Tone Glow 032.2: Sarah Hennies
An interview with Sarah Hennies for a special midweek issue
Sarah Hennies is a composer based in New York whose work is concerned with a variety of musical, sociopolitical, and psychological issues including queer and trans identity, love, intimacy, psychoacoustics, and percussion. Her newest album, The Reinvention of Romance, is being released by Astral Spirits alongside a reissue of her 2015 album Casts. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Hennies over the phone on September 15th, 2020 to discuss teaching, learning under Herbert Brün, her new album, collaborations, and her upcoming film Passing.
Photo by Claire Harvie
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello hello!
Sarah Hennies: Hey! How’s it going?
Pretty good, I’m also on my lunch break right now (laughs).
Yeah, I just inhaled some lunch because I’ve overbooked myself today.
Ah jeez, is everything okay?
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, you were part of the overbooking (laughter).
I’ll try not to make this super long.
That’s okay! I have to run at 1, so there’s a hard cut off.
That’s totally fine! How’s your day been so far?
It’s fine. I’m out at Bard where I teach a few days a week. I just met with a student and have class later.
Are you teaching in person?
I’m coming every other week. I was hesitant to do that, but honestly I really missed working (laughs). Bard seems to be doing a really good job about instilling students with a sense that they need to take it seriously. So far we are a few weeks into class and everything has been fine, hopefully it will stay that way. It’s a small school in a pretty remote location, so they have that going for them. As long as students don’t do anything stupid.
For sure. How many people are in your classes?
Around ten in each right now. I had more last semester in my history class, but they’re smaller this year, which is nice.
I’m actually very interested in your history class, I think I replied to your tweet when you posted the syllabus for it. That sounds like such an incredible class to be in. Obviously you tweeted about it as well but something that’s very cool to see is that you have the UIUC composers in there. I went to U of I.
Oh cool, so did I!
Yeah! The thing is, around the time I was there I was getting into a bunch of experimental music, but I never heard about any of these composers. I didn’t even know about the history that this school had with electronic music until after I had graduated. I was like, “Oh my god!”
What years were you there?
From 2010 to 2014.
I’m not sure what it was like then. When I got there, there were still some remnants of experimentalism. Herbert Brün was still alive so I was able to take his class for a couple of years. They were still at events touting what happened in the electronic music studio in the ’60s. In general, they wanted to maintain some connection with that, but I’d imagine that has probably faded over the years.
I would go to shows a lot, I was part of the local radio station, and I would talk to other people about experimental music, but it just never came up. Is there a reason that you feel like this cohort of artists aren’t really mentioned much in the history of electronic and experimental music?
Honestly, I don’t really understand why! If you want to talk about quality and innovation, somebody like Kenneth Gaburo is just… incredible! There’s nothing like his work anywhere else. He has a huge body of work. I hate to use the word “genius,” but he was a great explorer and really intense composer.
With Herbert Brün, I know there is a common conception that Herbert’s music was not that good but he was a brilliant thinker; I understand that impression, but I also can’t separate the two. Also, I’m biased, because I took Herbert’s class—Herbert is one of these people who a lot of people haven’t heard of but everyone who works with him thinks he’s a genius and cites him as a huge influence on their life. I don’t really know what the reason is. The studio, if it wasn’t the first, it was one of the first electronic music studios in North America. This huge John Cage piece happened there—I don’t understand it, it’s weird. It’s just one of those things I guess.
I just remembered, when I talked to Maggi Payne, she told me she was at the UIUC too, but I feel like that part of her story is never mentioned or discussed. People don’t think about it as being this place where all this stuff happened.
Well, it has become this very conservative place, but historically it wasn’t and I don’t understand—I already said that, but I don’t know what the reason is that it’s not cited more.
Can you talk to me more about taking Herbert Brün’s class? What do you remember about it, what do you remember about him as a person, as a teacher? What did you take away from being with him?
When I took his class I was 19 and 21—I had a year break because I went abroad for a year. He completely changed the way I thought about music at the time. I was already deeply into experimental music by the time I was 19, but I had never met such a serious thinker, or even someone who had been involved with that kind of music for that long. He really taught me how to think about composition as something that’s really rigorous, but also in a way that is really inclusive of different approaches.
Herbert’s definition of composition was really generous. I’m oversimplifying it but essentially by composition he meant: anyone who makes anything. I don’t think he used the word composer in the way that most people think of “composer” when they hear that word. I’m teaching a composition class right now, and that was one of the first things I said to them, that I didn’t have any preconceived notions by using the word composer, but I was just using that word because they are all just people that make stuff, even though they have a broad range of interests and experiences.
Herbert was—a friend of mine called him “the last modernist” (laughter). He talked really intensely about language and how that applies to life and art. His obsession in the last few years of his life was something called radical commercialism, which was that we lived and continue to live in a state of inescapable commercialism. He became really concerned with that in the last few years of his life—not thinking of music as a product, but as something that resists commercialism.
Do you see the music that you create as something that resists against this sort of world we’re in? Whether it be commercialism, or the norms and standards present, or against capitalism?
I think anybody that makes difficult experimental music is resisting commercialism (laughter). Maybe there are some exceptions, but I don’t have any delusions about the commercial value of what I do. I have positioned myself that way on purpose.
On purpose—what do you mean by that?
I guess I don’t talk about this so much because it just seems implied to me, but I’m making anti-commercial music. It’s not marketable. Certainly it has its world, but as far as the world as a whole, it might as well not exist to a vast majority of the population! (laughter).
I like how in your own classes you’re presenting this idea of composer as a very open label. What do you want your students to take out of your class? Is there one underlining idea or thing that you want your students to take away from your teaching?
I think in both classes—the history and the composition class—I just want people to leave with their conception of the world being larger. I try to guide things in a way that I’m showing people stuff that they didn’t know existed. I don’t necessarily mean specific artists, but just the feeling of like, “Oh! I didn’t know music could do this, I didn’t know this was possible!” Expanding the definition of what they think is possible in music.
That was a really big moment for me, when I was 17 and I was listening to Xenakis’s Metastaseis for the first time. Just hearing that opening glissando, I can vividly remember sitting in the library and being like, “Oh my god!” (laughter). I literally did not know music could sound like that! That’s one of the most powerful things that happened to me as a young person, and I think partly why the classes are so focused on listening. I feel like I learned more from listening than I did from anything else.
Be it for your history or your composition class, are you just playing pieces a lot of the time and then having them reflect and discuss with each other? What does the structure of the class look like?
It depends on what the students are like. If they aren’t willing to talk it just ends up being me showing them stuff every class, basically just lecturing. I try to get them talking about stuff, but it just depends on the class.
That makes sense. I like this idea of music constantly expanding our conception of the world. Is there any work you can point to that you composed or performed that helped you understand something new about the world?
The example I always give people are these pieces I have called Psalms, which is a series of solo percussion pieces, each for a different instrument. I’ve talked about this, this is like the basis of my artist’s talk, playing those pieces and not expecting to get out of those what I did. I think those pieces are at the core of everything I’ve done since then, which was now over ten years ago. This idea that you have a thing that you think is familiar that in fact is capable of much more—its identity is much broader than you thought it was.
It makes me want to talk about your new album coming out, The Reinvention of Romance. The description of it says that it “examines the care and empathy that emerge when two lives share space.” Obviously you and Mara are together—let’s talk about that. What’s something you learned just from being with Mara that you didn’t expect to learn either about yourself or about relationships?
I was in a very, very long relationship before the one that I’m in now, too. It’s something—you know, I’ve talked a lot about how I’ve directed a lot of my creative activity towards what seems like innate behavior or interests rather than asking myself, “What do I want to do today?” It’s more like, “What is it that I’m naturally drawn to?” Part of the inspiration of that piece was that I seem to be naturally drawn to want to stay with a person for a long time.
To answer your question, I’ve found that the longer that I am with someone, the more there’s a kind of bond that you can’t fully have an intellectual understanding of. The more time passes, the more closeness there is, and even though people can grow apart there is still a closeness that develops over time that no one is directing. It just happens on its own. A lot of that is through banal, repetitive things that happen because living with someone, your lives typically consist of doing the same things over and over again. I sought to make a piece that reflected that.
When you were making the piece did you have this general idea that you tried to manifest when composing it? Are you meticulously being like, “Okay, I’m gonna make sure this is going on for this duration because it can represent XYZ”, or something like that?
It’s not like a 1:1 relation. I keep joking, or Mara keeps joking with me that she’s the cello and I’m the percussionist. She doesn’t actually think it, and I definitely don’t think that. It’s just a piece of music, a reflection of a kind of relationship that humans have… I’m sorry, what was your question? (laughs).
I guess, how did you approach composing this piece with that idea in mind?
Oh, right! I’m sorry. It was pretty intuitive. This isn’t true of every piece, but I have been thinking about making that piece for so long that I had the concept really worked out in my head before I wrote a single note. Given the duration, it was written very fast. I borrowed a cello, which, I am not a cellist but I am competent enough to make sound with it. I wrote the cello part with a cello and got together with the ensemble to write the percussion part. I did write the percussion part in front of the duo where I had the cellist play and I just kind of barked at the percussionist to try this, try that. Within a day or two the piece was done.
Prior to getting together with the duo I had already worked out a large scale form and durations of sections. Writing the percussion part was kind of easy for me because that’s what i’m most familiar with. There seemed to be an intuitive understanding of what the right thing to do was; I don’t totally understand why any specific thing is “right,” but that to me is a reflection of the kind of relationship that I’m talking about. It doesn’t make sense to stay with someone for 15 years. It’s hard! You don’t like each other all the time, but people do it because there’s something there that makes you want to keep going, which is getting at something more universal than saying, “This piece is describing relationships.” That’s just the concept, the piece is whatever it is. It’s more than that because it’s a different kind of experience.
Do you mind sharing something that you love about Mara? Something she does that inspires you, or something about her that helps you grow?
This isn’t really related to the piece at all, but she’s a very hard worker, which has certainly pushed me to do more than I maybe would have on my own. Especially in regards to improving our lives.
Do you mind sharing an example?
I don’t know, just little stuff. Always wanting to make our living space nicer, having a garden, having a kid together, all those kinds of regular life stuff. None of that to me is part of my piece necessarily, it’s just regular life stuff (laughter).
That’s okay! I don’t mind you sharing regular life stuff that is not related to the piece.
I’m just trying to make the point that there’s not this 1:1 relationship where X=X or something, that the piece is just this… I’ve already said this, but it’s more than this 1:1 representation of another thing.
Right. It's nice because I know you recently posted Waylaid on Bandcamp, which was a soundtrack for an installation Mara did. How did you two go about collaborating on that? The premise behind what she was doing for that was really interesting—with the Shakers, and utopia, and the present day. How did that whole process of making the audio work out for that installation?
She was making all this work about the Shakers. And again, kind of similar to what I was just talking about with my piece, it’s not a direct engagement with the Shakers, it's just using the Shakers as an example of conceptual stuff that she’s interested in. She got really into the idea of the “last Shaker,” because there are only two Shakers left living. Thinking about the existential conception or condition of being the last person of something.
I made this piece that’s just this lonely moving of furniture and a small number of people performing repetitive acts. One of the tracks is me playing around with this abacus chair that she made. Just trying to make an evocative space of loneliness and work together, which is sort of what the Shakers were like as a whole because they weren’t allowed to be intimate with one another, or even touch each other. Even when they were thriving there was still this kind of loneliness underlying it. The installation is in a big echoey room and not much happens. I was just trying to evoke the loneliness that a lot of the work was getting at. It also came about because we wanted to do something together which we did later, which was this piece for fiddles on a set of the four chair artworks that she made.
I’m curious, obviously you do a lot of solo work, but you’ve also performed with a lot of people and have people perform on your records. And you’ve been in Weird Weeds and Meridian and others. Are there any collaborators that you’ve been with that you feel really helped push you in your artistry or think about music in a different way? This can be from 10 years ago, more recently, whatever. Is there anyone that stands out?
Definitely Meridian [with Tim Fenney and Greg Stuart]. I feel like that has been a really great thing to do over a long period of time. We only get together, at the most, once or twice a year. I’ve always liked playing improvised music. Well, that’s not totally true (laughter). A better way to put it: improvised music has always held a place in my practice overall, but I got tired of doing it for the most part. I continue to do it with them because the longer we play together, the deeper the complexity of the relationships gets. This is exactly the same concept as The Reinvention of Romance, I didn’t mean to do that but it just happened on its own (laughter).
When we first started playing together we were playing a certain kind of improvised music. Certainly what we were doing was our own, but it was a certain type of playing—using a lot of extended techniques and weird noises, playing with a certain kind of rigor. The longer we’ve been together, the more free it has become. It’s started to feel like… I don’t mean this literally, but after a while it started to feel like anything could happen during a performance. I didn’t know what was going to happen, which was not true of the first few years of the group, which was like, we got really really good at doing a certain kind of thing. That was great, but eventually we pushed passed that into doing something that is genuinely spontaneous, instead of a rehearsed spontaneity. Also, Greg [Stuart] and Tim [Feeney] as people have been my friends for a long time, and have been an influence on me for sure.
They’re both great. I’m really happy that you’re all working together. This rehearsed spontaneity thing vs. a genuine spontaneity is really interesting. I know it may be hard to define or articulate how you can produce those things. Are there works that you’ve released under your own name that you feel like were an example of rehearsed spontaneity as opposed to a genuine spontaneity? I’m just trying to get a better feel for how that works.
Not really. My solo stuff is composed, but I will say that a lot of the pieces came about through me playing shows in my hometown, where I would just go and try stuff. Gather & Release, Falsetto, the piece on my Bandcamp Live Fleas—all of those came about spontaneously. I just set up a situation to play a show, I didn’t actually know what I was going to play. That allowed me to refine the pieces over repeat performances, and they eventually became composed pieces. They did come from a place of spontaneity, but I did set up the situation, so it’s like spontaneity within a framework that I already had an idea about.
You mentioned Gather & Release. I remember that album when it came out, and I bought it. I remember it had the needle threaded through the cover. And I remember when I saw you perform [Falsetto] in Chicago at Cafe Mustache—
Oh yeah! That was a great show. That was really like an unhinged version of that piece (laughter), of Falsetto.
Yeah, that was really fun! How often are you thinking about the visual component of your work, whether it’s with album art, whether it’s when someone is observing you when you perform live? With Gather & Release you had the needle, there was a tactile element. How often are you thinking of these extramusical elements in your own work?
I used to not think about them at all. I am not a visual person at all. I found over time that if I wasn’t concerning myself with how I looked on stage—I don’t mean like clothes or whatever, I mean what I’m doing with my body—that if I wasn’t thinking about that, then that was just an aspect of performance that was not being taken care of. I actually didn’t start to think about it until someone… I don’t know how long ago, but someone several years ago commented that they liked my stage presence, and I was like, “…What do you mean?” (laughter). It wasn’t something I had thought about at all. Hearing that, I can look at what I was doing to make that person say that, and think about how I can increase that. How can I bring that into more focus so that it becomes part of the performance?
As for art work I usually just leave that for other people, but occasionally I have ideas that are mine that seem to fit the music. The Reinvention of Romance’s cover—I had that idea ages ago. I was happy to execute that, but mostly, I care about the artwork but it’s not something that I feel really skilled at.
In addition to The Reinvention of Romance, there’s a reissue of Casts. Is that something that Astral Spirits wanted to do now that The Reinvention of Romance is coming out on the label? Is that an album that you have a strong affinity towards?
Not especially (laughter). I like it, and it’s a really weird album. One of its pieces found it’s way into my piece Contralto, so it’s kind of special to me for that reason. It’s also the last thing I made before I was in the process of leaving Austin after 10 years. It’s not that it was tossed off, but I just had so much going on in my life at the time. I can’t say it’s one of my most personally beloved releases, but I’m certainly very glad that they wanted to reissue it just because I hate that I put all these things and only so many copies of the album is made, and then they sell out and it’s gone forever. So I’m glad to have this one come back.
And there’s this weird feeling that you constantly need to produce work because, okay, you release an album and then next year no one is going to care about it, because of the way that press works.
Yeah, that’s just the nature of the world that we’re in. There’s a huge amount of music being produced. Even the “biggest” album is basically not talked about after a month or so. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t continuing to listen to it, it’s just the impression of how the commercial machine of this world works.
Do you have any specific beloved albums that you’ve released? I remember when I first got into your work—this was like 2013, with Flourish and Duets for Solo Snare Drum, and Work the following year, those three albums really blew my mind. I remember really loving “Cast and Work” from Duets for Solo Snare Drum, and I loved the album Work itself. I’m just telling you all this for fun I guess (laughs). Do you have any particular compositions or albums that you are really drawn to, that you feel were really monumental, that are very special for you?
The ones that you named I definitely have a soft spot for. They were the first works I made that I really stepped into my own as far as what I continued to do. Especially Work, which I was really proud of at the time. I’m really glad that I made that. As far as personally significant things, certainly Reinvention of Romance is one of the most important things that I’ve done—I don’t mean historically important, but important to me. It feels really special, and it feels like I achieved something that I wanted to do for a long time, that feels like an important thing to put into the world.
Contralto literally changed my life. I always felt like Gather & Release was a really… I played that piece so many times. I felt like this was the best solo performance that I could give. I think probably the best concert I’ve ever given was playing Gather & Release at the Edition festival. It’s special for that reason too.
I remember on Twitter you mentioned how The Reinvention of Romance is your favorite thing you’ve ever done. You had this idea for the composition for a long time, but also you’ve improved, you’ve grown as a composer. How do you feel like you have grown, compared to 10 years ago, five years ago, two years ago, with this new album?
I just feel like Reinvention of Romance ties together everything that I care about into one piece. Not to keep coming back to this, but it’s the same idea as the long relationship. The more you work on a certain practice, the more intimate you become with it, the more complex it gets, the more of a bond you have with your work. It just feels really personal in the sense that it just feels like everything that’s important to me is rolled into this one piece—the way that I would like to exist in the world. I’m sorry, I keep forgetting what you asked me because I keep getting into my own head!
No that’s okay! I was just asking to find out why this is your favorite, but you kind of answered that.
Oh, that’s right. Yeah, okay, that’s my answer (laughter).
That’s good! It’s funny, even when we are talking about the other albums this idea keeps coming back. So it makes sense that this album is kind of a culmination of all these things.
I don’t know if I’m moving on to other kinds of work or something. Aesthetically things have changed a lot in the past two years because I keep wanting to do the same things over and over again. I don’t know if there is going to be some big departure point after this, but I always want to be—this is something Mara says, she always wants to be improving. I would like to continue improving, but I also feel like Reinvention of Romance is a sort of level of improvement that I maybe couldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago.
Are there certain areas with regards to composing or performing that you felt you were deficient in that you were able to say, “Okay, I did this” for the new album?
I certainly made myself feel like I wasn’t good at composing when I was a student. I studied percussion, I wasn’t a composition student, but I always wanted to write music. I just found the process of sitting at a desk and trying to make a score really, really hard. That made me feel like, okay, maybe I’m just not going to be a composer. It wasn’t until I made those Psalms pieces where I was like, “Oh! I don’t have to sit down and make a score and figure out every parameter of a piece of music before one note gets played. I can write this through playing in kind of a hands-on way.”
The piece can develop through multiple performances instead of by locking myself up and producing this masterwork in isolation. That’s kind of the message that is given with the way that composition is taught I think, although I didn’t study composition. That’s the impression of what a composer is supposed to do. You’re supposed to lock yourself away and compose Stockhausen’s Kontakte (laughter). You come out of your closet and you’re like, “Here’s my work of genius!”
Whenever we hear about composers, just with the nature of them being pedestalized, there’s this genius aspect to them where it can seem like they just did this and that’s it, and we have to be at a similar level of enormous innate talent and if not we’re a failure. That’s an underlying message that sometimes feels present.
I don’t know if that’s actually true. I don’t have any way to prove this, but I would imagine a lot of Xenakis’s pieces were the result of just screwing around, saying like, “What would happen if I did this?”
Kontakte is on my mind because I just did a lecture about Stockhausen yesterday. I saw Steve Schick and Nicolas Hodges do a performance of Kontakte a few years ago and Michael Pisaro was in the audience. Michael was like, “I used to think of this as a great masterwork, but now when I hear it, I just hear it as Stockhausen fucking around, basically.” Those weren’t his exact words, but he had a different impression of that piece, hearing it now it really was like Stockhausen was just kind of haphazardly trying stuff out and crafting it into this piece.
Earlier you said that with Reinvention of Romance, you’re at this point where you did something that you didn’t think you should do years ago, and that you still want to grow. Are there still things that you have in mind that you still want to do that you haven’t achieved, that you haven’t tried out yet? And what are those things?
Yeah, there’s always stuff like that. One of the things that I would really like to do is spend a long time on a project (laughter).
What’s the typical length of time that you spend on any given project?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve produced so many pieces in the last few years under horrible time constraints. I don’t even know how I did it in some cases. I would like to make a very large work, like multiple hours long. I haven’t yet had an idea that I think could sustain that amount of time, but that’s something I really want to do. I have another film that I want to make that I’m just in the very early stages of starting right now.
Can you talk about that or is that a secret?
It’s not secret, I have to produce a sort of five-minute preview in the next few weeks for something, the full film will come later on. I did a piece a couple of times in New York City called Passing, where there was a group of wind instruments with me and a dancer moving around the space. The music that was written for that I had already at that time intended to eventually be the soundtrack to this film of the same name, Passing. It’s loosely based on the story of this artist called Mark Hogancamp—have you seen the movie Marwencal?
No, I haven't.
It’s a documentary about Mark Hogancamp who was in Kingston, New York. He makes these very detailed miniatures of a World War II drama in this world he created called Marwencal. It’s kind of a mix of fantasy and reality. The way he got started doing this was because he was drunk at a bar one night, and he told these guys that he liked to wear high heels. They followed him outside and beat him nearly to death. The reason he started making art is because his insurance stopped paying for his physical therapy, so he developed all of these things that he could do for himself. He developed his own therapy, basically. Part of the thing that was helping him improve was doing these very small, minute things with his hands.
The way that he was discovered was that he has this toy military truck that he pulls down the street. He found out that if he pulled the truck along the white line on the side of the road it would help with his motor skills, so he would use his body in a more focused and deliberate way. This photographer kept seeing this guy walking down the street pulling a toy and was one day just like, “What are you doing?” So he told him everything that had happened to him.
A few years ago I was in a store in Portland, Oregon called Really Good Stuff (laughs). I make a lot of music with little bells, and I found this old toy metal train car that when you roll it, it has a hammer that hits on two bells. I just bought it not knowing what I would do with it. It was only much later that there was a connection between this toy and Mark Hogancamp. I want to make a film that is kind of using him as an inspiration, but not so specifically. It will be a minimalist film inspired by everything that I just told you.
How do you feel like having done Contralto has helped you in terms of being a filmmaker?
I almost think it’s silly to call me a filmmaker! (laughs). You know, I have made a film. To me, Contralto is a piece of music with a video component. Although of course it is a film, but to me it is primarily a piece of music. That isn’t to say it isn’t a film, but the way it was conceived was as a piece of music, whereas this piece Passing is a film. I made Contralto entirely by myself. I enlisted a friend of mine to help me film Passing. I’m in it, so I can’t film myself anyway. But um… yeah, that’s all (laughter).
I didn’t have any other questions for you. Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that you’ve wanted to be asked in an interview?
Um, you know… no! (laughs). I’m open to almost everything so, you know, I’m here. But I can’t say that I have a burning desire for any certain thing.
That’s all good. I just want to say thank you for talking! I appreciate it, I’ve been a fan of your work for a while so it’s exciting to finally talk!
Yeah, thanks a lot!
Still from Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
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