We live in a remarkable moment for avant-garde and experimental music – an era of blind faith and ambition. Against unprecedented odds, and the ever present weight of history, artists (young and old) usher forth a sea of sound, eroding the banks and pushing back ground. Among the uncountable and incredible voices contributing to the contemporary landscape, a few inevitably rise to the top – among these, Sarah Hennies marks the highest tier. She is unquestionably one of the brightest and most striking voices in advanced composition working today. Though I’ve been a fan for the better part of decade, what’s been startling is how fast she’s progressed, the breadth of her output, and how far she has come in such a short time. Each recording appears braver than the last – imbued with and expanded clarity and ambition, and seeming to single-handedly level the field – making you wonder if you should bother listening to anything else. Today marks the release of two new cassettes by Hennies – Everything Else via No Rent Records, and Orienting Response via Mappa – each markedly different and no exception to this rule.
Sarah Hennies – Everything Else (2016)
Sarah Hennies is at once a percussionist and a composer. In both cases, she dodges the easy definitions applied to these roles. She has taken a path often denied, and approached it with a singular and exploded view. Everything Else offers an important key to the breadth and scope of her ambition – made even more interesting for the fact that it hosts two of her most discrete and interventionary works to emerge thus far. As the years have passed, Hennies’ work has increasingly focused on the remarkable harmonic and rhythmic possibility found in constraint and repetition – effectively making jarringly complex works out of barest essentials. The two works featured on Everything Else capitalize on her accomplishments made in these territories, while shattering existing presumptions to their ends. The cassette’s first composition, Falsetto, is a deceptive thing – sounding like a sustained rattling attack on a string of bells, while slowly revealing fleeting images of structure, and progressively sowing doubts toward how it came to be. The more I’ve listened, the more my attempts to understand it have become elusive – to the end that I can’t tell you a thing about it. The harder I strain, the more my confidence collapses. The moment I think I’ve grasped its glue and bond, or have a sense for what is generating these sounds, the work darts and dodges. It is a truly beautiful work of shimmering texture, tone, and creative intervention – a scattered, aggressive work of Minimalism. The second side features the album’s title track, which immediately dropped me into a world of joy, humor, and severity. Everything Else is structured around the beating pulse of typewriter keys and the frustrated release of its paper, punctuated by interjections of melodica, harmonica, and what sounds like a small recorder (there is no instrumentation listed – forgive me if I my ears have failed me). Like much of Hennies’ work, it is an effort of raw materiality, but here, in the spirit of Fluxus and Dada, she reminds us to find beauty and emotion beyond encounters where we expect them, and that compositional structure is not always what we think. Like its predecessor, it is aggressively elusive, and at once playful and severe, making the totality of the cassette one of Hennies most challenging and revealing releases to date. Like all of her works, Falsetto and Everything Else rip and expand the field – proving that she is a composer of rare breadth, producing works marked by clarity and ambition, of the sort that only comes around every generation or so. As an interesting addendum, the liner notes state that both of these works are intended for live ensemble with soloist. There is no soloist on these particular recordings – implying that we have not heard the last of them, and that there are yet to be seen possibilities in their realizations. Everything Else is out today via the wonderful No Rent Records. You can pick it up from them directly, and check out an except of Falsetto below.
Sarah Hennies – Orienting Response (2016)
Given my affection for her entire output, picking favorites feels futile, but Orienting Response unquestionably rises to the top. It’s stunning, and occupies a territory of stark contrast, when placed against that of Everything Else. That these two releases appear on the same day, seems to be a conscious intervention with our ability to nail the composer down, and undeniably defaults toward a display of her breadth and ambition. Orienting Response is a work for solo guitar performed by the Chilean avant-garde guitarist Christian Alvear. It is remarkably beautiful and complex – stretching to just under 45 minutes, and pushing the boundaries of repetition and constraint for which Hennies is so well known. Though not her first effort composing for guitar, the instrument, as it is encountered here, expands the fields of tonality and resonance we expect her to tread within. That she appears to have mastered them with such ease is a testament to her power as an artist. It finds her working with more complex harmonics relationships – the sort which, at times, will be familiar to fans of Luciano Cilio, Franco Battiato, Giusto Pio, and Julius Eastman, but in a slightly more constrained and focused form. Orienting Response is a work of deep maturity, beauty, and sophistication. It appears to mark a huge leap in the composer’s thinking – made all that much more astounding for the fact that it was realized on one of the most difficult instruments through which to shake association. A carefully sculpted world of tone, expanded rhythm, and space, this is easily one of the best records I’ve heard all year. Like it’s creator, it is deeply generous, and creatively ambitious. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s out today via Mappa – housed in an incredible wooden box. You can pick it up from them directly, and listen to the album’s stunning entirely below.