Tag: perception

Sarah Hennies: Getting at the Heart of a Sound

Sarah Hennies striking tubular bells

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.”

In and Out of Jetlag

Four Clocks featuring time from New York City, Vienna, Moscow, and Beijing

So what time is it anyway?

Although I returned home last Sunday after having spun around the globe, I was rather surprised that I had no jetlag the following day when I returned to the office. I was fine on Tuesday and most of Wednesday as well. But once Thanksgiving arrived on Thursday, my sense of time grew less certain. Friday was considerably worse, and on Saturday and Sunday I was a complete mess.

In my more lucid moments during the holiday weekend, which were sporadic at best, I began to wonder why it was that my inner clock was somehow able to align itself properly during the work week and totally conk out once I spent most of my time at home. The sun barely ever shines through my ground floor apartment so perhaps it was a by-product of underexposure to natural light. But there are no windows in my immediate vicinity here at the office, so that can’t be it. More likely, it was due to having a fixed timetable of activities earlier in the week and a subsequent freeform schedule in the days immediately following that. On Monday, Tuesday, and a good part of Wednesday, I never lost track of what time it was in New York City because there were constant reminders of the time.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about music and the way that music plays with listeners’ perceptions of chronological time. Many people have commented about how a live performance of an exciting new 25-minute piece can feel like it has raced by in only 10 minutes whereas an unfamiliar 10-minute piece that is extremely difficult to get into could feel like it’s gone on for more than a half hour. I’ve certainly had both experiences over the years.

Of course, there are ways of cheating these experiences when the durations of all the pieces of music being performed are listened on a program. Upon occasion, I’ve snuck a peek at a watch to know how much time was left, both for pieces with which I was completely enamored and ones I could not wait to have end. Sometimes I like knowing the duration in advance for a piece of music I’ve never heard before since it can help me to get a sense of the structure of the piece. For example, if something that particularly captures my attention occurs, I’ll look at a watch to determine at what point in the piece it happened.

However, more often than not, I find that knowing the precise length of a piece can spoil the magic of its ability to suspend time. When I’m listening to music, I prefer not quite knowing what time it is and allowing the music to take me to a place that is somehow beyond my own perception of the passing minutes. This is probably why I’m also ultimately O.K. with the jetlag, which is a small price to pay for the opportunity to see other places and have new experiences.

It’s Always Now

“It’s always now,” exclaimed Maia McCormick, our summer intern at New Music USA, during a conversation I had with her during her last week with us. (She’s now on a brief vacation with her family and then will be heading back to school.)
“That’s both incredibly obvious and extremely poignant,” I retorted.

“Mind if I steal this for an essay?”
“Sure,” she said.
So here goes…

All of us, not just those of us who are involved with music, waste so much time dwelling on the past as well as trying to predict what the future is, when in fact, the only thing we can really affect is the present. In that sense visual art, such as paintings and sculptures, might be the most effective artistic medium since they can be experienced all at once and the reality of the perpetual present is never lost in the process. While it’s true that the longer you look at something the more details you potentially will become cognizant of (and hopefully appreciative of), it’s all there for you to interact with as quickly or as slowly as you desire. Well, not completely. Having been ushered out of a museum at closing time while not sufficiently sated with looking at a painting is something some of you might have experienced. Most of the time I look at art works in a museum all too quickly, fearing that if I don’t, I won’t be able to see everything there. This is especially the case when I travel, since who knows when or if I’ll ever get to visit that museum again.

Music, on the other hand, carries with it is a constant reminder of the past and the future, since music needs to be mentally processed temporally on its own clock. If we were to listen to a piece of music faster than it is meant to occur—and admittedly recordings of performances can be sped up—we would obviously not be getting the same experience as listening to the music at its intended speed. Similarly, if we slowed it down it would also be completely different. The various experiments from a few years back of slowing down Beethoven symphonies and various Top 40 pop songs inspired new pieces of music, not new ways of hearing pre-existing ones.

Requisite time allotment is not the exclusive domain of music. All the performing arts—dance, theatre, mime, etc.—require audiences to follow someone else’s clock as does cinema. But poetry and prose fiction exist in a realm that is something of a middle ground between the way we take in the visual and the performing arts. While we cannot read a poem or a novel all at once, we turn the pages at our own pace and can constantly reread a baffling or favorite sentence again and again before moving on, or jump to the end and spoil the plot if we are too impatient. Although there have been intentional disruptions to the arbitrary directedness of the literary line for centuries (such disparate phenomena as acrostic poetry, Laurence Sterne’s antinovel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman or even Medieval illuminated manuscripts and the Talmud immediately come to mind), non-linear literature has mostly remained a somewhat arcane endeavor.


An “excerpt” from Dan Waber and Jason Pimble’s hypertext I, You, We. Reprinted in accordance with their Creative Commons license.

Much to my delight I recently stumbled upon Dan Waber and Jason Pimble’s 2005 hypertext I, You, We which presents a fascinating alterative to a static text that is meant to be read in one direction; in it, words are constantly moving (though they can be stopped or shifted in direction via clicking and dragging) but they ultimately go nowhere. Yet this text does not completely abandon meaning—all of the words that race across the screen are comprehensible to anyone fluent in the English language. Such a piece of verbal art aspires to the condition of music. However, it most clearly resembles music that eschews functional tonality, since any music with a developed syntax of functionality would need to have a clear beginning as well as a resolved ending.

What if there could be a piece of music that was equally open-ended and still meant something to listeners? I’m reminded again of some of the more recent compositions of John Luther Adams such as the outdoor percussion extravaganza Inuksuit which it is impossible to hear all of, or the sound installation The Place Where You Go To Listen in which every pitch and rhythmic element carries a great deal of meaning, yet it continually morphs based on the weather patterns of the day. Might these sorts of musical structures more accurately reflect a world in which the past and the future are mental constructs and the only thing that is really tangible is the here and now?

Advocacy and Communication

I had something of an epiphany about how the various parts of my life relate to each other last week when I gave a presentation both about my own music and my writings and talks concerning the music of others for the composition seminar at Yale University. The more I’ve thought about that epiphany, the more I’ve wondered if it has larger implications for how artistic experiences are created and communicated to others.

As a writer and speaker about music, I have pretty firmly established my working methods as being advocatorial rather than critical. I’ve long believed that my own opinion about a piece of music (or anyone else’s opinion for that matter) is far less important than the piece of music itself and the person/people who created it. I tend to distrust the received wisdom culled from arbiters of taste (self-appointed or otherwise) only slightly less than my own personal taste which can all too often get in the way of experiencing the ideas of another creator on his or her own terms. So I’ve endeavored whenever I write or talk about something, or whenever I talk to someone about his or her work, to try to describe the work rather than to evaluate it and, in conversations, give the creator the opportunity to speak on the work’s behalf.

This kind of openness might perhaps seem antithetical to the process of composing music which is, after all, a sharing of one’s own personal musical aesthetics with the world. Undeniably there are specific musical ingredients that I feel pretty passionate about and which I therefore explore quite a bit in my own music—microtonal intervals, repetition (whether actual or perceived), vocal melodies that are based specifically on the pronunciation and meanings of the words sung, permutational patterning (whether based on themes, scales, or tone rows), oddball rhythms (particularly quintuple and septimal time), metric modulation, and even occasional indeterminacy. At the same time, though there’s a lot of theory behind much of what I compose, I try my best to always make whatever technique or process I explore clearly audible.
At Yale last week, a student asked why it was so important to me that my music communicate so directly even though it sometimes incorporates somewhat esoteric techniques and processes. And then it dawned on me: when I write about other people’s music, my goal is to advocate for their music; when I write my own music, my goal is to advocate for whatever techniques I’m exploring. When I set texts, my goal is to advocate for those words. For me, it’s actually all the same thing. The more music I hear by others, the more ideas I’m inspired to pursue on my own and the more I pursue certain of those ideas the more I want to ask others about them. Isn’t this what we all do, either as creators of or respondents to artistic experiences? Everything emanates from listening.

Then on the train ride back from New Haven, I started reading New Zealand musicologist Christopher Small’s seminal 1998 book Musicking, which is a scathing attack on how orchestral music is performed and listened to. Though Musicking had been on my reading list long before Small’s death in September 2011, I was not quite prepared for the book’s intensity, especially after a wonderful day at Yale that helped me clarify my approach to music. Here’s a sample of Small’s argument:

“What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration. Whatever the event may be celebrating, it does not seem to be unity, unanimity or intimacy but rather the separation of those who produce from those who consume…”

Earlier in the book he decries concert hall construction that ensures a separation between performers and audience and a seating arrangement that makes it difficult for attendees to do anything else besides merely listen to the music. Though I was somewhat baffled by the first concerts I attended back in my early teens, I very soon grew to love how the format allowed for a really deep absorption of sonic information that was not constantly interrupted—either by someone asking you to buy a drink or other attendees loudly having a conversation which makes it extraordinarily difficult and at times impossible to fully process the music being performed.

I have not yet finished Musicking and will probably have more to say about it. I’m now up to the chapter titled “Summoning Up the Dead Composer” which I’m sure will be a doozy. As a composer and an advocate for the music of other composers, primarily those who are still alive, I have quite a few issues with the culture of orchestral music concerts which are all too rarely concern themselves with the music of the here and now. That said, I wouldn’t want orchestras and large concert halls to go away—quite the opposite. I want them to let more of us in!

Small was hardly the first writer to make this analogy, yet I find it particularly troubling that someone so attuned to the importance of music in human society (as he proved himself to be in his first chapter) would come to the conclusion that unimpeded listening is a form of submission that is ultimately bad for people. A similar argument could be made for us not looking at paintings or reading books (including his). Ultimately, taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would have us never pay full attention to anyone else. I fear all too many people are encouraged not to pay sufficient attention to others these days which has resulted in a world where political discourse is often reduced to binary echo chambers.

On Saturday afternoon, however, I found a pleasant refutation of experiential immersion as subjugation during an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD), a place I had never before visited. What got me to finally attend was an exhibit devoted to perfume. (Readers might recall how my attending a performance of the Scent-Opera—a collaboration between composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson, “librettist” Stewart Matthew, and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel—triggered a summer-long exploration of perfume that led me to think about music somewhat differently.) MAD’s presentation, which unfortunately closed on Sunday, might offer the next step toward refining that line of thinking.

MAD Perfume Exhibition

Is sticking your head inside one of these indentations to experience a perfume an act of discovery or submission?

The exhibition consisted primarily of an empty wall with twelve indentations for visitors to stick their heads in to smell twelve specific perfumes created between the years 1889 and 2010. A brief text about each of the perfumes was projected onto the empty wall but only for short periods of time. I found it impossible to read each of the blurbs in only one go and had to wait for them to re-appear. Similarly, an introductory text appeared and then disappeared on the floor. (A side room offered a monitor displaying video interviews with the perfumers, as well as vats of each of the twelve perfumes on display in the main exhibition; visitors were allowed to dunk paper into the vats in order to smell the perfumes for a more extended duration, though even when smeared on paper the perfume will fade.) By turning the process of reading the texts about the perfumes into an experience as fleeting as smelling them, MAD created a remarkably apt way of describing the ephemerality and elusiveness of olfactory perception. Of course, music is as ephemeral and elusive, perhaps even more so in a live performance which you can’t even stick your head into again to rehear.

MAD Perfume Exhibition 2

Even if you save the paper on which you were allowed to blot drops of perfume, they will eventually lose their scent.

During the hour I was at the exhibition, I witnessed people of all ages willingly sticking their heads into those indentations with curiosity and delight, though it was an even more submissive act than sitting in a concert hall. Then again, it was very instructive to watch and listen to the videos and hear perfumer Ralf Schweiger enthuse about the aroma of sloths, reveling in how they smell like hair and dirt, only then to confess that much as he likes their fragrance, including it in a perfume is problematic. As he opined, “You can’t push the envelope too much because people won’t like it.”

Again I was reminded of all the sounds we love as composers and how we attempt to include them in our music either fully conscious of or completely oblivious to how they will be perceived by others, depending on our aesthetic inclinations.

Attention to Detail


I’m sure the trippy psychedelia resulting from the reflections of the Christmas lights the Law and Order crew installed in one of my windows was not the effect they were going for, but I enjoyed seeing it when I returned home in the evening.

In the this-is-so-completely-random-but-is-yet-another-example-of-how-weird-my-life-is department, last week Universal Network Television LLC paid me $200 so they could install Christmas lights in the windows of my apartment. An episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit was being filmed outside the building where I live and the production crew wanted to plant various visible cues everywhere to suggest the holiday season. I normally never decorate at home, but my inner bah-humbug is easily assuaged by a monetary payoff and admittedly the cash is particularly handy this time of year. Still, I’m amazed at this level of detail and the amount of care that went into something that will probably only appear on screen for a very short amount of time. They actually started setting up shop for the shoot, which took place all day Thursday, on Monday, making sure that cars would not be parked there on the day they were shooting, making various cosmetic alterations to my building to make it look like a housing project instead of a co-op, etc.


By affixing a sign by the entrance of the co-op apartment building I live in, the Law and Order production crew transformed it into a housing project.

I’ve long been intrigued by Orson Welles’s obsession with minutiae during the filming of his second motion picture The Magnificent Ambersons from 1942—designing a set that included a house with walls that could be rolled back in order to shoot continuous takes and, my all-time favorite, constructing an entire block of buildings which only appears in the film reflected through the windows of buildings across the street. Welles’s over-the-top approach and way-over-budget production costs wound up getting him sacked by the film’s producers before the film was completed; they wrestled control from him and ultimately completed it themselves. The lesson I’ve always taken away from this cautionary tale from the annals of Hollywood lore—as well as from the similar story of Brian Wilson’s inability to complete The Beach Boys’ 1967 album SMiLE—is to work within a reasonable set of limits and to know when to let something go.

In my own music I’ve long been fixated with various issues that go beyond what most people consider reasonable limits—explorations of microtonal tunings, unusual metrical configurations and tempo transformations, non-standard instrumentation, etc.—and have also had problems with letting certain details go. For me, the details are sometimes the most interesting part of the process, even if they don’t make the least bit of difference to most listeners. But it’s not so much that I’m interested in creating stuff that most people can’t hear. Rather, making sure all the elements fit seamlessly together is extraordinarily pleasurable, akin to the delight of completing an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or (as I can only imagine since I’m terrified of needles) knitting a scarf or a sweater. Coming to the conclusion of such a process, when everything seems to be all lined up correctly, is somehow its own satisfaction. For me, hearing a performance that captures significantly more than just a fleeting essence of the processes I used in the creation of the music is the icing on the cake.

Somehow seeing the depth of care that the crew for Law and Order put into making sure everything was just right made me reconsider the caution I had internalized from the Welles and Wilson sagas. I seriously wonder how many people watching that television episode will notice the Christmas lights in my window, but it’s beside the point. Having them there presumably makes for a more complete visual narrative. And the same is true for music that is crammed full of specificities but whose universal perceptibility is doubtful. You may not be able to hear all of what’s in there, but you can intuit that there is some kind of carefully considered manipulation of sonic materials going on. One of the poems by Stephen Crane that I set in the song cycle I recently completed contains the line, “nine and ninety nine lie.” For my realization of that, I included a progression of 108 deceptive cadences. A series of metric modulations constantly changes the precise tempo indicated by a quarter note, but it all stems from a basic quarter note value of 108. For another poem which attempts to define truth, A = 440 (which is regarded by most musicians as the absolute truth but wasn’t always so), is sung only once, when truth is apparently clear. I know that these are things that few people, if any, will hear or even care about, but including them in the piece led me down compositional paths that I think ultimately served the poems appropriately and led to what I believe or at least hope is effective music that transcends the methods used to construct it.

Similarly, those Christmas lights in my window, while undoubtedly not the key to solving whatever mystery plot unfolded in the episode of Law and Order filmed outside my apartment building, were significant enough to the creators of the show that they spent days arranging for them to be installed and paid me a couple of hundred bucks to boot. Now if I could only get commensurate remuneration for every one of my metric modulations.


And wouldn’t it be nice if cars were always moved an appropriate distance away from wherever our music was being performed.