So QT EA talked Sarah Hennies into chatting online for a little bit. WHO KNEW that Sarah Hennies, the percussionist, is also a very fast typer. We discuss her piece "Passing" for woodwind ensemble that we'll see on Sunday and some other good stuff!
Thank you Sarah!
Don’t think I’ve seen you since the QT symposium, what have you been up to?
SH: Everything imaginable. Haha. I have been performing/presenting nonstop since then
EA: Yeah it seems like it! Some highlights?
SH: The concert in Los Angeles for Contralto was really wonderful. That piece has been played a lot and every time has been really terrific and played by good people in nice venues, but the LA show was really special, as close to the magic of premiere as anything has come. My show in Milan at Standards was really excellent, too. Such nice people. I’m having to look at my calendar just to remember the last three months haha
EA: And no stopping soon, right?
SH: I have a couple weeks off in early March but yeah, I’m basically slammed through mid-April. After I quit my old job, I felt like I needed to say yes to everything and all of the things I’ve been doing have been really good, things I want to do- but finding out lately that I actually do have a limit haha
EA: I’m excited for our show on Sunday! Can you talk about “passing” for woodwind ensemble? How did it come about, and what’s your working process like?
SH: Yeah, it was originally written for a NYC group called Qubit Music who commissioned me to do a project of my choosing through a grant from NYSCA. I decided I want to make something with wind instruments, just solely based on the fact that I never had before.
EA: When was that?
SH: May 2018. So, it was composed in late 2017/early 2018 and then performed once at the qubit space in May- and since then the piece is now loaded with a fair amount of conceptual stuff. er rather, I had inserted that stuff at the time too. It grew beyond just “I want to write for wind instruments” pretty fast.
SH: No, it’s pretty much the same but Julie Nathanielsz and I have since refined the dancer parts a bit and I’ve eliminated some of the percussion things I was doing before. I think in May there was still a sense that the first performance wasn’t necessarily the final version. I’ve had some time to think about what I would do differently.
EA: Can you elaborate on the “conceptual stuff”?
SH: So, a couple summers ago Mara and I were at an antique/junk store in Portland, or called “really good stuff” and while I was there, I found this little metal toy train/truck with two bells on it, and when you pull or roll the truck then it rings the bells. So I bought this thing not knowing why I wanted it or what I would do with it, I had already been working with a bunch of bells so I figured it would just be an addition to the collection. Then fast forward to early 2018 and I’m thinking about how to put myself and Julie into this piece (more on that in a second) and it suddenly hit me why I wanted the truck, what it reminded me off.
I had seen this documentary “Marwencol” maybe ten years ago about an artist named Mark Hogancamp who was discovered as an artist because a photographer kept seeing him walking down the road in upstate NY dragging a toy military truck next to him.
Finally one day the guy stops and asks why he’s doing that, and it turns out he had been brutally beaten, nearly to death, years earlier because he had told some frat guys while drunk in a bar that he liked to wear women’s clothes. So the guys followed him outside after closing and nearly killed him.
When his insurance stopped paying for his therapy, he developed all these methods on his own to help him, and one was pulling this truck.
If he could keep the truck in line with the stripe on the road then it would help his motor skills get better
so I decided I would just drag this toy around in the middle of my piece, since I’d already decided there would be two dance/movement parts as well.
There’s actually a really shitty Steve Carrell movie out right now that’s a biopic about Mark Hogancamp. the trailer looks truly awful and it is apparently the worst box office performance Robert Zemeckis has ever had, so that made me happy.
SH:I’d like to go interview him as part of what will eventually be a “passing” film, but he’s forbidden from working on other film projects now because of this awful Zemeckis movie. But also Julie and I wound up as dancers in this piece because Julie and I had met up early last year just for fun, to try and make something together (we had worked together in Austin and she lives in Ithaca now) and the first thing she said to me was, “I’ve been thinking a lot about clothing, and I’ve been dancing under these gaudy patterned bed sheets.” And it was just immediately like, BINGO, and became part of this wind piece.
Sorry there’s no short version of this story haha
EA: No worries!
SH: The other major component of the piece is several field recordings that I made in busy public places, each one playing through a different speaker. So the idea of ‘passing’ back and forth through a space, ‘passing’ in terms of being a trans person, and so forth... there’s so many layers of meaning that it’s not clear to me what any of it actually means, which is exactly what I want.
EA: I want to get back to the field recording in a second but first I’m curious about why you wanted to include dance/movement
SH: I just felt like the piece needed something else. I like to insert things into pieces that don’t make sense, and also it just felt like the right thing to do. Often I’ll make decisions not really knowing why I’m doing them and figure it out later once the piece is done.
EA: It certainly makes sense in the context of passing through space
SH: Right, and that’s how the field recordings came about. Originally I had wanted to record this really busy bathroom I heard at a rest stop one day on the way to Buffalo. It was totally hilarious and weird and intense and complex. like 40 toilets all flushing, sinks running, hand dryers, people yelling. But then I ended up never actually getting that recording, so the whole thing has developed really intuitively.
EA: Is it fair to say that you work intuitively most of the time, or is that more specific to this piece?
SH: Most of the time for sure. often there’s an initial concept/idea but usually those are different by the time I’m done. The original “concept” for this piece originally was seriously just, “wind instruments” haha. Which is another type of ‘passing’ - air passing through a tube.
EA: Ahhh I didn’t think of that kind of passing, that’s interesting It makes passing really more rooted in time -passing- too.
SH: Yeah exactly. The title almost seems too perfect :)
EA: Haha it’s good! So where did these recordings end up coming from?
SH: Let me see if I can remember. Philly reading terminal market, union station subway in nyc, the bathroom at Niagara Falls, a diner in Ithaca. There’s two more ... uhhh … When you hear them all together it actually just sounds like you’re outside in NYC, it’s very uncanny valley. Which I hadn’t expected. Oh a trolley station in Philly. All busy public places.
EA: My follow up was going to be to ask if there was a specific significance to the spots, but it seems like actual location isn’t as important as the sound itself.
SH: No not really, initially I had wanted that bathroom recording but when I went it wasn’t busy enough to have the same effect. So it really did develop on its own, especially once you mix six of those together, it’s really hard to tell what’s what. it’s just this endless din of background noise.
EA: Are there going to be gaudy bed sheets?
SH: Naturally haha. I decided a few weeks ago I wanted to remove the vibraphone part, it just felt unnecessary to me. So she and I will strictly be moving/dancing.
EA: Have you performed in that way before this piece?
SH: Last time we did this yes, but then I was behind a vibraphone for the first 15 mins or so. But this is my first time only doing that, yeah. We’ve been working together a bit in a studio here, so I feel less nervous than I did a couple months ago.
EA: Maybe this is too specific a question, but- Do you feel like working with your body in this different way has affected other ways of working/thinking?
SH: Probably yeah, but I haven’t thought too deeply about it yet. certainly it fundamentally changed what this piece would have been if Julie and I had never met up. I had some failed plans to go to grad school this year for a PhD and one of the things I wanted to do was take some dance classes, because I thought it would feel good and be intellectually/artistically valuable to figure out how to use my body. I’ve always been scared of dancing, my whole life.
EA: Relatable. I have taken some contemporary dance classes though and it was a big game changer for me.
SH: I had a feeling it would be for me too, and I’m more conscious of a sort of disconnect between my brain and my body than I was when I was younger. I think that’s part of why the decision to not play percussion came about too, because I’m a little afraid of doing that, which is usually a good reason to do something.
EA: Afraid of dancing?
SH: Afraid of performing that way, “without a net” so to speak. You really feel on display without an instrument in front of you/in your hands.
EA: For sure. There’s a bit in your interview with national sawdust that stuck hard with me since I read it in fall 2017- about an earlier mode of making work that was self-destructive as a way of exerting control over your body. That sounds exactly like several years of my own performance-making. But since you’ve moved on from that way of working/thinking, I’d love to hear about what you do now to take care of yourself as you perform and develop new work.
SH: Well you’re catching me at kind of a dark moment haha. I’m maybe a dozen presentations into this piece “contralto” and it is really taking a lot of me, more than I realized. So I guess I still have the self-destruct gene but it’s coming from a different place.
EA: Relatable again. Fear as a motivating factor for movement haha.
SH: I feel like basically everything I do now is rooted in love, but I am honestly having a hard time dealing with presenting work like this as my job. I haven’t consciously done this, but all the new commissions I’ve done this year have had nothing to do with this topic at all. And obviously there are other things I’m interested in.
SH: Mid-May last year
EA: Is there something particularly taxing about Contralto?
SH: Yeah, I mean... the piece was conceived as a kind of representation of dysphoria as an experience. It’s not explicitly explaining that’s what it is, but it’s what guided a lot of the compositional choices. So I’m essentially constantly living inside the thing that transition is supposed to allow you to stop thinking about. It’s very very exciting and rewarding to be doing this all the time and seeing the response that it has gotten, but it’s really starting to make me feel not good.
EA: Wow yeah that make sense. I saw the premiere at ISSUE, and it was really stunning but I see what you mean. After these upcoming shows are you going to retire it for a while?
SH: Yeah, I think I’m going to start allowing the parts/materials to be ‘rented’ so I don’t have to be there. It would just require me to tighten up the score/instructions a little bit, but as of right now there are no performances planned beyond mid-February. I’m doing it twice in the next two weeks, though- on top of this other piece that’s even more intense lol
SH: Yeah. Crystal Penalosa saw the first performance and told me it was, “almost too real”
EA: Well take care of yourself!!
SH: Trying, haha
EA: Maybe the move towards movement is your body talking to you, “Pay attention to me”
SH: It’s definitely something I’m interested in working with more.
EA: Crystals performing in it Sunday, right?
SH: No, a bunch of other awesome people though. She was just in the audience last time.
Derek Baron, Lea Bertucci, Katie Porter, Rebekah Heller, Joshua Rubin, Michael Foster, and Ka Baird
plus me and Julie
EA: Whoops I should have known that. Right- Derek, I knew it was another symposium person
SH: Ya, totally weird/awesome group
EA: How do you pick performers?
SH: Initially I wanted an all queer ensemble but there were also some instruments I wanted like bassoon and clarinet where I just didn’t know anyone that fit that description and was available
SH: I was trying to strike a balance of low and high-register instruments too, so I’d have a wide spectrum.
EA: Well I’m looking forward to it!
SH: Yeah, same. So glad I get to do this piece again.
EA: Anything else we should know about the piece? We’ve covered a bunch.
SH: Don’t think so! that’s most but not all of my secrets :)
EA: :) Ok lastly any shout outs to artists/musicians you’re particularly into at the moment?
SH: uhhhh I’ve been working with the cellist Judith Hamann on a new solo piece and she is really wonderful. I’m excited to spend some time with Oren Ambarchi and crys cole over in Scandinavia too, we have a few shows together. Annie Lewandowski who is another Ithacan is up to a lot of great stuff right now, too. Otherwise I really just only listen to Daniel Romano and old Lucksmiths albums on repeat right now :)
EA: Nice! Ok well thanks so much for taking time to chat :) see you on Sunday :)
SH: yes, see you soon!