Sharing an intimate musical vision

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Sharing an intimate musical vision
Composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies in Ithaca, N.Y., Oct. 3, 2020. Hennies’ highly personal explorations of “queer and trans identity, love, intimacy and psychoacoustics” are increasingly played by others. Shane Lavalette/The New York Times.

by Steve Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “One of the things that I’m drawn to is living with someone for a long time, being in love, and what that’s like after you’ve lived together for 10 years,” the composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies said recently. “It becomes, somehow, more banal and routine, but also more intimately bonded at the same time. So that’s the piece I wanted to write.”

Speaking by phone from Ithaca, New York, where she lives with her partner, visual artist Mara Baldwin, and their young son, Hennies, 41, was explaining what had led her to compose “The Reinvention of Romance.” The duet for cello and percussion comprises some 90 minutes of spare, economical gestures, played not quite in sync. A recording of the 2018 piece by Two-Way Street, the duo that commissioned it, arrived recently on Astral Spirits. The arresting cover image, a photograph by Hennies, depicts a pink party balloon resting atop a compact bed of nails.

What Two-Way Street — cellist Ashlee Booth and percussionist Adam Lion, who are romantically involved — requested from Hennies was simply a very long piece. Embarking on what would become “The Reinvention of Romance,” Hennies experimented with the cello, notating ideas she found compelling and grouping them into concise cells. She then visited the duo at an artists retreat, and adopted a collaborative approach to complete the work.

What resulted was an extended sequence of simple figures arranged in succinct packets, each repeated at length until a timer prompts moving on to the next. Booth might bow a keening interval over and over without variation, paired with Lion’s similarly uninflected glockenspiel strokes; moments later, bowed metal shrieking at length threatens to obliterate the cello’s modest plucks and strums. Weaving together the kinds of fragmentary figurations with which Morton Feldman might have evoked twirling mobiles or intricate tapestries, Hennies instead evokes the slightly akimbo biorhythms of lives intimately conjoined.

The recording of “The Reinvention of Romance” initiates a small boom of projects documenting Hennies’ recent music. “Spectral Malsconcities,” due Friday on the venerable New World label, includes two pieces in accounts by the groups for which they were written: The trio Bearthoven plays the awkwardly buoyant title work, and Bent Duo the spare, ritualistic “Unsettle.” (These ensembles will repeat the program in a concert at Roulette in Brooklyn, streaming live Oct. 28.) And Hennies’ “Loss,” stark and disorienting, is included on a new album from Judith Hamann, “Music for Cello and Humming,” to be released Oct. 30 by the curatorial organization Blank Forms.

These compositions — and a few that came earlier, like “Reservoir 1,” in which the pianist Phillip Bush responds almost imperceptibly to the increasing din from the percussion trio Meridian, of which Hennies is a member — demonstrate a substantial shift in her work. Having started primarily as a composer of solo pieces meant for her own use, Hennies now finds herself increasingly in demand to provide pieces meant for others, and to entrust those artists with the profoundly personal motivations encoded into her music.

Core concerns she enumerates in her professional biography are “queer and trans identity, love, intimacy and psychoacoustics.” Hennies writes music rife with psychological effects and emotional undercurrents, like those that pulse within “The Reinvention of Romance.” And she conveys alienation and ambiguity with instruments altered, muffled or played unconventionally in “Spectral Malsconcities” and “Unsettle.” But in those same works and others, Hennies also evokes recognition, transformation and acceptance.

“In almost everything I’ve done,” she said, “there are psychoanalytical, nonmusical aspects to it that I feel are various aspects of my being.”

Much of her work evokes aspects of her experience as a transgender woman, both before and after her transition in 2015. That she had taken up percussion while growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, may well have had to do with intuiting that drumming was a suitably masculine pursuit for a child already grappling with gender ambiguity and bullying, as she recounted in “Queer Percussion,” an essay published by the new-music journal Sound American in February.

From her start in punk-rock bands, she gravitated toward experimental music by John Cage and Harry Partch — “both queers, coincidentally,” she wrote in “Queer Percussion.” She began to explore composition, studying scores in private.

Embarking on what she hesitates to term “classical training,” Hennies attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, studying there with German composer Herbert Brün. She earned her master’s degree at the University of California, San Diego, where she worked with eminent percussionist-conductor Steven Schick. Moving to Austin, Texas, in 2003, she continued to engage with the contemporary classical repertoire in the Austin New Music Co-Op, while also playing in a well regarded indie-rock band, the Weird Weeds.

Hennies began to fashion uncanny solos for herself. Some of these pieces, like “Work” and “Clots,” involved repetition and endurance pushed to punishing extremes — something Hennies would identify later as abusive behavior directed toward a physical vessel inhospitable to its occupant. (“Casts,” a 2015 Astral Spirits cassette reissued alongside “The Reinvention of Romance,” includes several pieces that involve deliberate awkwardness and discomfort.)

Other pieces in her solo repertoire offered a different perspective. A watershed moment came in 2009, when Hennies composed her three “Psalms,” solos for snare drum, vibraphone and wood block, respectively. The premise behind each piece is simple: An instrument with specific, universally recognized identity is transformed — through minute inflections and inconsistencies in a player’s attack, and by the space in which it’s played — into an object of unknowable variety.

“When I wrote those pieces, I consciously was like: This is it. This is what I’m going to be doing for a long time,” Hennies said. “That’s still basically true, after 10 years. But my thinking about those works has changed over the years. I realized that they were imbued with more conceptual content than I had thought when I made them. They were more tied to my humanity and my personhood than I’d thought.”

Hennies employs the whisper-to-scream dynamics and timbral extremes common to Xenakis and free improvisation, and shares with Alvin Lucier an occupation with acoustic phenomena that verge on illusion. She endorses both the laborious repetition and the material frugality of Minimalism. (“I’m trying to do as little as I can to make the thing happen that I’m interested in,” she is quoted as saying in the liner notes of “Spectral Malsconcities.”)

She continues to create and perform solo works, and will participate in that capacity during “Out/With/In,” a daylong installation event on Governors Island on Oct. 31.

But the sonic transformations she conjured in “Psalms” have recurred in some of the recent works she has created for other performers. Karl Larson, the pianist in Bearthoven, an idiosyncratic trio comprising piano, bass and drums, describes such an experience when he and a bandmate, the percussionist Matt Evans, first heard her music: an account by Bent Duo of “Unsettle.”

“It was in this old church, and the overtones from the bells, the vibraphone and the piano, mixing together, kind of created three-dimensional objects in the air above them,” Larson recalled. That experience, in Buffalo in 2017, moved him, along with Evans and bassist Pat Swoboda, to commission “Spectral Malsconcities,” in which piano, bass and drums, their signature sounds often profoundly altered, dance without ever quite aligning.

“The thing that struck us most was that, especially for Matt and Pat, the extended techniques she used were so physically disruptive to the task,” Larson said. “These physical motions that are related to your instrument, but detached from your training, seem very purposely there to orient you as a person playing the music you’re trying to express.”

Struggle also plays a part in “Loss,” part of a collection of works in which Hamann, an Australian cellist currently based in Berlin, hums while playing. In an email, she explained that Hennies had asked her to identify her humming range, and then intentionally set parts of the piece well outside that comfort zone. (In “Song,” included on the “Casts” tape, Hennies imposed the same challenge on herself.)

“The interesting thing is that it’s not setting up the performer to fail, but to create a setting in which the attempt at the task creates the artifacts and phenomena that make the performed work alive,” Hamann said. “That’s where all the richness and magic is, in the cracking voice and the slackened C string, in the breaths between gestures, in the awkwardness, in the sonic properties of trying, and what emerges from that.”

What Hennies’ disparate works have in common is their forthright yet subtle, moving evocation of queerness. Throughout the tragicomic solo “Monologue,” a trumpeter literally disassembles the horn, producing a litany of hisses, sputters and rattles. In “Reservoir 2,” a flutist struggles to connect with a surrounding ensemble of singers in motion. “Contralto,” a 2017 multimedia work, involves a video made by Hennies in which transgender women intone exercises meant to help them alter their voices toward societal conformity, accompanied with sonic detritus from a string quartet and a percussion trio.

“The idea of subverting identity is queer,” Hennies said. “There’s a spectrum of sexuality. There’s a spectrum of identity. And the representation of that is taking something that seems simple, and showing that it is a spectrum.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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