Wandering: Blurring Boundaries
An Interview with Sarah Hennies
by Colin Tucker
Sarah Hennies is a composer and percussionist based in Ithaca, NY. Her work utilizes an often grueling, endurance-based performance practice in a subversive examination of psychoacoustics, queer identity, and expressionistic absurdity. She has presented her work in a variety of contexts including Cafe Oto (London), cave12 (Geneva), Ende Tymes (NYC), Festival Cable (Nantes), and Second Edition (Stockholm) and has received support from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, New Music USA, the New York State Council on the Arts. In 2016 she was awarded a fellowship in music/sound from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Current collaborations include Meridian (with percussionists Tim Feeney and Greg Stuart), a duo with sound/performance artist Jason Zeh, and the Queer Percussion Research group (with Jerry Pergolesi, Bill Solomon, and Jennifer Torrence). She also runs the record label Weighter Recordings that releases works by artists working at the fringes of contemporary music.
I. Towards an Aesthetic of Wandering
CT: How did your sense of the piece change as you came to engage with it more concretely, proceeding from rehearsal to performance?
SH: There are long sections of the piece which are in a mode of performance that seems really casual, almost like there’s not as much of a line between performer and audience because there’s so little happening.
It highlights the different characteristics of the space. In [John Cage’s] 4’33” you notice silence because of something else; a lot of PLACE was embellishing the space rather than trying really hard to change it.
CT: How was that different than a concert?
SH: It’s the duration and also the type of activity the performers do. When I played [Morton Feldman’s] Crippled Symmetry, I had never played a piece that long before, and it was a little over 90 minutes when we did it. I definitely had a sense that, beyond the first hour, I was in a different kind of performance headspace than I usually am in during concerts; I felt more comfortable, more settled in in performing. Because one is on stage for so long, one can only stay in that kind of hyper-focused performer place for so long. I was surprised that the David Dunn piece went way beyond that—it’s your whole day. The other piece I think of that’s that long is [Cornelius] Cardew’s The Great Learning; but it’s a series of seven concert pieces, it’s not one continuous thing in which the sections meld into each other as with PLACE. To me it felt really different from any kind of concert piece I’ve ever been involved with or experienced as a listener.
CT: Tell me more about Crippled Symmetry. You said something happened an hour in—was it exhaustion of concentration, or you said something about settling in?
SH: I definitely had a strange, different mental space at the end, but I wasn’t tired. After an hour, I didn’t start to become tired, I felt comfortable being on stage playing in a way than I wouldn’t have been in a shorter piece. I felt relaxed and casual. My experience was being on stage, without playing music that demands high concentration, I started to feel more loose and open. PLACE is like that times five. I noticed this collective feeling, like, “We’re all out here doing this together,” as opposed to “We are on stage and people are watching.”
SH: I think my favorite part was the section where we all have our portable recorders [part 4], I really like that. Everyone involved could do anything they wanted: I could have left for half an hour and found something I was super interested in recording, and come back and play it. That section in particular was indicative of the whole thing, where people are wandering around taping things. That’s what I meant about it being casual: the site is so big, you can go anywhere, you’re walking around going like “oh, that sounds cool, I’ll record that.” Nothing in the piece jumps out or asserts itself. It’s almost like sitting in the woods by yourself. The whole thing was very gentle up until the last part.
CT: I like the idea of wandering, it’s categorically different than other ways of thinking about music.
SH: Even Part 8 (the vocal ensemble movement in which we were spread out around this large concrete building), we were all in one place, but it felt like musically wandering. You’re standing there, you can’t see the other performers; some you can’t even hear, you’re waiting to respond to something that may or may not happen.
II. PLACE as Social Practice
CT: I’m wondering about how your attention or energy ebbed and flowed—are there notable things you remember?
SH: I liked the social aspect of being in an ensemble and playing a piece like that. You’ve all chosen to spend your day together, and at least in my case I didn’t know most of the people there, but by the end of rehearsal, after two days of doing nothing but that piece, I felt like we were a little club. It feels almost as much like a social experiment as it does a piece of experimental music.
CT: The piece’s identity lies at least as much about people being in a particular place for a fair bit of time as it does in the emergence of particular sounds.
SH: The Great Learning is like this too: there’s just enough stuff that needs to be rehearsed together so it makes it that people can’t just show up and do it. You have to work together and be together for some amount of time to do it properly, and this seems similar. The music is totally different, but it has a similar social benefit.
III. Time beyond Pressure
CT: What was it like to perform over 5 hours? Were there points where your energy changed? Where exhaustion or boredom set in?
SH: There’s something about how the piece is made that it puts everyone on the same level. If one was not a performer in that piece, one’s experience would be very similar to that of the performers. First of all, simply, because there were long periods when some of the performers weren’t playing, and secondly, more importantly, because there was no prepared musical material. The duration and the type of material blurs the performer/audience distinction.
CT: We’ve been coming back to duration as a kind of brute fact of the piece. Was this the duration of particular sections, of doing particular actions for a long amount of time in musical terms? Or was it the whole—playing for a while, then hanging out, then coming back to play some more.
SH: It’s not just duration, it’s also the pacing. It’s very unhurried. You’re in it, it keeps going. Like Jean Claude Eloy. Or the Marginal Consort. With PLACE, as a whole and within parts, it had this unhurried, playful feeling that I experienced as different. There’s not a lot of pressure. There is a way to do the piece wrong, but the effort required to do it right is much lower. It feels very open, and casual.
CT: What do you mean that’s there’s no pressure?
SH: Greg Stuart and I have had this running joke for years about pieces that say “perform this action, or not.” It doesn’t feel exactly like that, but it does feel like there’s a lot of flexibility. You have to decide what’s right for the piece for yourself. Even the direction “listen to the environment and imitate parts of it”—in most outdoor environments, you can choose from a variety of sounds.
But also, there was this kind of weird ballet going on at the mixing desk—each time I came back, different channels were open, and looking at other people’s recorders, to see how much is left, and adjusting volume. It was similar to walking out finding something to record; other than the one sound, I didn’t know what I was going to record, I would just walk out and try to find something.
Sarah Hennies in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017). Photo by Megan Metté.
CT: Were there other parts that stuck out to you?
SH: Part 7, the solo voice section. I liked that in the context of this enormous piece that there was a long section that only required one performer. It was nice, and kind of funny. Everyone else who is playing becomes the audience. In general, the piece is playing around with “What is a performance?,” “Who is a performer?” and more. Performers are often not in their usual space as performers.
IV. The Problem of Ending
CT: What happened after the performance? Was anything different in terms of your everyday or musical perception?
SH: I had a sense that something had happened, that I had done something. But my perception of the world was not changed per se. I had this feeling of not being tired or exhausted, but just the sense of having “been away” for a while. You know how when you go on vacation, your house feels little weird because you haven’t been there in a while? It felt like that. Being in hours of low-level activity, it was like somebody turned a fan off that you didn’t realize was on. The shift from “I am performing in a piece” to “I am finished performing” was very odd. I felt like after it was over, there was a group sense of, “well, what do we do now, I guess we’re done and we’re leaving.” It didn’t feel anticlimactic, but the shift back into being regular people was harder than usual.
CT: The ending is sort of a tasteful ending, but somehow it doesn’t have an effect of definitively concluding the piece.
SH: It is sort of the big finish but then it isn’t really. It’s not like it was hours of music we had rehearsed; it was a similar type of activity that happened to be louder and more free than everything else.
CT: And given the way the piece is embedded in an everyday environment, a definitive conclusion is not really possible.
SH: It’s loud but it’s not organized. You could rehearse in a way to make it seem like a big finish. But I don’t think anyone thought that that would be the right thing to do. It seemed clear to me that the right way end would be for everyone to walk off into the distance.
CT: As opposed, hypothetically speaking, to a unison cutoff, followed by loud applause.
SH: The idea that there would be applause at the end of that seems ridiculous—but not because it wasn’t a great performance. What are you applauding? Again, it goes back to the fact that there’s less separation between performer and audience than normal.