Sarah Hennies is a composer and percussionist based in Ithaca, New York. Her website is http://www.sarah-hennies.com, and she also runs a label called Weighter Recordings. We spoke on December 16th, and decided to include a portion of our follow-up email exchange in this documentation of our interview.
Can you talk about one or two of your early or most meaningful encounters with experimental music?
The first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily experimental music. It’s a rock band, but they were like a post Sonic Youth, like a rock band doing weird things. So when I was 13, a friend of mine who was a few years older than me and could drive took me to my first punk show, which was like, one day, there was a Poison poster on the wall, and the next day it was gone. I was just like, okay, this is obviously what I care about now. And where I grew up in Louisville in the mid-90s had a really, really active kind of indie underground music scene. So I just started going to everything, and one of the shows I went to, I saw this band from Washington, DC called Pitchblende, and it just completely— And I think this is part of why I never got into Sonic Youth, because I heard some bands that were definitely influenced by Sonic Youth but doing weirder things than them. So by the time I actually heard Sonic Youth’s records, I was kind of already onto something more out there than them. But I remember seeing this band and just— I don’t even know what my reaction was other than, I just was so into it and excited about it, and bought their album and their t-shirt. And they were only around for three albums, but I was just totally obsessed with this band, and then through that band, that led me to all of these other things like The Ex and a lot of weird underground electronic music. And so that’s the first thing that I thought of without even really thinking.
Can you recall what was out there about them?
Yeah, they used weird rhythms. They did not look cool. They didn’t look like nerds either, but they just didn’t look like regular punk people. And they’re doing a lot with not noise, but dissonant things with guitars, and kind of wall of sound type things. I’m not being very descriptive.
That’s getting at it though, for sure.
But I think that I wasn’t confused by it, but I was just like, oh my god, what is this, and like, this is amazing. And I’m basically still like that. What I always tell people is that the music that I’m interested in is anything that can provoke that reaction in me, of being like, what is this? And I’m definitely consciously trying to do that with a lot of the stuff that I’m making myself, too.
That really makes a lot of sense. I’ve often thought about experimental music in terms of asking questions. So I guess I’m curious, is the what is this sort of a rhetorical what is this, or is it an actual, what is this thing?
I think it’s both. I feel like if you’re in a situation that provokes you to think, what the hell is going on here, then that already means that you’ve noticed something about the music that you may not have with something else. And that to me is a really interesting space to be in. And also, people always say they want to make things that stand up to repeated listening, but it’s like, if you make something, not only that you don’t immediately understand or recognize, but also makes you want to know what’s going on, then that to me is like the sign of a good piece of music. When I was a teenager, that was what I did. I heard this one band, and they became my favorite band probably because they were the first band that I ever heard that were in some way informed by experimental music. And then I just started going to the record store all the time and reading things, like the Trouser Press Guide, and really consciously seeking out what I thought were the weirdest things that I could find.
And then I think the other kind of proper experimental music thing, like first encounter is when after my second year of high school, I changed high schools to a school with a performing arts magnet program. And at that time, I had no knowledge at all of, for lack of a better word, Western avant-garde classical tradition music, like composer music, basically, and also did not know that music school was a thing that you could go to. I didn’t think of drums in the same way that I thought of cello when I was 14, and then switched schools and met these two percussionists who were already playing four-mallet marimba and were into percussion as a thing. And then that led me to, I think what it was is that I wanted to learn one of the Elliott Carter timpani pieces, and so I found a recording. There were hardly any recordings of those pieces at the time. I don’t know if there are now, actually. But the CD that I found, I special ordered, was this weird CD of all American composers whose names started with C. And so just because I was trying to find a recording of a timpani piece, and I ended up learning who John Cage and George Crumb were because of this timpani piece. And I heard Second Construction, and I was like, this is amazing. Where can I find more of this? And that was how I got into, for lack of a better word, composer experimental music, through buying recordings, because I wanted to play a timpani piece.
By Elliott Carter. That’s really amazing. So you found that recording, and then did you play some Cage following that?
Yeah, I played, the first time that I played Cage’s One(4) was on my senior year solos and ensembles showcase concert.
And it was one of these things. It’s a performing arts school, so everyone has a piece in it. And I remember— I’m so glad I get to tell this story in print, because I tell people this all the time, but it’s never come up in an interview. So this concert was just endless. It was so long. And I was playing One(4) by John Cage, and deliberately put in silences in it, and that kind of is going to happen no matter what, just from playing the piece. And at some point during one of the silences, I heard someone in the audience who was definitely someone’s parent do this. They went, [big sigh]. And I remember, I almost started laughing onstage, because I thought it was so funny. And then I ended up releasing a recording of that piece like 20 years later.
That’s so perfect.
Yeah. because I had a copy of the Steve Weiss music catalog, and my high school was across the street from the music library at the college at University of Louisville. So between those two things, I would just go look at stuff. And I had a CD with a John Cage piece on it, so I was like, oh, there’s a seven-minute-long John Cage percussion solo. I should buy that score and play it, not knowing that I was going to get this totally different thing. But I don’t think I even questioned it. I just was like, yeah, great, let’s do it. I can’t believe I forgot about that CD, because I’ve remembered that before as like, that that was how I found out who John Cage was.
So you started with percussion in high school then.
Hmm hmm. I had already been playing in a couple different bands since I was 13, and then when I was 16 is when I started doing percussion stuff.
Yeah, I had always been in the band in school. But I think I mostly, I liked playing in band and orchestra, but I mostly regarded it as a way to not have to go to a different class.
I think this has been touched on in your answer to the first question, but I always like to ask it anyway. It’s kind of a pair of questions. What is it that’s compelling to you about experimental music, and how does it connect with your experience more broadly?
Oh, god, that is a complicated question. I don’t know— Oh, god.* What I tell myself, that why I’m interested in it is because I like weird things and I like that weird things make the world more interesting. But then, and I was talking about this with Steve Smith too a little bit, of like, well that’s cool and that makes sense, but it kind of begs the question of, well why do you like weird things, and most people don’t? And I don’t totally know the answer to that, except that I, since I was a kid, have felt like a weird person, so it makes sense that I would be drawn to weird music, because if you’re 16 and you feel like a weirdo and you find out that there’s a decades-long tradition of people doing weird stuff, there’s definitely this feeling of like, oh my god, it’s my people, that you didn’t know existed before then. I guess I answered the question.
Yeah, I think so. It may develop further, but I can relate to that as well.
[The following three paragraphs came out of a follow-up email exchange on February 1, 2018. It was in response to my appreciative comment on the opening statement I asterisked above.]
Nick Storring was just interviewing me and we were talking about contralto, and I told him how when I asked people the question, “can you describe dysphoria?” (this is the question they’re responding to in the part of the film where they’re just talking instead of making weird noises) EVERYONE’S answer started with some variation of, “oh well… um… uhhh….” My whole “oh god, this is complicated…” etc. is a total deflection because I immediately knew the answer to your question and it’s really not complicated at all, I just instinctively got scared to give you the real answer. It is still hard and scary for me to just flat out say, “i feel weird because i’m a trans woman!” It’s this internalized thing where (I think, not to speak for others too much), we instinctively don’t think we’re allowed to be trans or express why we feel a certain way and we’re afraid to tell anyone, even if everyone already knows. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like this innate, “DON’T TALK ABOUT THIS!” feeling that is not unlike how it felt to be me at 16 years old.
The whole question of, “how does it relate to your experience more broadly?” Like… how much time to do you have?
So finding experimental music was like finding this completely OK acceptable and even respected way of being a weirdo and as soon as I encountered it I couldn’t get enough of it, and the more crazy of a thing I could find the more I liked it. This is pretty much still true today for me.
I took Herbert Brün’s experimental music seminar or composition seminar when I was an undergrad for two years, and he used the word composition in a way that meant, if you were composing, then that means you’re doing something that didn’t exist before. And he always said that the reason to compose music is because you like music and you want it to stay around a little longer. So you make your own thing because it makes it last longer. Like it was through this filter of information theory where everything decays and dies. And I still basically believe this, too. But his whole thing was that by composing music that is doing things that other people haven’t done before, that means that you’re making music as a whole stay around longer than it would have if you hadn’t have made the thing.
Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s sort of renewing and enlivening. I guess that leads me to another little question. Do you think the idea of experimental for you, is about doing things first, or about doing new things?
Definitely not doing— Well I guess they’re kind of the same thing, but I’m not worried about being the first to do something. But I believe that all people are potentially equally interesting, and that doing this kind of work is, at least is my way of doing that for myself. It sounds like kind of a cliché, like everyone’s a special snowflake, but I actually do believe that, in the same way that several years ago when I was doing Lucier’s triangle solo and all of these constant pulse pieces of my own, that I was telling somebody I stopped doing them because I found out that you could do it with anything. Because I was like, oh my god, look at this amazing thing that the snare drum does when you play it like this. And then it was like, oh, the woodblock does this too. Oh, and the triangle does this. And I realized that it worked with anything, that if every sound has the potential to create that kind of experience, which then I had to stop writing pieces like that because I just felt like if you could do it with anything, then that meant that I needed to do something else.
That’s interesting. Some people would have said, oh, I’m just going to do it with everything then. That’ll be my thing.
Yeah. Did you ever see that documentary, We Live in Public?
It’s really good. I don’t need to explain the whole movie for the purpose of this story, but it’s about this internet tycoon who was doing these weird art projects, and because he just had so much money, he could do all this crazy stuff. But he created this underground bunker in New York City that was sort of this constant surveillance thing. This was pre-Facebook or YouTube or social media, and he was basically predicting— Whatever, this is not important. The point is, he was doing this project, and it turned into total chaos, and he just stopped paying attention to it once that happened, because someone in the documentary said that he lost interest as soon as he saw that the project did exactly what he thought it would do. And so he just stopped caring and let it go crazy. And it’s not exactly the same with me, but it’s kind of the same idea, where it was like, I didn’t think of making those pieces as setting out to prove something, but I kind of inadvertently proved to myself that it’s just not that interesting to me to do the same thing a bunch of times, which is funny to say in the context of making pieces that’s one sound played over and over again.
There’s some irony there that’s healthy. I’m not sure if I want to keep this next question in the interview or not, but I feel like it could be interesting to ask you because you’ve mentioned it already. Do you identify with other musical genres or practices apart from experimental, and do you find that they complement each other, overlap, etc.?
Yeah. I definitely make it a point to tell people that I have a background in playing drums in indie rock. When I say punk bands, I don’t mean like the Ramones, but underground rock and roll music. And I feel like that informs who I am as much as anything else, and I still really like playing in bands and I still like going to shows, and even what I listen to, I listen to way more rock and pop music in my life than I do experimental music. And I actually was thinking about this in terms of the piece that you saw in New York, where I still want to do this. I want to make a full score for the piece, because one doesn’t exist right now. There are just parts. And a lot of the parts are text instructions, where it’s describing a type of action and saying, do this action until this point in the film. And I was thinking about, how far should I take making a score? How detailed do I want to get? And I sometimes have kind of a weird inferiority complex when I see these people with these beautiful, elaborate scores.
Those can be performances in themselves, I guess.
Yeah. And I don’t want to write music like that, but I always joke with people that I’m going to enter some competitions. When we were in Banff this summer, Michael Pisaro was talking about that too. I thought it was really funny that he said basically the same thing. He said flat out, like, come on, no one’s going to look at one of my scores and be like, that’s a contest winner. But anyway, I want to make a full score for this piece, and I do want to get a more precise score than the one that I currently have. But I realized that I would not want to compose it down to the last note, because I think part of the impact of that piece is that there is kind of a looseness to the ensemble. And I didn’t really know this until I heard it live, or even realize that this was a thing. But I think if people were intently reading a complicated score, then it would take away some of the kind of— Looseness is the wrong word.
Yeah, I think that it would lose some of the energy. And I just felt like I was really happy that it kind of came off as this whole, cohesive thing.
It really did.
I knew that I was going to like what I did, but I really didn’t know exactly what to expect. Until I heard it in rehearsal and I was like, oh, okay, this is doing what I hoped it would. But this is why Steve Schick says that he memorizes stuff, is because, one, as a performer, if you’re not looking at a score, then that means that you have energy to pay attention to other parts of the performance. But also from an audience standpoint, I feel like there’s a different feeling of watching some people who obviously aren’t buried in the page, that that feels more— I hesitate to say feels more like a rock band, but that’s how rock bands function. No one is reading music. Everyone is looking at each other or themselves. I really, really don’t want to give the impression that I’m making rock and roll crossover experimental music.
No, I don’t think anybody’s going to jump to that.
I don’t think so either, but I’m hearing the words come out of my mouth and just being like, nooo!
I’m not hearing it in that light at all. But there’s an attribute of that performance style.
Yeah, and I think that it would lose that if I decided to make a score that was written down to the last note.
That would be a completely different process, really, of composition and performance. It seems like it’s one thing if you want to just consolidate the instructions and align it with the film, and it would be another if you wanted to align them with each other in a very particular way. That would become a different piece.
Right. Someone was asking me about presenting the piece somewhere else just yesterday, actually, and were asking, basically how good do the musicians need to be? And I told them that they didn’t have to be, but it would help if they were people who were familiar with or engaged with playing textural improvised music. Basically people who have some kind of vocabulary or ability to make unusual sounds with their instruments.
Right. You don’t want them fighting with the musical premise of it. You want players who are sympathetic and not arguing, in any case, too, but I think in this especially. Most people I know in this field tend to have more than one type of role within it. What are the main roles you’ve taken on, and how do you find that they either complement each other or don’t? What comes up in those intersections?
I’ve been joking in the last year or so that I’ve finally moved composer ahead of percussionist in my bio. But I’m starting to write music for other people now, so obviously I’m a composer in that situation. But I’m in a lot of ways finding the role of performer and composer kind of inseparable. I have some pieces that are mine that I don’t want other people to play. And there’s various reasons for that, but part of it because I just think that I need to play them so that they’re done properly. And I guess I feel like I have to do everything, basically. Not even that I have to. I want to. I never, ever wanted to teach music, and now that I’m thinking about it in terms of being a composer rather than a percussionist, I actually think I would be good at that, and would really like to do it. I did an artist talk a year ago where my friend Matt Sargent teaches, at Bard, and his students were just awesome, and asked cool questions and were super engaged, and all had their own cool projects. And I think before that, I had done talks and workshops and stuff before, but I think that was the first situation I had been in where I was like, oh, there are people somewhere that I actually have something to offer them as a teacher. I’m still trying to get out of a lot of this weird inferiority thing, like I said, with making scores too. And for a long time, I’ve been composing music since— I guess the first piece I wrote that I liked was in 1998. It was a piano solo, and between 1998 and ten years ago, I always thought I was kind of a lousy composer because what I thought I was supposed to do as a composer didn’t work for me, and still doesn’t. But it took playing my own stuff to kind of give me the confidence to be like, oh, no, I am good at this. This is just coming about it in a different way than I was told or shown that I was supposed to be a composer. And the first piece, from the point at which I started making music that I consider to be part of what I do now, the first several pieces that I wrote never had scores up until this year, because I was just playing them myself. And the way that they became finished pieces is because I kept playing them live and trying different things until I finally had a finished version of them. One of the pieces on Gather and Release, the first piece with the waterfall recording, I had to get a live recording from a show in Providence, because I decided that that was the optimal version, and I couldn’t remember what I played. So I got a recording of the show and transcribed the part. I transcribed myself playing, and that was how that piece became finished. Originally, the first time I played that piece, I had to play a show locally, and it was a really very, very hard personal life time, and I was not prepared to play a show. I had this recording of this waterfall that was a test that was going to be for a larger project. And then I was like, oh, well I’ll just play that, and then I’ll play vibraphone with it, and I’ll see what happens. That was how that piece came about. I wanted to do it, but also it was a little bit out of laziness, basically.
But you were seeing what would happen.
I think that’s what experimental music, to me, means, is that you set something up because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at the end.
I guess it’s true for some composers that they have this vision— What’s the sound equivalent of vision? They sort of know something’s going to work, and they write it down, and then they give it to players, and it works, and they’re geniuses. That’s the sort of classical thing, I guess. But it sounds like your process often is about diving in and doing something, and discovering what works within that experience.
Yeah, and conceptually I do that really intentionally now. Like if I have an impulse to do something, I’ll just do it, and then often I will figure out later why I had that impulse, or what the piece is supposedly about. Because I realized this over the past few years. I started to realize that I had older pieces that a lot of times, things that I started and never finished that ended up being aligned with work that I make now that was really intentional, and realizing, oh, the things that are motivating me to make this music have been here for a long time, and I just wasn’t engaging with it or realizing it. And so now that I know that, I can do it intentionally, where I can write a piece and not be totally sure why I’m doing it. Or even from a more technical standpoint, like with Contralto the other day, stuff happened in that where I was like, oh, cool. I didn’t know that was going to be a thing. I wasn’t thinking that there would ever be a moment— The part I’m thinking of specifically is where the people in the film are singing long tones. And it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be an interplay musically between that sound and the sound of the musicians. And I remember hearing that in the dress rehearsal and being like, oh! So it’s great when stuff like that happens.
Yeah, that was super intense.
I guess I’m kind of off the topic of the question.
No, maybe, but it’s gone to a really interesting place.
I think, I just have this DIY— It’s not even DIY. I just have this sort of attitude that no one is going to help me, so I have to do everything. But also, I like doing everything. I like running a record label. I like doing lectures. I like playing. It’s both of those things. One, I feel like I have to, but also, I get a lot out of doing all of these things. Like when I started my little record label, it was with the intent of only releasing my music, because I had such a backlog of stuff that I was making that nobody was releasing. And then it turned into just a regular label, where I’m releasing other people’s music, and it’s great. I really, really like doing that.
Did that just organically happen?
Yeah, totally. For different reasons, like Tim Feeney’s CD came about because his school was funding the cost of the thing. So I had the money to do that since his school paid for it. And then Enrico [Malatesta]’s album was because I had heard of him because he at the time was one of the only other people using percussion in a way that Greg and Tim and I do that I was aware of, and it just happened that he wrote me out of the blue one day and was like, I have this album. Will you release it? And I said yes. And then Thomas Bonvalet, I sought out and really wanted to release something by him, just because he’s one of my favorite musicians, and gave me this duo between him and Jean-Luc Guionnet of a pipe organ and Thomas’s crazy banjo metronome setup thing. They’ve all happened really differently. And I think after the Bonvalet Guionnet thing, I was going to stop doing it, and then Morgan wrote me about doing something and I liked it, and I was like, well yeah, I’ll do this. And now I’ve got three more new things lined up this year.
It kind of takes on a life of its own, I guess, when there’s a need for something and it’s interesting to you.
And it sounds like— This might be totally obvious, but between performing and composing, it seems like that DIY, doing it yourself, you’re able to get in there and test things out and see how it works.
Yeah, and you can do whatever you want, which is really all I’m interested in.
Right. Why would you not do what you want? Why would you do what you don’t want? Your answers to all of these things are just so fresh and interesting. What are the communities that you feel most a part of, that in whatever way relate to your practice around experimental music?
I have a very hard time feeling a part of anything, which is kind of cool, but also very frustrating. But also, I kind of run away from it, too, which is partially self-sabotage and partially a genuine interest to not be part of a group, necessarily. But socially, it would be great if I had my people. Part of it is where I live. Yeah, I don’t know.
There are people that I’m friends with, and some of whom that I work with, that I definitely have a lot in common with, but I still feel like all of us are in our own space, to a certain extent. Even within Meridian, like Greg, Tim, and I are, that group works so well, and I really, really like both of those people as friends and as musicians. But the three of us have really different lives, and different things that we do every day. And also, we live far apart from each other, so there’s that too. So I don’t know. I guess I would really like to fall in with some kind of close-knit community, but I don’t feel like I’m in one. I definitely feel like there’s a vibe. It’s funny how this happens through Facebook, too, but I joke. I call it the experimental music mafia, which is an affectionate term. But there’s dozens of people I know through Facebook who I feel like they’re my friends, but I’ve never met them before, and that’s cool.
It’s not necessarily a support system.
Yeah. I have always felt fundamentally different from everyone around me, since always. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing for me.
I can relate in a lot of ways too. I think a lot of people within this universe, let’s call it, of experimental music, feel somehow on the margins.
Aesthetically, this kind of work sits there. And then, I don’t know, I wonder. I feel like it’s hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg, because— What am I trying to say? I feel like for myself, I’m so accustomed to being outside of normal practice, that the idea of truly connecting with someone— It feels like such a revelation if it happens at all, on that aesthetic level. So I think sometimes it’s harder to form those communities within this set of practices because people are so used to being on the margins.
Yeah. If I meet anyone that I feel like I have a connection with, I try to make sure that that person is around. Like Jason Zeh is a perfect example, where Jason came down to Austin for a festival that my friends put on several years ago and stayed at my house. And we had met once at a show I played in Ohio and chatted, but didn’t really talk, because I was on tour and just in and out, and Jason stayed at my house and we stayed up until four in the morning just talking to each other. And I don’t really do that with people. So if I find myself doing that, then I notice that. And I was laughing that Jason and I just did this show together, and we’re supposed to make an album together that we’re slowly working on, but I knew about the work he was doing. It’s kind of performance art. It’s hard to describe what it is, but it’s great. And I knew about it, but I didn’t know all of the ins and outs of where he was coming from with this MFA project that he did. And he was giving his artist talk at this thing that we were doing in Milwaukee, and I just started laughing because I could not believe how similar it was to the exact thing that I was going to talk about in my talk. And I was just like, yeah, this is why you work with this person. There’s an entire section of Contralto called “easy onset,” which is a speech pathology term for a soft attack to speaking, that section where everyone’s saying words that start with H sounds. That’s called easy onset. And then easy onset showed up in Jason’s MFA project.
What the hell?
And I just was like, what? Like I’ve never heard this phrase in my life…
That’s so specific.
Until a year ago. And this person that I’m already working with also did not know that I was doing that. That’s the kind of thing where if that happens, I’m just like, okay, we’re friends. Like let’s do something together.
That makes total sense, and it makes sense that it’s sort of one at a time too, because it’s uncanny that it happens at all. So what are you working on now?
I have a bunch of stuff piling up, none of which I started on. But I’ve just gotten this rash of commissions in the last few months. So I have, there’s someone in Knoxville wants me to write them, in their words, a very, very long piece for cello and percussion. I told them that I liked long pieces and that I was interested in going beyond the one hour mark, and they were like, yeah yeah, great. We want like a three-hour piece. And I was kind of like, well, we’ll see. But there’s that, and then a cello solo, and then I just a week ago found out that these people in New York called Qubit Music— Do you know someone named Alec Hall?
Yeah, I do.
Okay. I don’t know them at all. They wrote me out of the blue over the summer, I think, saying that they were going to apply to these New York State Council for the Arts grants, and he was like, oh, we get them every year. It’ll probably be a few thousand dollars, and you can make a piece for us. And then it ended up getting, much to their surprise, funded to the full amount, which is amazing. But now I feel, not obligated, but I want to deliver them something large and cool. The thing that I proposed was kind of— I think I’m still going to do this, but the proposal was written in kind of a hurry, and they were like, oh yeah, just write whatever you want. We can change it later. I just need to turn this in. The thing I proposed was like something in a big space where there are several players, and each one is next to a speaker playing a field recording from a different location. So I don’t really know what it’s going to be yet.
What work or topics are you most excited about these days?
I just applied for a residency last night, and I realized this while I was writing the application, that I was proposing to work on these two commission projects while I was there, and I realized that both of them in different ways were about intimacy. Broadly simple answer, I think everything that I’m doing in some way is messing with or concerned with identity of some kind, which, that could mean anything. But I have recently had all these ideas for pieces that involve some kind of musical intimacy, or performers being physically very close to each other, maybe even touching. And actually what led me to that was thinking about this idea of making a piece for an equal number of percussionists and non-percussionists, and then trying to find a space where all of the players are basically doing the same thing, soundwise. This idea I’ve been talking about for a while, that the identity of percussionists is kind of unclear, because percussionists don’t have an instrument, and actually could be asked to play almost anything in a piece of contemporary music, which to me kind of makes the answer of what is a percussionist really kind of complicated, and not really knowable, exactly. So those things are kind of working together for the stuff that I think I’m about to make.
That sounds really promising.
Yeah, I think so.
And I’m sure it’s been explored in some ways, but I don’t think it’s been explored in the kind of depth that you’re thinking about. It seems like there’s definitely somewhere to go with that.
Yeah. This is what led me to wanting to go to grad school, is that I was thinking about this whole kind of relationship between percussion and queerness, and I was in the shower one day, earlier last spring or something, and I was like, oh, I think this might be a dissertation topic. That was a big part of the generative method for the music in Contralto, too, which was using so-called nonmusical sound, because that qualifies as percussion, like ejecting staples from a stapler, or crinkling a piece of paper or whatever. Actually, I’ve played pieces where I have to crinkle pieces of paper in them. And I told Steve Smith this in that interview that he did, too, that I really liked that Greg Stuart told me a long time ago that, something like, it had been two years since he held a mallet and struck something, and was kind of a little bit incredulous, and saying kind of like, well who am I if I don’t do the thing that all percussionists supposedly do, which is really fascinating to me.
I’ve been struggling with this idea of trying to put together a performance when I don’t consider myself a performer. I’m supposed to do a double bill with Katie Porter in January. I don’t really want to get up in the front there, and I just want to make something happen without any instruments.
Oh, that’s funny. One of the other things, that I don’t know if we’re going to get to do it or not, but my partner Mara is a visual artist, and has made all of these pieces using Shaker chairs as material. And for some reason I had some idea to make an opera where there are no performers. It hit me that she has this amazing drawing of this line of 60 Shaker chairs on top of rugs, and I was like, oh, we should just make this into a real thing, and it’ll be a set, and there will be sound and light but no visible performers.
That’s great. Do you know the Ablinger pieces where it’s rows of chairs in a space, and that’s part of an opera?
I think it might be different, though. I think you could frame it differently.
I’m sure it will be. I actually have two CDs of Shaker music sitting right in front of me on my desk right now with like 80 tracks on them. Oh, that’s so irritating.
No, I’m saying I think it’s resonant, but you can take a different direction.
Oh, there it is, chairs as listening places.
No, I don’t care. I’m in no danger of sounding like Peter Ablinger. Mara’s yelling from the other room that it’s not just chairs. And actually, it’s becoming more motivated by Shakers than it is like chairs, because both of us are interested in them for different, well, maybe not different reasons. I don’t know. But we like the Shakers.
Where were they geographically?
There were some communities in Kentucky. Like going to Shakertown when I was a kid was a very popular school field trip. But we looked it up. The first community was near Albany.
Oh, so there are a couple geographic connections for you then.
Yeah. I don’t think there were any in Ithaca that we know of, but they’re definitely from around here. And I can’t say— This is totally unfounded in anything, but there’s just something about the vibe of their furniture that reminds me of living around here. I don’t know what it is exactly. There’s a lot of Amish and Mennonite people around here, and Quakers also.
There’s something about the rigor. I picture Shaker furniture, and it’s fairly geometric, in a way, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s really sturdy and practical and repetitive, but they almost— This is how I got started with doing stuff with these little bells, too. It’s that they’re just around. They’re everywhere. I think Mara pulled one of these chairs off the street or something. For some reason they’re just around and they’re cheap, and kind of disposable, because Mara just said nobody wants to sit in them. And that was the thing with the bells too, is that I started buying them, and it begged the question of, who bought this in the first place and why? And why are there so many of them? They’re everywhere, and I don’t get it.
In the work of yours that I know, and I don’t know the full range of what you’ve done, but this idea of discipline and rigor and the directness of action. There’s an aesthetic alignment in some way with that. Maybe I’m drawing a tenuous line.
No, definitely. Yeah, the Shakers had these jubilant, ecstatic dances and singing and stuff, but then all they did was work. All they did was work. They had no sex. It’s like a weird contradiction that they have these crazy explosions, and then in the rest of their lives they’re just completely stoic. We’re proposing it to be part of this Cornell biennial next year, but I think if we don’t get accepted into that, we’ll just make the piece anyway with somebody else. But the impetus was to do it for that, because it happens to coincide with the theme of the biennial really directly. So we’re hopeful.
So that would be a collaborative project with Mara?
Yeah, and some musicians. I’m not exactly sure who yet.
That sounds great.
Yeah, I hope so. So I have a very long list of stuff piling up that I’m starting to become a little worried that I’m in over my head a little bit. But I’ll get it done.
Don’t let it become an albatross or something, because it sounds like there’s a lot of joy in it. I remember when I started composing, it was like, this is the best thing ever. And then it became, oh, shit, I have to finish a piece. Now it’s work. Dammit.
But it’s like good work. It’s work I want to do. I do hate making scores, but I like it in a way that I do not like going to my job. And I think that would be true of being a professor. It will still feel like you have a job to go to, but at least it’ll be something that you care about.
Has the current political situation affected how you’re thinking about what you’re doing? No is fine.
Maybe only in the sense of like how could it not? Like the thing that is on my screen right now, totally by coincidence, is that the CDC was given a list of forbidden words by the Trump administration that includes the words transgender, fetus, diversity, and science based. You know how the FCC has a list of seven forbidden words?
I’ve seen this.
It’s like that, but for normal, regular things that scientists and doctors should be talking about.
What is with these people?
Yeah. It is insane. But I think that I would be doing what I was doing if there was a different president. I don’t feel directly motivated by anything that’s going on. Well, that’s not true, because I just got done telling somebody that Contralto was a protest piece, which is basically true. But I think that that piece would be a protest piece regardless of who was in the White House. The same social climate would exist for trans people, regardless of whether Trump is the president or not.
Yeah, I think that could have been a protest piece several years ago as well.
Yeah. When I started thinking about it, he was not the president.
It’s a protest, but not specific to this.
Yeah. Well I think about this a lot too, where sometimes I feel like I should be more politically engaged, and it’s like, trans people don’t even have the energy to be politically engaged, because the whole world is at odds with them all the time. I definitely feel like that.
Yeah. I think choosing to be politically engaged is, there are varying degrees of bandwidth and capacity for that, depending on one’s situation.
Yeah. And Mara just whispered at me something that reminds me that one of my favorite bands, The Spook School, their singer is a trans guy. And in an interview, he said something about getting kind of worn out by being considered a political band. And he’s like, the only thing political that I do is that I’m on stage, that it shouldn’t be a political act for me to just be in the room, which I think is pretty true and also a really powerful thing to say.
Yeah, you should be able to just do what you’re doing.
Yeah. One of the trans women I follow on Twitter said this. I’m sure other people have said this too, but what the whole bathroom controversy about is not because people are scared that their kids are going to get hurt in a bathroom by a trans woman. It’s because it’ll make life so unpleasant, it’ll make going to school so hard for trans kids that they’ll just stop going to school. It will just get rid of them. That happens, because what 12-year-old wants to deal with that every day? But that the real, whether they know it or not, that the motivation behind that kind of legislation is to try to get rid of people.
What do you think could be done to improve or enrich or support this field, locally, internationally, whatever?
Well definitely, people, presenters of events should be more concerned with making sure that they’re representing a broad range of people. Which is something that seems to be all of a sudden, in the last year or so, a big thing, that people are kind of learning that they’re going to look like assholes if they book concerts with nothing but straight white men.
Yeah, this is pretty fresh as a topic.
Yeah. And I think that’s true in other areas too. One of the people in Contralto lives in Baltimore, and she was telling me that this bar, it’s one of the main rock clubs in Baltimore, and she was just like, yeah, black people won’t go there, because the kinds of things that they have there, and also the kinds of people that work there apparently. It’s not because some terrible racist thing happened there, but because it’s just sort of silently communicated that that space is not for them. And I think that’s true in other ways, too. You know like when that website came around last year, maybe, where someone had made that giant database of female composers online?
And it spurred all of this weird argument about whether there should be a list like that or not. And I remember telling somebody that the list is useful, if anything, just so someone can look at that, and if you went to an experimental music concert, you could very easily believe that there aren’t very many women or people of color involved. And that if there’s a website with 500 names on it—
Yeah, just tons and tons and tons of people. And for the most part, you’ve never heard of any of them. Or even, I follow Mary Jane Leach on Twitter, and she linked to a review of her record, Pipe Dreams, and the person writing about the record said that it was rediscovered or something. And she retweeted it and said, it’s not that I had it locked in a vault somewhere. She’s just like, yeah, I’ve been here. I’m around.
I’ve been making music. I’ve been doing my thing.
But yeah, I consistently saw that record referred to as something that was unearthed, not just as like a woman composer from the 80s who most people have never heard of because her male counterparts are more famous. And the music is incredible, too. It’s every bit as innovative as anything else going on then. It’s really good. So yeah, I guess that’s the thing. I could certainly say other things could improve it, but I feel like the thing that will just really practically make things better is if people try to book a wider variety of people and types of music.
Yeah, I think that would be actually helpful towards prosperity of the whole field, too.