfortunate daily household utterance.
I was fascinated and intrigued. I had to hear more of her music and listened to everything I could find, from her early collaborative work as part of the Austin-based experimental rock band Weird Weeds to her multimedia documentary Contralto to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of this material, it all shared a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involved a great deal of repetition, but not guided by any kind of structural process as far as I could discern. Again, very much in the same way days and months seemed to pass over the last two years. I had to speak to her and learn more.
The most significant music has the uncanny ability to tap into a zeitgeist sometimes well in advance of its time although, when I spoke to Hennies earlier this month, she said that she hadn’t associated her time bending compositional aesthetic with our current realities. She did, however, acknowledge the relationship. But everyone listening to this music might come away with a different personal reaction to it and that’s fine by her since how we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates, whether it involves hearing layers of counterpoint that are the result of the natural reverberation of a particular physical space or hearing ghost sonorities that aren’t actually there because of the way certain timbres combine.
“Everything for me is about the listening experience,” she said. “I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore. … Part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. And so, it’s like the music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing even though the music is always changing on a micro-level, but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”
Sarah Hennies’s scores are extremely economical; the score for the nearly 34-minute Unsettle is a mere two pages. And yet the sonorities feel extremely generous.
“I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound,” she explained. “I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else.”
Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let's say, eight minutes.
If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can't totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view.
I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound.
I'm not writing melodies and harmonies. It's like not that kind of music. So it's about something else.
The easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly
Everything for me is about the listening experience.
There's no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time ... something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance.
Simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that's really it.
There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I'm somewhere else now.
It doesn't make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it's like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating.
That is something that I still feel I'm doing, to be strange in a way that's not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.
I very intensely identify as a DIY artist ... I don't have a world as far I'm concerned, except my own.
This is a semantic thing, but I don't consciously want to go in a new direction.
I don't want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically.
My experience generates the music, but that's not the thing that I need people to know about.
I didn't want to be "Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer."
For a long time now I've thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long.
Read the Full Transcript
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve wanted to talk to you ever since I got this amazing CD. I guess it was the fall of last year; time is very blurry right now. It was just such a joy hearing those pieces, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s perhaps one of the most if not the most extraordinary new thing I’ve listened to since the pandemic.
Sarah Hennies: Thank you.
FJO: Thank you. I was really smitten with it. It was a whole new sound world. And what struck me about it, and the place I wanted to begin with this is these pieces were composed and in fact even recorded months before the whole world shut down, but for some reason they really sounded like a soundtrack to this era in a way. They really conjured up for me at least this feeling of timelessness that we’ve all experienced these last two years.
SH: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that in relation to the pandemic. But you know, part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. The music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again even though the music is always changing on a micro-level. So I can totally see that related to the pandemic because just the other day I referred to some tweet as having been a few months ago. And then I found it, and it was from January of last year. So, time is definitely passing in a very strange way that is some combination of slowness and absence.
FJO: For more than our entire lifetimes, composers have been exploring repetition as a structural device. You know, the Minimalist composers, but in their cases, it’s sort of a means to an end. Repetition so that you can pay closer attention to a process, whether it’s things going in and out of phase, or an additive process. But with your music, it’s doing something else. It’s presenting repetition as sort of an aesthetic realm. You said there are things that are changing, but I’m not necessarily sure it’s about having the listeners perceive that. Or maybe it is?
SH: It’s complicated. Of course, it is. But another reason why I love repetition so much is that you can look at the score for Unsettle–it’s like two-and-a-half pages long for a 30-minute piece–and think this is just a bunch of whole notes that repeat a million times. But then, when you hear it, you have this visceral reaction, or maybe visceral is the wrong word, but very complicated intellectual response to something that seems like could be nothing. And to me, the idea of taking something that seems simple and showing that it is actually very, very complicated is something that has been at the core of basically every single piece I’ve made in the last 10 to 12 years. So I’ve been kind of swimming around in that area in different ways for a really long time.
FJO: I’m glad you mentioned that score for Unsettle because there’s a page of it in the New World booklet note. You look at it, and it’s true. It’s like okay, there are just a few things going on. I didn’t look at that page until after I’d listened to the disc a few times and then I always do a deeper dive and read the notes. And I said, “That’s all? That’s all that’s there?” ‘Cause it seems like there’s so much more.
SH: I always joke that I’m not a contest winner kind of composer because if you’re on a jury and you see two-and-a-half pages of whole notes, it’s just like—next. This isn’t a brag, but when people hear that piece live consistently, they’re like wow. At the premiere in Buffalo, multiple people came up to me and said, “Where are the microphones?” Because they thought that what they were hearing was the result of amplification or electronic transformation or something. Why I love so-called simple music is because it gets at the fact that the way that sound behaves is really unusual. And playing whole notes is a path to exposing that. It’s also the relationship between the two players, and the relationship between the sound and the space, and the relationship between where you’re sitting versus where the ensemble is.
(SH:) When you take away any sort of aesthetic musical experience and just boil it down–this is a very Lucier attitude: I’m gonna take absolutely everything away from this until it’s getting at the thing that I’m interested in. I love Lucier’s music obviously, but there’s something about what I’m doing that has a sort of more, I hesitate to use the word emotional because Lucier’s music is obviously emotional, and I’m not sure that’s even what I mean with my music, but there is an added sort of interest in psychology or like concepts that are outside of music that are underlying basically everything I’ve ever done, too.
FJO: Comparing it to Lucier, it’s interesting that you’ve performed Lucier’s music. Lucier’s music is very much always about a process. It’s experimental music in the real sort of textbook definition. You’re gonna do this sonic experiment. This is what happens. Let’s play with brain waves. Let’s play with the resonant frequencies of a room. Or sounds coming out of a tea kettle. There are all these extraordinary pieces that he did that were sort of a means to an end. But I sort of feel like with your music, it’s about just enjoying those surfaces. There’s a real sort of tactile quality to it. If I can throw that word out there. I think part of it might be because for so many years, you were a performing musician. You were a percussionist, so your interrelationship with music is really about the sort of tactile, physical connection; whereas that music is much more theoretical.
SH: I don’t know if I totally agree that Lucier is like more theoretical. It’s definitely more reserved in that it’s just very about: I wonder what would happen if I did this. It’s very playful, trying to figure out how things work. But I definitely agree with you: this is why I prefer string and percussion instruments and piano, because they’re touch instruments. I just have a deeper understanding of that. I had to write a trumpet solo for Nate Wooley and I had a total existential crisis about it because for weeks, I just was like: I don’t know what to do with this thing. I ended up writing what I think is a really nice piece, but that was really hard for me, especially a solo with a typically somewhat limited instrument in terms of what it can do sonically. But I got a really unusual piece out of it.
A big driver of this music is just that I compose something and it’s like: oh, this is great; I just want to keep hearing this. You know, it really is; it’s simple. The pieces are more complicated than that; I’m sure this will come up later, but the way that the last section of that new piece, Clock Dies, was written is that I wrote one or two bars as an experiment, and my whole brain lit up where I just immediately was like: huh. It was almost not like a conscious decision. I wasn’t trying to do that certain thing. And I never imagined that that piece would end the way that it does. But I heard it, and I just was playing on a MIDI realization. Even on MIDI, I just found myself playing it over and over again. That’s how I’ve been writing music for years and years. If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can’t totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view. And you can kind of figure out more about what it is other than this sort of mysterious notion of oh, this was great and I want to keep hearing it without really understanding why.
FJO: So maybe the word that we’re both looking for that we haven’t thrown out there that distinguishes this music from sort of more structural process stuff is intuition. Is that fair?
SH: Oh, definitely. Actually when I was an undergrad, I did a week, one-on-one residency with Stuart Saunders Smith and I really loved his music as a percussionist. At the time I was in Herbert Brün’s composition seminar, this intense angry Modernist, and around these people who were setting up rigorous systems for composition. And then I got to Stuart’s house, and he was like–these weren’t his exact words, but he more or less was like: yeah, start writing notes down. And I was just like absolutely shocked at the time and was like: What do you mean? And he said, “Oh I’m a very intuitive composer. I allow myself to just write intuitively.” I’ve never forgotten that word. And that has since evolved with me.
Actually Spectral Malsconcities was one of the first pieces that was written that way. And it really was very practical because I was touring and traveling just non-stop. I find it hard to write music when I’m traveling. And so I was home, and I remember they were laughing that I got the piece to them months before they needed it, because I was just like write, write, write, write. Okay, here you go. I gotta go. And so because of the circumstances I didn’t think really hard about what I was doing. I believe that the piece was what I wanted but I didn’t analyze what I was doing very much. And that was something that has become really interesting to me in the last couple of years up to what I’m doing right now–doing things in a somewhat we could say intuitive, or irrational, or subconscious way. And putting that into music to try to figure out of the literally infinite number of things I could do, why did my brain choose to do that in this moment. And those kinds of questions are really really fascinating for me.
FJO: Well of course the other interesting thing about that trio written for Bearthoven, I always want to say Beethoven, right, which is kind of the play on their name. Essentially their instrumentation is that of a jazz piano trio. You know, piano, bass, drums. Piano, bass, percussion. We associate it with improvisatory music, but they do mostly score-based, notated compositions that other people write for them.
FJO: But when you look, you might be expecting to hear something very different than what you wind up hearing when you see that line up. And I think what you do so wonderfully in that piece is you kind of play on the sounds of those instruments.
SH: You know what’s funny about that too is that when I wrote it, specifically the first section where they’re all playing the same pitches, the jazz combo thing didn’t even occur to me as I was writing because I’ve seen them do other pieces and Matt Evans, the percussionist, has a more sort of typical new music-y set up where there’s like maybe a marimba and gongs or whatever. And the reason it was a drum set is just because in that first section all of the players play the same three pitches, and then they all have this sort of like extra sound that’s outside of the overall pattern. And so the bass is this like mrr-mrr-mrr-mrr sort of thing, and then the piano has a similar gesture, but it’s a piece of metal resting on the strings. And then the percussion part, it’s the bass drum, because the snare drum and the two toms are tuned to specific pitches, the same pitches that the bass and piano play. And so I just thought of the bass drum as like an extra thing. And I said: oh, it’s really easy for him to do that with his foot. And seriously, it wasn’t until much later that the jazz combo thing came into my mind and then I just thought it was funny that 1) I hadn’t realized it, and 2) what you’re saying, is that visually it does really look like a jazz combo because it’s a drum set, but the decision to make it a drum set was really very practical to just make the thing happen that I wanted to happen.
FJO: Wow. So, intuition gets the same results as if you did the deep dive think about it.
SH: Yeah. That piece and a piece called Reservoir 1 were both written under similar circumstances where I just absolutely blazed through them because I just didn’t have the time. And that ended up opening a whole world for me in a lot of different ways that I’m exploring really specifically now.
FJO: So I want to unpack a comment that you made about why you like repetition so much. You said at some point that you like just using a few things. You don’t want to write too many notes. And that you like the idea that you can get the result you’re after with as little as possible. Some might say there’s sort of a Marie Kondo kind of aspect to that, clear everything away. There’s sort of an austerity to it, but I don’t find your music austere at all. But it is somehow economical.
SH: Yeah. That is a word that I have used many, many times. This has almost become like a joke with me because I’ve been talking about it so much. I’ve always really, really loved Xenakis’s music since I was a teenager. And in the last few years, he has sort of started to invade my consciousness more and more. But I’ve never forgotten, I took a class as a senior in college called Formalized Music, and it was mostly theoretical, but all about Xenakis’s music. I’ve never forgotten the professor of that class, more than once, was like: He’s a very practical composer. You see the score of Pithoprakta, and it’s like the most complicated thing in the world. But it actually is the most practical version of a score that could make the thing happen that he needed to happen. He has said that. Not about that piece specifically, but he has said: “I’m trying to make the thing happen that I want to hear with the minimum possible number of elements.” So I feel the same way, although obviously my music doesn’t sound anything like his, but I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound. I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else. Either the sound itself, or some kind of listener experience, or something that isn’t about me using a bunch of notes.
I’ve been making my own music since I was a teenager, but I studied percussion as a student and didn’t really get very very involved in composing until around 2009. I’ve been playing improvised music for a million years, and I’ve always been a creator, but it wasn’t like composing specifically until this certain set of pieces in 2009. I talk about this in composition lessons, too: having been a performer for so long, and my experience in two years of grad school of being put in this position of having to play to eight million student compositions in a semester. You learn really, really fast how irritated you are at someone who can’t write a clear and concise score. So what is the easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly, I think.
FJO: So in terms of other heroes, other role models mentioned, we talked about Lucier. You mentioned Xenakis just now. Other things that I hear, I don’t know if they’re there, they might be, they might not be. Morton Feldman. James Tenney and another one that might seem totally off kilter here, Galina Ustvolskaya, just in terms of the sheer weight that comes with just only a few instruments.
SH: James Tenney I have been aware of for ages. But it’s just one of those blind spots that I have, that I really have never gone deep in his music. I recognize that there probably are some similarities. I’m like this with Robert Ashley, too. I can see it’s such a huge world that if I get started on it, then it’s gonna turn into this whole thing, and that I’m not prepared to spend the energy to go that deep on something that’s a such a huge world. And Ustvolskaya, I haven’t heard in years, probably not since college. So you’re making me want to go listen to some of that music. But Feldman is more tricky for me because something that he did that was very, very influential for me was in Crippled Symmetry, and probably other pieces: every performer’s in a different tempo, and he says “just go.” No other instructions. Doing that super, super simple compositional tool generates all of this complexity that he never could have written himself. That is really, really important to me too: writing in a way that can allow things to happen on their own. Or that something that can generate a level of complexity that you never could have written.
Just on Wednesday this week, I’m doing a class called Sound Art at Bard College right now, and we did the [Pauline] Oliveros Teach Yourself to Fly Sonic Meditation. And it was just absolutely stunning. That score’s like three sentences long. It was such a complicated, beautiful thing and that couldn’t have been made without that kind of ultra-simple score with so much freedom. I’m sure one could write something similar, but there’s something about the level of freedom that people have and how relaxed it is and how you start to hear connections that are happening accidentally that sort of give the impression of form or composition. Without that kind of freedom, I think it would lose something. It was like that music can’t happen in another way. Everything that I find valuable about that music needs that score specifically which seems like nothing, if you just look at it.
FJO: The score is a means to an end. I think one of the problems is that people have sort of fetishized scores. It’s like fetishizing a recipe rather than the meal, you know.
SH: I am not one of those people.
FJO: If you were to do a deep dive with Tenney, the thing that I thought about was, in a very different aspect, Tenney’s approach to microtonality. He, most of the time, did not use systems. He didn’t use a rigid quarter tone system or just intonation system. It was more about ranges of sound, if a pitch was between certain pitches, it didn’t matter if you hit that precise note. It didn’t have to be in a system. It was about how somebody perceives it. So he was interested in, say, just noticeable differences, the range of perception. And I sort of feel like the way you deal with repetition is very similar to the way he dealt with microtonality. It was more focused on the listener than the compositional process. Is that fair?
SH: Yeah. I think that makes sense. Everything for me is about the listening experience. I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore, but I’ve also become really interested in writing in a way, I keep using the word irrational or subconscious in my head, that it’s just coming out of me for reasons I don’t understand. But what you’re saying about repetition totally is, like what is the most direct path to that experience that I want to create, or that thing that I want to learn more about.
And I will say as far as microtonality, I’m solidly in the Xenakis camp on that too, in that Xenakis is not a tuning person, but you see quarter tones in his music all the time. My take on that, and again, he’s very practical, is that he just needed an interval that’s smaller than a half step. And so quarter tone. I’m the same. I frequently would like to use pitches that are closer together than a half step, but I don’t like need to go deeper than that because, kind of what I was saying about Tenney, if you’re gonna call yourself a microtonal composer, I just can’t do that. It’s too much, to be good at it and to have a meaningful relationship with tuning. I’m not prepared to take in that level of knowledge when I can just go: quarter tone. And then I get a different kind of beating than I would with the half step. That’s all I need for the thing that I want to do.
FJO: Well, I definitely heard stuff outside of 12-tone equal temperament in Clock Dies.
SH: It’s not notated that way. There are quarter tones, but not a lot of them. But some of the things that I think I’m thinking of–one moment in particular–that sound microtonal are just a result of human performers. There’s a part where the vibraphone is repeating this one note over and over and over again. And the conductor and ensemble were really confused as to what I wanted the dynamic of that vibraphone note to be. They kept telling me that it was inaudible and I just think it was absolutely, 100-percent audible. It’s just that the flute and clarinet were playing, I don’t remember the notes right now, but they’re playing very close together harmonically, and to me, inserting this vibraphone note dynamically just underneath what they’re doing totally changed the character of the wind instruments without having to hear this like bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, on the vibraphone. That’s actually another thing I’ve taken a lot from Feldman, particularly with keyboard percussion instruments, is how to minimize attack and maximize pitch and resonance.
FJO: So this perceived microtonality, it’s not really there, but the ear hears it maybe because of the way the overtones of those different instruments react with each other.
SH: Yeah, I think so. And, there’s no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time, you know. And this is something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance. What started everything is that a piece I made as an undergrad–very, very simple vibraphone piece where the vibraphonist, as mechanically as possible, goes bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, but the sound, the resonance, the instruments changing all the time because of the way the instrument is constructed. The absolute, simplest possible thing a percussionist could ever do produces these results that you don’t expect but are also chaotic and unpredictable.
That gesture is the foundation of my entire practice ever since then: simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that’s really it. I’m sort of moving away from that idea now, but it still feels totally connected. Clock Dies is a perfect example actually. Those kinds of listening phenomena are still present in the piece. They’re just not the focus of the piece. When I made The Reinvention of Romance, I’ve told people lots of times that that’s my favorite thing I’ve made because it felt like it tied together every single thing I care about as a musician into one piece, but it’s not done in this conscious way. It’s that the concept required all of these things that I’ve cared about for so long under this one more sort of non-musical concept. And being able to involve all of those things in pieces without being so like: look at this. But then it just happens on its own is something that I really like about that music.
FJO: Well the other thing about Reinvention of Romance that’s so interesting, I guess in sort of a Feldman sort of way, is in some ways the piece is so much about the combination of those instruments. The very unlikely combination of cello and percussion that exist in these two different worlds, yet they co-exist together and, in a way, that is what romance is: two very different people coming together and being able to share this thing and I suppose that is the subconscious psychological subtext, the emotional part of this music.
SH: Right. Well you know, there’s a part in Reinvention of Romance, around the 20-minute mark where the cello bows two notes, and you just clear as day hear a third pitch. It’s a normal result of a string that resonates with overtones, but the total gesture of that piece is that you have two separate things that generates this magical third thing, which is the connection between the two physical things, like a difference tone, there are physically two things, but there’s this third element that is just there. You could say that that piece is Feldman-y because it’s quiet and it’s repetitive, but every compositional aspect came straight from the concept. I don’t care if somebody thinks it sounds like Feldman. It’s fine. I think that there’s enough different about that music, that it doesn’t sound derivative or something, but that everything came from the concept of the piece, which ultimately was like there’s some sort of space between two people that is palpable, and the longer it goes on, the more deep it gets.
I’ve said this lots of times, but in a domesticate relationship, the longer it goes on, the more deep it becomes, which means that the only path for that occurring is time. Which is why I made it 90 minutes, ’cause I needed it to be too long. Even if you’re with someone for 20 years, and you don’t like each other anymore, there’s still something there that is so complex that only developed that level of complexity because of this vast amount of time that passed. I just think that’s a beautiful gesture and it’s not about love, it’s just about space and intimacy, not romantic intimacy, but that closeness.
FJO: So then why reinvention?
SH: A lot of my titles are not communicating anything specific, but I knew that I wanted a more poetic title for that piece. And I knew I wanted it to be really right. I was just having a total meltdown about this, and finally, I called a friend of mine, and I was saying what I just told you, and they were like: well, tell me about this piece. And I did. And they said, well it sounds like you’re trying to reinvent romance. And I was just like bing.
FJO: That is so beautiful.
SH: And, not to do “the Webster’s Dictionary defines as,” but when you look up the definition of romance, it’s not just a synonym for love. There’s an element of mystery. Another angle of the simple thing equals complex is that there is mystery there, of like what is that space between those two people after 20 years. It’s like you don’t know what it is. You know it’s there. But it’s so complicated that you can’t just say like: this is X. it’s not something that can be intellectually communicated. It’s just there. That’s really, really interesting and important to me.
FJO: I would posit another thing about that piece that makes it so interesting and makes it clearly un-Feldman-like. You’re coming at these instruments as a percussionist. You’re thinking of the cello in a way that a string player wouldn’t necessarily conceive of it.
FJO: There’s a more extreme example in the piece that you wrote for the Chilean guitarist Cristian Alvear, Orienting Response; it doesn’t sound like any solo guitar piece I can think of.
SH: When I wrote Reinvention of Romance, in my mind, I was like this is the full version of Orienting Response. The way that Orienting Response got written is that that was the first commission I got. And I had been doing all of this percussion music of super loud, crazy acoustics that all came about through bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. And I get this request for a classical guitar piece. And my first thought was like: well, I cannot do this with a classical guitar. I just can’t. It won’t work. And so the thought was as simple as: well, what if instead of repeating notes, it was repeating patterns. I can play guitar a little bit. And I started messing around with the guitar and when I made that, I was immediately like huh.
There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I’m somewhere else now. Clock Dies is the same. I feel like in the last year or two I’m just totally somewhere new that’s still connected to the old stuff, but I couldn’t even explain it. It doesn’t make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it’s like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating. Like I just wanted to keep hearing it. And so I did that without even really knowing why, and so Reinvention of Romance was me wanting to take that concept to a larger piece.
FJO: Now, you mention playing guitar. I want to go all the way back, and talk about Weird Weeds.
SH: Oh wow.
FJO: I did a total deep dive on all of this stuff. And there are things in that music, particularly the untitled tracks–I don’t know if they’re untitled, the ones that are just titled with a dash–on Help Me Name Melody which really sound like the beginnings of what you would go on to do in your compositions. So I’m wondering, were those works group created? Did different members compose certain ones? What was the process for making the music with that group?
SH: It was pretty normal for any rock band, although I don’t know if we would qualify as a rock band or not. But generally, one of the guitarists would come with some sort of already written music for their instrument and then it would develop as a group. I don’t think it was all that different from any other rock band I was in, when I was younger, but it’s just that the material had such a weird sensibility to it. I’m glad you asked that, because I don’t really think about that band so much anymore. But I did that for ten years, and it was really, really important to me. I’m not playing in bands anymore for a lot of reasons, and I miss playing with other people also, but it’s kind of like Reinvention of Romance, we played together so much that there was something there that was almost outside of the music, I felt so close with those people ’cause we spent so much together making this weird thing.
But yeah. It was around the time of Help Me Name Melody when we started to use repetition. And the band started as like zero repetition. We were making these weird little 90-second songs where I was refusing to ever play any kind of semblance of a regular drumbeat. The songs were structured and behaved in really strange ways. It was like just total anti-rock music, but not in an aggressive or ham-fisted way; it’s just that the music was really odd, but odd in this really pleasant way. Actually–now that it’s come out of my mouth–that is something that I still feel I’m doing, to be strange in a way that’s not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.
FJO: Now what’s interesting, talking about the relationship between that work. Even at this late date, when we talk about post-genre, that work exists in a particular silo. And the work you’re doing now exists in another silo. And it’s sort of ridiculous because there is a relationship between all of this stuff. Yet the fans of that band are probably not going to be the type of folks that go hear a contemporary music concert at the DiMenna Center. And the folks at the DiMenna Center are not folks who are going to go to a show by Weird Weeds.
SH: Well, that’s to some extent true, but we played a lot of experimental music shows. And yes, it was totally different from everything else, but there’s certainly some overlap. Will the person at the Puccini opera go see Weird Weeds? Probably not. But everything I’ve ever done in my life was adventurous music. But yes, we mostly existed in rock clubs, and what I do now mostly exists in galleries and DIY spaces, and the occasional classical music institution. But the thing that ties them together that is deeply important to me is that it’s all totally independent music. I very intensely identify as a DIY artist, who just occasionally finds myself at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. It’s amazing to have access to those resources and I’m very happy to be there, but that isn’t like quote-unquote my world. I mean, I don’t have a world as far I’m concerned, except my own.
FJO: This is a conversation that I’ve had with a lot of visual artists over the years: Somebody creates a certain body of work, and then a gallery signs them. And then they do new work that’s exhibited, and it doesn’t look like the previous work. And the folks at the gallery are all upset. It’s like: “Wait, you did this other work, and now you’re doing this.” It’s like: “well yeah, this is what I’m doing now.” The pull to constantly get excited about new discoveries and going in new directions versus this desire to have an individual sound, or an individual look if you’re a painter or an individual voice if you’re a poet, that you could say, “oh, that’s the work of Sarah Hennies. I know that that’s Sarah Hennies’ work.” But it’s a struggle. You mentioned wanting to go into a new direction. How far can you go and still be you?
SH: This is a semantic thing, but I don’t consciously want to go in a new direction. I want to be developing as a composer all the time, but I’ve never in my life thought: today I’m going to go in a different direction. It’s happened totally organically and again practically, the story I told about the guitar thing was just experimental in the most literal meaning of the word, I’ll do this and see what happens. And it’s the same thing, the way that Clock Dies came about is there’s seven musicians, and we need a conductor. And so I wrote a through-composed piece and there’s lots of measures. And I didn’t want to use a stopwatch, because there’s so many people. So I got this really different kind of piece out of that. And you know there were other things that I wanted to explore in that piece, but I started writing with absolutely no concept. It only became clear to me midway through the writing. But I would say that Orienting Response and Clock Dies are the two things that have happened to me in the last ten years where I thought: oh, this is something else. I’ve used this metaphor a lot, but that when I made these percussion pieces called Psalms, that was in 2009, I felt like I jumped into a pool and ever since then, I’m swimming around in that same pool, but the more pieces I make, the pool just keeps getting bigger.
The Weird Weeds were like this, too, actually. If you heard our first album immediately followed by our last album, you could say that’s a completely different band, but the way that it developed was very gradual. Like it always just made sense that one thing led to the next thing. That’s totally how I work now as well. We didn’t sit down and say: we’re gonna make an instrumental repetitive record; it was way more organic than that.
FJO: The thing about Clock Dies that to me is so extraordinary is the orchestrational detail. Something I mentioned to you in our email exchange, that section where the strings are playing with the wood of their bows rather than the hair, the col legno technique…
FJO: It’s been around for centuries, but it’s still magic. It’s so good. Right?
SH: I love that. Yes.
FJO: I heard that and I’m like, wow. You say you don’t want to deal with institutions, but wow, I’d love to hear you write an orchestra piece.
SH: I did write an orchestra piece.
FJO: Okay. I’ve got to hear this. I haven’t found it.
SH: I don’t not want to deal with institutions. I am very, very pleased to have work from almost anywhere, but I don’t want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically. I teach at Bard College, and about a year ago, or I guess it was a little over a year ago, the chair of my department was conducting a concert for the Bard grad orchestra, which is called the Orchestra Now. And he wrote to me and was like: I’m conducting this concert, and I’m wondering if you would like to write a piece for us. Never in a billion years would I have thought I’d be writing for orchestra because I’m who I am. It was all strings. This was in December. And he was like: well, the concert’s in February, and also we can’t pay you. Because I work there. And my partner was just like: you should not do this. But there was never even an iota of doubt in my mind that it was not worth it to do that because I’m never gonna get to do this again. I love Xenakis’s orchestral work because he wrote for one part per player. And I’ve always wanted to do that. The piece is called Falling Together. The beginning of the piece was specifically, it’s 32 strings, it was I want to hear 32 string players playing 32 different pitches, bowed with the wood of the bow.
SH: This was like the height of COVID. And so the concert was only streamed, and I was just like: I have to come to this in person, because I’m never gonna hear it again. This sounds cheese-y, but I wept when I heard that sound. It’s right at the beginning of the piece, too. It is one of the most stunning things I have ever heard. It just was absolutely incredible. I just really wanted to hear that sound, and it was as amazing, more amazing than I thought it would be, actually.
FJO: Wow. Wow.
SH: But, yes. I would love to write for orchestra again or be given the opportunity to revise that piece a little more when I have more than six weeks to do it.
FJO: And maybe a piece not just with strings, but you know, full brass section and tons of percussion.
SH: Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny, I always had more of an interest in small ensembles because of how intimate and immediate it is, but then when you hear 32 string players playing 32 pitches with the bow of the wood, suddenly you’re not so interested in only small ensembles anymore. Just because of what’s possible.
FJO: Well, another piece that we didn’t talk about. When I mentioned to everybody at New Music USA that we were doing this talk today, our Director of Grantmaking Programs, Scott Winship, reminded me that there was a piece of yours that we funded called Embedded Environments.
FJO: And so I checked that out. And I was hearing different things in there because it was several percussionists. So I was hearing layers of rhythmic counterpoint that I hadn’t heard in any other piece. And I though, wow, once again, this is a very kind of orchestral thing, what would happen if you had access to this large ensemble?
SH: I played vibraphone on that, but it’s only three percussionists, but it’s played in this place in Buffalo called Silo City; I couldn’t even tell you what the number of seconds of the reverb decay time is, but it’s shockingly long. That was another thing, when I heard it live I almost cried because I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But just to say that that piece was written with this insane reverb in mind. And so the percussionists are playing. If you heard them without that acoustic, the parts sound like completely stupid, ’cause it’s the same thing. The thing I want to hear is the crazy stuff that happens in the room. So to me, the way to do that is percussion parts that have almost nothing to them. Like it’s just like bah-boom, bah-boom, bah-boom played at different tempos. That’s it. That’s the percussion parts, at least for the opening section of that piece.
FJO: Wow, it sounds so different. It sounds like so many polyrhythms going on.
SH: It’s nothing but just percussionists going bah-boom, bah-boom, and choosing whatever tempo they want.
FJO: It’s awesome. I love it.
SH: That’s the Crippled Symmetry thing: you generate this amazing complexity through the simplest instruction in the world.
FJO: Everything we’ve been talking about has been acoustic, non-electronic works that are given to other musicians who play them in real time. But your work Contralto is a multi-media, electro-acoustic, video piece that exists as a fixed form piece.
FJO: But, once again, I think if somebody is immersed in the sound world of your music, they would say, “Yeah, I hear the common sound world: playing with this notion of repetition, playing with this notion of starting and stopping.” But once again, as a means to an end. There’s a very deep emotional content to it. And what’s amazing to me about it is it’s so deeply personal, yet it’s very abstract.
SH: Yeah. That’s what I do. That was an amazing five-word description of everything that I’ve been doing for a really long time, using really personal experiences to do something with an enormous potential for the listener. My experience generates the music, but that’s not the thing that I need people to know about. We’re using the word abstract, Contralto‘s a little different in that way ’cause it’s very directly personal in a really obvious way. But all of the music in that came from the same deeply personal place as the film part of it. And almost all of the music in that came from older pieces. I’ve talked about this in other contexts, too, but I was very hesitant to make that piece for a while, because I didn’t want to be “Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer,” but I realized, I keep talking about this moment in 2009, all of the work I had made from that point up to Contralto was completed related to the subject of that piece.
And so even though it seems like a really different piece of mine, you’re totally right. It very literally has old music of mine. Like the section where everyone’s kind of speaking in a normal way, has this drone-y electronic vocal piece. Literally I just took an old piece and dropped it right into the video because that’s the only non-acoustic element in the piece. Because I remembered this old piece, and I went: ohhh, that’s why I made that piece. And it was the perfect music for that section of that film. I literally just took it from a folder on my computer and dropped it right into the Premiere file. There’s lots of other elements that appear in other pieces, too.
FJO: So, what are the projects that you would want to do? What is the next step?
SH: For a long time now I’ve thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long. There is a French composer named Jean-Claude Éloy and a percussionist named Michael Ranta, who I actually just interviewed yesterday; I’m very excited about it. They made this piece together called Yo-In. It’s three-and-a-half hours long. For years, I was like: boy, wouldn’t it be great to do something like that. Really for a few years, I was just waiting for something to come to me. I need an idea that can sustain that amount of time. And that idea has emerged over the last year or so. I don’t know how I’m gonna pull this off. It would be really expensive, ’cause it involves a lot of performers and electronics and a big space, and right now it exists only as an idea. A couple other pieces I’m working on right now for new commissions are kind of like Orienting Response and Reinvention of Romance. These current pieces are the baby versions of what I want to be like this massive project and so I’m really really focused on trying to find a way to do that.
FJO: And of course, thinking of massive projects, maybe now we can think of them again.
FJO: A piece like Clock Dies, it’s seven people, but in a pandemic era, it feels like a huge group.
SH: I’ve only made two pieces in the last several years that I wasn’t asked for. Well, that’s half true. I was asked for Reinvention of Romance, but the idea pre-dated the ask. It’s just that I happened to get asked for the exact piece that I wanted to make. Like shockingly accurate to this idea I had already had to write a long duo for two people, and then the two people I wrote it for are in a relationship together. It was shocking to me, but anyway, the only two pieces that I’ve written in the last several years that I just did out of totally out of my own interests was Reinvention of Romance and Contralto. And those are the two best things I’ve ever made. Period. But it’s not about best. It was like: I have to do this. I just felt completely consumed with the need to make those pieces, and that’s how I feel about this new thing that like I’m actively pursuing doing this as opposed to the other. I’ve made a lot of work in the last few years and I’m really very grateful for it. But they were commissions. It was like write a piece for two piano and two percussion, and so they were things that were specific things that were asked of me, whereas this is just like something that has formed completely outside of any employment opportunity that I’ve been given. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, and it’s like I just have to do it. I know that I do, because I know it’s going to be amazing. It’s not about good or bad. It’s that I need to see this experience, or hear this experience. Like I just have to do it.
FJO: Well, I can’t wait to hear it.
SH: Well, maybe one day somebody will.