Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview: Percussionist-Composer Nick Hennies

Depending on where one falls on the spectrum, the name Nick Hennies could mean one of two things (or both). If you’re a central Texas indie-rock fan, his work as drummer-vocalist in the psychedelic chamber-pop quartet Weird Weeds (with Aaron Russell and Sandy Ewen, guitars and vocals; Lindsey Verrill, bass and voice) is a bright spot in the Austin underground. Also an instrumentalist-composer schooled at the University of Illinois and UC-San Diego, he’s steadily engaged the landscape of both “lowercase” and “uppercase” percussion, recording his own pieces as well as the music of Alvin Lucier, Arnold Dreyblatt, Radu Malfatti, Jürg Frey and others. On April 16, shortly before the May 2011 Austin New Music Coop performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, Hennies and I sat down to discuss his recent projects and some of the ideas behind them. Note: portions of this interview were also used for a Summer 2011 article in Signal To Noise Magazine.

CA: So you’re working with architects for an installation project, I understand?

NH: Well it turns out only one was an architect, and one of them has a math degree but he said he took some classes as a student from this architect. I don’t know how Sean O’Neill [Lustigiovi] knows them, but he said they read what I wrote about what we’d done. I saw a couple photos of their work and read what they’d written and it sounded really similar. When we were talking yesterday, we just rattled things off and at some point earlier in the day, I was thinking to myself like, the common theme about what I’m doing right now is that it’s really direct and deliberate – it’s not complicated but it provides an unusual experience. When we were talking yesterday, the architect said “I can tell you right now that what most architects will submit is going to be really convoluted and complex, and this is great because it’s so direct.”

CA: Tell me more about what exactly this project is going to entail.

NH: Originally it was going to be a CD, and this is an idea I had almost two years ago – it was going to be a solo percussion piece that lasted a very long time, and originally I was thinking I’d also have some electronics or field recordings on it. I never had any ideas that I liked, and almost exactly a year ago at [Austin’s] Fusebox Festival I played and Sean played right before me, and I was just blown away. I was more impressed with him than almost anything else I’ve experienced in Austin. Immediately, I was like ‘we have to work together.’ I’d never heard of him, though [Austin promoter] Aaron Mace knew him somehow and put us on the same show.

I was always under the impression that it would be a recording that could be performed live as well, but the idea was to have an hour of music on it. As I thought about it more, for a long time I’d wanted to do something epic, like hours and hours long, but I never had any ideas that would support that. Now I do, so in February we did a partial last-minute performance, agreeing to play a show where we didn’t have much time. I wrote three sections of percussion music and I played one for about an hour. After that, I decided that not only did we need a bigger room to perform in, but that it should be much longer. Still, I think there might be someone who would be interested in putting out the CD, and it will be the same as what we’d been thinking about. Sean has already filled two hard drives with material himself.

CA: Is he processing what you’re doing or sending him, then?

NH: What he’s creating has no relation to what I’m doing – I specifically told him not to listen. They are separate things occurring at the same time, though I guess they share certain qualities. It sounds a little bit loop-based and some of the sounds are repetitive, but not rhythmically.

CA: When I listened to the clip on the site, my first inklings were of loops, but it’s imprecise and atmospheric as well.

NH: I’m not sure what his process was, but he was trying millions of different sounds – sounds he made from recording acoustically. He has lots of found objects – there was a bass drum sound, and I asked him what it was and he said it was just an oil can. We’re still working on the recording aspect, and this competition came out of nowhere. When I sent the link to Sean, he was like ‘we’re already doing this.’ Bringing people in with eyes for design, I figured they’d probably have better ideas about space than I would. We had some ideas but nothing that was specific to the space.

CA: I think of your solo percussion music as definitely dealing with resonance of objects. You’re going to have to think of environmental variability there, so you must be thinking to some degree about that already.

NH: A little bit, yeah. Having done it once, I realized that every time I do the piece I’m going to have to deal with the space, how it differs from the last one, and so forth. That’s common sense – if you have a small room, you can’t put as much stuff in it. One last minute addition to the piece that we thought of was, I had a couple drums with lamps underneath them and an iPod attached to each drum head. They were playing files that were mostly silence, but maybe every twenty minutes or so a bunch of recorded cut-up noise would come out of the speaker. There was a piece of aluminum foil between the speaker and the drum, and it would buzz and seemingly start doing this on its own. The space we’re looking at doing this in the future is the new Visual Arts Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and we were talking yesterday about doing something where the space was so big that if you had two objects so far apart, and you were standing next to one of them you’d have no perception of what’s going on at the other end of the building. It’s different from being somewhere where you know everyone can hear everything.

CA: That kind of independence could be really interesting.

NH. One idea I had that stuck in my head was that a percussionist plays a composed four seconds of music for about twenty minutes at a time. After twenty minutes, he or she would go somewhere else and do a constant sound, like a bass drum roll or rubbing a piece of paper on a drum, and it goes from really complex rhythmic music to something very simple. Clay, the architect, had mentioned making little compartments that people could walk into and somehow being inside would alter the sound, and that gave me an idea that I could go somewhere that nobody could see me and the sound I’m playing is somehow amplified. I have no idea how or what, but the idea is interesting.

CA: Could you talk about your process for Objects [Kendra Steiner Editions, 2011] and Psalms [Roeba, 2010]?

NH: Those came about originally through two pieces. I wrote a vibraphone piece my senior year of college, a little five minute piece as a sort of elegy after Herbert Brün died (because he hated long pieces – he said that everything over nine minutes was an imposition except in special circumstances). Anyway, somehow by accident I found out that if you hold the pedal down on the vibraphone and play something over and over, the sound actually changes without the performer having to change anything. I think what happens is that you’ve got the resonator tube underneath the key. That’s closed and you’ve got air running up and down the tube, and sometimes the sound wave hits the bottom of the key at the same time the mallet hits the top of the key, and causes the key to go dead. If you do that fast, it does this weird constantly changing rhythmic resonance. I started to think about Psalms around the same time the Austin New Music Coop did an all-Alvin Lucier concert. I’d wanted to do the triangle piece for a long time, and I realized that those two concepts were somewhat similar. They informed making pieces with different instruments; the first three are more or less the same compositional idea as those pieces – the performer doesn’t change but the material does. The two vibraphone pieces are examples of what I’d discovered, whereas the snare, woodblock and triangle are examples of the performer subtly changing what I’m doing.

CA: What surprised me was the woodblock – I’d never really thought about the resonance of wood, even though I’ve listened to things like an upright bass or a marimba.

NH: Everywhere I go, people are like “I can’t believe that woodblock.” I actually don’t understand some of the physical aspects of what occurs during that music. I think what you hear is actually a combination of properties of the instrument that people aren’t aware of, and the acoustics of the room you’re in. The snare, triangle, and woodblock are very dependent on the room you’re in and that JD Emmanuel show when I played Psalms was a very dead room and you heard less. More alive rooms allow it to be more interesting, but in general one thing that these pieces do is make a sonic profile of the room you’re in and the way things echo.

CA: When you did that concert at Travis Weller’s place of Psalms, I thought it sounded incredible in his house.

NH: I like that space a lot. My favorite rooms have been live, and when we recorded that CD we tried doing it several places. One was at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and you hit one note and it decayed forever. I like that, but the room that was the best was a long rectangular room where James teaches bass lessons. We emptied out the room and I set up in the middle, and that was it. My second favorite was his house, which is similar to Travis’ because they’re not so live that it muddies things – the room’s natural reverb can obscure things a bit – but it still always works. The only thing I don’t like is doing it in a room without any echo. Of course, it’s less clear in an overly echoing room, but I don’t mind that too much.

CA: Are you at all thinking towards ensemble pieces again?

NH: I wrote one for five drummers on the Lungs CD [Full Spectrum, 2010], but that was the first in a while – and I can’t even remember how I thought of that. I wanted to write something that Greg Stuart and I could play on. It would be great to do things involving more musicians but I haven’t had any ideas yet.

CA: Would it be fair to say that being in the Weird Weeds with an ensemble, that that gives you a fix?

NH: Sort of, but being in a rock band is a lot different from writing chamber music. One isn’t better than the other, and a lot of times when I try to make something consciously it doesn’t work. The things I finish are the ones that didn’t come out from specificity, but arose naturally or by accident. Clots I had the idea of while I was jogging two summers ago; when I was playing Psalms live in Houston, before I left I was talking with [Weird Weeds guitarist] Sandy Ewen and lamented that I was having to bring my vibraphone because it’s hard work to fit it in my car, and she said “don’t be lazy.” She was right – it was August and my car is un-air-conditioned and the vibraphone I have is a pain in the ass to move. I brought it anyway, and the show was on the second floor without an elevator, and I got there early enough that nobody was around to help me with it. By the time the show was ready to start I was dripping with sweat, and I actually played incredibly well – the show was really good and I was focused. I had the idea that, well, the worst thing about being a percussionist is moving shit around – everybody hates it – so if I hate moving equipment but the piece is made better by my moving equipment, then that makes moving it around more palatable.

The idea for Clots was like, okay if my doing physical labor makes me play better, that’s part of the piece. It also ties into meditation practices – part of the reason I don’t listen to music while jogging is that certain things you do while jogging are very meditative, you’re breathing heavily and it’s a repetitive thing, and you don’t want to channel your thoughts in too many directions. I feel more focused after a run if I don’t listen to music. But as I was running one day I thought ‘what if I make a piece where the piece of music is work?’ That idea was also to write something really rhythmically difficult but short.

CA: Obviously classical and experimental musicians do perform on tour, but you doing solo works on tour seems birthed from the touring rock musician idiom.

NH: Oh, definitely. That was one thing I really liked about touring with the Weird Weeds – it’s just work, it’s not like being on vacation or anything. I like feeling like what I’m doing has a connection to a tangible act that requires time and investment. It’s better than making pieces in my bedroom and releasing it.

CA: Psalms gets to be what it is through performing it in different situations and with different moods.

NH: That’s how it was written; I have final versions that came about through work, and that’s how I learned the Lucier piece. I tried to do it with a predetermined approach and it didn’t really come out that well, and instead I kept playing it in a way that if I heard something emerge that seemed interesting, I’d follow that and see where it went. Through that process I got a final version and the composition of my own pieces also came about through working on them live until it was right.

CA: Since you’re dealing with direct material engagement and change over time, and we’ve talked about this before, the concept of minimalism and reductive music, how do you deal with terminology for what you’re doing? Do you see the work in a pantheon or is it isolated?

NH: I’ll let other people deal with terminology – I don’t think of it that way. I don’t feel a connection to other composers’ music, with the exception of Lucier, though on the surface it may seem like he’s more influential on these works than he actually is. What I really want to do is harness my natural inclinations rather than decide to “do” certain things, and that’s why there’s a wide variety of music that I’ve put out recently. I’m a little self conscious that I have music that doesn’t sound like it was made by the same person, but I would like to think that over several years there would be a palpable connection between these things. I would like to create a body of work that gives one an example of where I was at certain points, and this is one of the biggest influences I got from John Duncan, where he says that “all of my work is about self-discovery and trying to learn about [himself].”

I wasn’t really making solo music until the Lucier show; Charles Curtis was here and he said “people always ask me why Lucier is so obsessed with echoes and resonance, and really it’s just that he’s like that. He just wants to know – he’s inquisitive about that certain thing.” I thought, okay, people just have natural inclinations – some people are amazing at basketball and others aren’t. So instead of making a string quartet or whatever, what am I naturally interested in and how can I use that to make music? I still don’t know the specific answer. Michael Pisaro wrote something about Wandleweiser, saying “there’s no reason people should like this music – they just do or they don’t.” It seems like a simple thing but for a long time I was like ‘why am I drawn to this music with so much silence where not much happens?’ What is it about me that I enjoy this stuff? I just do.

CA: What I try to draw lines to is that, well, I know the Weird Weeds and your solo work differ, but I feel like there’s a quality that informs both.

NH: I would hope over time that it becomes clear the relationship between the two. If I were to make several albums over time there would be a visible connection.

CA: I can’t put my finger on the word for it, but I don’t unsee an almost pop quality, or accessibility to the solo music.

NH: When I made Lineal [SRA, 2009], I was conscious of that part near the end where there’s a choral sound to it. I was worried that it might be too ambient or whatever, and the difference between a really good drone CD and one that’s just mediocre is pretty slim. If I were going to say that there was a thread between the Weird Weeds and the solo stuff, I would say that all of it has a kind of affection for sound. I think the Weird Weeds use sound really economically and very responsibly, and the way that we perform it’s a lot like chamber music – the guitar parts are delicate and, say, it would be very obvious if Aaron [Russell, Weird Weeds guitarist] made a mistake and moreso than if, say, the guy from Superchunk made a mistake. It’s really intricate but it’s not rhythmically complex. That was another thing that informs what I do now is that I used to make really quiet music, and it took me a while to get out of it for some reason. The solo drum music that I recorded before – I stand behind the music, but I also feel that it was within a style and I continued doing things like that because I figured “this is my thing – I’m the guy that plays quiet music.”

CA: Knowing what I do about the kind of music you like – whether it’s [punk band] Bitch Magnet or solo percussion music – there is a kind of directness or straight-ahead quality to all of it.

NH: I really like a lot of singer-songwriter stuff and the ones I like have absolutely no bullshit to what they do, like Mark Kozelek. There’s not really anything to the music other than what he’s doing. I read an interview with Greg [Saunier] from Deerhoof and he responded to a question with “I think that if a lot more people used their imagination to make music, there would be a lot more music that gets called ‘weird’.” That quote stuck in my head – everybody’s different, and that’s why I like simple folk music a lot, because there’s a tendency for people to show their inherently interesting qualities.

CA: I’d like to get some of the historical stuff down and frame it in how you got on the path that you’re on musically. I know you grew up in Louisville and played punk rock, but I’d be interested in when you got into studying percussion.

NH: After my second year of high school I switched schools to an arts magnet school, and before that I didn’t even know that you could go to music school for an instrument like percussion. I’d played in band and so forth, but I didn’t know there were these options. There were two guys around my age and one of them owned a marimba – they were already percussionists. The first CD of composers that I bought was because these guys told me about the Elliott Carter tympani pieces and I really wanted to learn how to play them. I found a CD of American composers that had Crumb, Cage, Carter, Copland and Paul Creston on it. There was Cage’s Second Construction, the Carter tympani pieces, and Crumb’s Five Piano Pieces and at the time I thought it was the most revolutionary stuff I’d ever heard. Before that I didn’t even want to go to college – I hated school and I didn’t know that you could go to college for music.

I’ve known how to read music since I was nine; I had a teacher at a music shop whose basis for everything was notated music, and because of that I have good rhythm sight-reading abilities. Even at that time, the point at which I discovered that music, there were a couple of good record stores in Louisville and I pored over the Trouser Press guide, listening to Henry Cow and stuff like that. When I was 15, I started making weird noise music and I got into this band Nero as well; I have tapes of messing around with feedback and stuff when I was a teenager, and it’s not like there was a ‘scene’ in Louisville or anything.

Because of that Cage piece on the CD I’d bought I ended up reading Silence, and the last paper I wrote in high school was a book report on it. That book is one of a small number of things that fundamentally changed the way I think about music. Then I went to the University of Illinois because I had a friend there; in retrospect I could have gone somewhere better, but Herbert Brün was there and that ended up also changing how I think about music. A lot of people don’t know who he is, but the people who have been near him all say that he changed their lives. Honestly I think he was a more talented writer and thinker than he was a composer; he has good music, but in general the things I think are most valuable about his stuff is instilling a value of anti-commercialism.

He died my senior year of college, though he’d been forcibly retired because he was a pain in everyone’s ass and the department was becoming really conservative. In the 60s, Herbert was the one who brought Cage to the University of Illinois. He was one of the first people, along with Lejaren Hiller, to use a computer to make music. He taught a seminar in experimental music, and ended up starting a school in Urbana called the School for Designing a Society, which was a small DIY school focused on progressive social change. He was really intensely political, and it was teaching in a way to encourage positive social change. Composition was very important to his idea of an ideal society – his definition was something like, “a composition is anything that couldn’t exist without the composer.” In its simplest form it’s trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.

CA: Which would really allow for improvisation, I would think.

NH: Ironically, he hated improvisation. All of his students loved him and they all love to improvise.

Then I went and did a year abroad in England my junior year, and after I graduated I went to San Diego to study with Steven Schick and I knew the program was specifically contemporary music. That’s also where I met Greg Stuart; he primarily plays Michael Pisaro’s music now.

CA: When I met you, I thought of you as an improviser; have you gone away from it at this point?

NH: When I was an undergrad, I was involved with this group in St. Louis around the Lemp Arts Center, and they were all students of Herbert Brün who were interested in improvisation as a model for an ideal society. It was very politically motivated improvisation, and when you’re around people who are that dedicated when you’re young, it’s impossible not to think that is what you should be doing. I played with them until I finished college, and when I went to grad school I played somewhat with [trombonist] Tucker Dulin but other than that, I had stopped improvising. I was tired of what we were doing in St. Louis and reached a point where it seemed like it was repeating itself.

When I was in San Diego, I saw nmperign with Axel Doerner and Andrea Neumann, and that was very freeing – there was something new to do in improvisation. Having never heard anyone play like that before, I was blown away. But then I got to a point again where I felt like I’d used up all my ideas and the last thing I wanted to do was create something that was unnecessary. Since 2004, I haven’t been that interested in improvisation; I still enjoy it from time to time, but it’s just not what I should be doing. I’m better suited to other things and I find it more satisfying to play the same five pieces over and over again than playing five completely different improv shows.

CA: Well, it evolves more slowly and you can mark the changes within it.

NH: I think the meat of it is that I’m not excited enough by spontaneity to keep improvising, and I prefer to play composed music.

CA: Could we talk about how Lineal came together?

NH: It’s a different focus – an audio collage with a narrative element that’s almost dramatic. My mom’s father speaks on it and so forth. As long as I can remember, every Thanksgiving or Christmas my grandfather would recite a poem – he’d memorize these poems, and this was one of the reasons I wanted to make the piece, because I didn’t understand why he did this. He didn’t seem to enjoy much, and for some reason he did this thing that he got something out of. As he got older, it was like “oh, it’s time for grandpa to recite a poem…” and the last time I remember seeing him do it, my mom and her sisters were talking and laughing the whole time, and it seemed pretty sad. He had developed Parkinson’s and was barely conscious, but he could still do things like reciting Casey at Bat from start to finish. I was 17 or 18 the last time I saw him.

One of my aunts had suggested that I record grandpa, which we all found kind of awkward, and three years ago my dad found the tape of him reciting poems and sent it to me. It sat around for a while and one day I decided to digitize it, and at some point while I was listening to the transfer I decided I had to use it for something. I worked on that CD for a long time, kind of intermittently, and a lot of the sounds on it were things I just made and recorded with very little processing. The drone part is a banjo solo played by my great grandfather with so much reverb applied that there’s no more rhythm. It’s a harmonically simple piece of music, just a big chord I could use.

CA: Right, he recorded some music of his own.

NH: Yeah, he was in a band called Taylor’s Kentucky Boys. Aaron is really into prewar music and I asked him if he’d ever heard of Marion Underwood, and he said he had a boxed set with him on it. It’s called Kentucky Mountain Music, and it’s got a bunch of songs by the Kentucky Boys along with a Marion Underwood banjo solo. One of the songs we had on a tape when I was a kid was a real hokey tune, and at my grandma’s funeral (Marion was her dad), they were supposed to play this instrumental song and they played the silly one instead – that came on and people were totally giggling at the funeral, which I still think is really charming and better than if they’d played the right song. I hadn’t done anything like Lineal before, and I didn’t want to use the recordings of him talking by changing them – rather put them on top of other things.

CA: Brün’s definition of composition seems pretty apt in this case, because you don’t usually think of solo percussion music as biographical but of course, yours is because it describes what you enjoy doing, and then you also have Lineal which has a family history element to it. Would you ever do something like this again?

NH: I have way more of those poems and I’d like to do something with them, but who knows. I don’t reject ideas if I think they’re good enough to be worth pursuing. I’m just waiting around until something comes into my head that’s worth doing. It’s not always the case – pieces on Lungs came about because it was a matter of harnessing things I knew I could do. Honestly, the music on that CD is closest to the music that I thought I would like to make before I began doing the things I’m doing now. I like that album a lot, and I would like to do some similar things to that again.

CA: Accessibility has negative connotations in this music, but a lot of your work is pretty accessible – with the exception of Lungs.

NH: It’s pretty severe. Part of the reason I like it is that there are things on there that I didn’t realize would work together in service of an album concept, until after I heard it. The second track has a traffic noise on it from recording at [Austin musician-composer] Bill Baird’s studio, for example, and at first I was pissed off because of the noise but I ended up using it anyway and I feel that it works. Each piece uses a different type of silence; the bass drum pieces use absolute recorded silence, and the ensemble piece uses the phenomenon where, for example, the air conditioner is on and you don’t notice it until it turns off. That’s what that piece does – whenever you’re not making a pitched sound with the drum, you rub it really quietly and almost imperceptibly. There’s a lot of traffic noise at Ceremony Hall, and when we did the piece there, it blended in almost completely with the environmental noise. When it got to the actual silence it was deafening and was really effective. The definition of silence in that piece (“Second Skin with Lungs”) was “whatever sound is audible when I’m not playing.”

CA: Well, I have a tough time with silence because of course there’s so much ambient noise, my hearing sucks, and I have tinnitus – so no quiet for me.

NH: Absolute silence doesn’t really exist, and that’s why I think about different grades of it. “Silence” within the context of Lungs includes street noise. In a concert hall if someone stops playing and there’s a car horn outside, nobody thinks that the performer made that happen – it’s understood “the performer is not playing – therefore the piece is silent.” Michael Pisaro said about the Wandelweiser composers that they picked up on the implications of Cage’s 4’33” in that they heard it not as silence but as music, which is important. I think most people don’t hear it that way.

CA: In Feldman, the pauses and rests can have more gravitas than the music – they can be heart-stopping.

NH: Alvin Lucier said that he really liked the Second String Quartet, the six-hour one, because there is no time to stop playing and re-tune so the instruments naturally become out of tune with one another and it becomes microtonal music. Very gradually over the course of six hours it goes out of tune. I’ve never listened to the whole thing to find out.

CA: So at this juncture, are you more interested in being a musician or a “sound-artist?”

I don't make a distinction between those two things and I've never really understood the need for the term “sound art” instead of “music” either, but that’s another issue. The most interesting thing for me in music right now – at least as far as what I'm doing is concerned – is engaging with familiar sounds and/or instruments in a way that exposes things inherent to their construction that may have been overlooked or haven't been exposed yet. The most exciting thing for me is making music that can be immediately understood by anyone but is still innovative and unusual in its composition and execution. I want to show audiences something that provokes them to ask questions about the way the world works. It's an approach that appeals to absolutely anyone, as long as they're willing to listen with an open mind and ears.

The Austin New Music Coop did a performance and Q&A at a small community college outside of San Antonio last year where I played Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra. When the piece ended, the first question from the audience was, “Why?” to which I said, “Why go to the Grand Canyon? You go because you want to see something natural and amazing.”

Selected Discography:

Objects (Kendra Steiner Editions, 2011)
Jürg Frey - Metal, Stone, Skin, Foliage, Air (L'innomable, 2011)
Psalms (Roeba, 2010)
Lungs (Full Spectrum, 2010)
Alvin Lucier - Still and Moving Lines of Silence... (Quiet Design, 2010)
Lineal (SRA, 2009)
Turned 3" (Architect, 2009)
Radu Malfatti - l'effaçage (B-Boim, 2008)
Jandek - Austin Sunday (Corwood, 2006)

All images courtesy of Nick Hennies.

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