Sarah Hennies discusses The Reinvention of Romance

Left: Sarah Hennies (photo credit: Claire Harvie), Right: The Reinvention of Romance Album Cover

Since March, I’ve felt like time was being pulled in multiple directions at once. Afternoons seem to begin and end in different months, the latter flying by while the former stretch interminably through my apartment. Time opens up new spaces for attention when experienced like this; I’ve found myself aware of pedestrian chats as much as deep interactions. 

As it happens, Sarah Hennies’s extended composition, The Reinvention of Romance, is the perfect piece for the present moment. Written for and performed by Two-Way Street Duo (Ashlee Booth, cello, and Adam Lion, percussion), the 86-minute Astral Spirits release captures Hennies’s characteristic interest in minimal material and extended durations at its most disarming. 

Hennies’s music links to a conceptual creative tradition of near-scientific experimentation with sounds and what happens to them if they’re left to their own devices. There’s a pleasant matter-of-factness about her material, as simple gestures like rolled vibraphone chords or a two-note descending phrase repeat over the course of many minutes. Different listeners will think of different words for this experience: meditative, challenging, transfixing, mundane (I tend towards transfixing). 

Reinvention’s success is that it comfortably allows for all of those experiences. The piece opens with a series of bowed and struck single-tones, gestures that don’t overwhelm with aural information but that quickly start breaking down under prolonged attention. The cello in particular seems to dissolve into bow sound and overtones, even though the material doesn’t actually change, while the percussion intones regular metallic pitches. By the time of the first major textural change around the 10-minute mark, listening attention has appropriately adjusted to the detail at hand. This switch to pizzicati and bowed percussion, encompassing a comparably huge range of timbral activity, feels like a flood of space.

In this way, the piece creates opportunity for an intense emotional impact. There are moments of gripping acoustic phenomena: the overtone-rich drone duet around 20-minutes; the synthesizer-like ephemera of battuto harmonics on the cello around 45-minutes; the overwhelming, extraordinary 15-minute close. Sometimes, the departure of a player makes a huge impact—after an extended pizzicato line from Booth, where each note seemed more fragile than the last, the sudden space of isolated glockenspiel bowing was a shock.

But sometimes, the performers simply occupy time and space together, playing simple gestures with no wild timbral activity in earshot. Reinvention is powerful because it does not try to disguise those moments as anything but what they are. They are just as precious as the passages of purposeful synergy. As Hennies explained when we chatted, The Reinvention of Romance is modeled on the reality of living with someone, and the notion that people who share life in that way share a lot of mundane time. Times of stasis or frustration are as much a part of intimacy as moments of connection.

That this framing shines through so clearly is largely due to the incredible dedication of the performers and the high quality of recording. The acoustic detail presents every opportunity to dwell deep within the sonic minutiae of the performance, whether or not Hennies’s goal is always to explicitly draw out this acoustic intermingling. Booth and Lion’s considerate playing demonstrates a holistic understanding of the potential of the piece and the spaces it offers to the patient listener.

Reinvention does ask for exactly this patient, deep engagement. But it suggests that patience is not an intellectual hill to climb, extended minimal composition not an endurance test. Truly patient listening disarms and opens a window for new appreciation. Reinvention demonstrates that intimacy builds upon the mundane as much as the beautiful, and patient listening offers equal reward in a disintegrating pizzicato line as the overtone-saturated undulations that close the work.

I was fortunate to speak with Sarah via Zoom about The Reinvention of Romance, her composition process, and what her teaching position at Bard College in New York. You can read an extended excerpt of our conversation here:

JAMES MAY: Thank you again for taking the time to chat, I’m really excited to talk about this album. I think the first thing I wanted to say was to compliment on how amazing the recording sounds.

SARAH HENNIES: Oh, thank you. That’s really nice to hear. I fretted and hemmed and hawed about doing it in a studio because I just wanted it to sound really good. And it ended up, because of the way that time worked out and the availability of the musicians, that I finally was just like, “You know what, just come to my house and we’ll do it in my garage.”

I really like recording and mixing, but typically if I have a project that is larger or more than just myself, then I won’t record myself just because, you know—I’m a recording hobbyist and I basically know what I’m doing, but I’m not a professional and I’m totally self-taught, I’m certainly lacking in a lot of technical knowledge. I had intended to record them at Bard where I teach with Matt Sargent, and for some reason the timing just didn’t work. Like the studio was unavailable or something. And so I had them just come to my house and I just thought I could do it. And I was really, really nervous about—I knew this was going to be a personally important project for me to work on. So I was worried about, not messing it up, but that it wouldn’t sound as good as I wanted it to. So I’m very glad to hear you say that.

JAMES: How did this project come about?

SARAH: It started that Adam and Ashley from Two-Way Street wrote to me out of the blue and said, “We would like to commission a very long piece from you.” I feel like I’ve told this story a million times now, but it’s still relevant. Prior to this commission coming through, I had had an idea for quite a while of a very long piece for two people on the topic of domestic cohabitation. And then I got this commission from two people asking for a very long piece, who are also romantically involved. And I just, I couldn’t believe it. It was like God calling or something, just like, “Oh, you wanted what? Here it is.” [laughs]

It was a piece I would have written for myself, had someone not asked for it first. So I’m still really shocked that that happened. And then I wrote the cello part at home by myself with a cello, and then the three of us went to a three or four day residency in New Hampshire where I wrote the percussion part and put the rest of the piece together.

Two-Way Street in performance. Left: Adam Lion, Right: Ashlee Booth

JAMES: When you’re writing, especially for others, is there a central motivation that you’re looking for in testing out sounds and determining what the right combination of things is going to be? Is there a stylistic or experience-based motivation for you?

SARAH: I used to be more conceptually rigorous—I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it—but I used to not trust myself to just intuitively write music. I needed some kind of system or concept or whatever. And over the past two or three years, a lot of it due to just time constraints, I’ve started to trust myself more and more, to just make something without necessarily knowing exactly why I’m doing it. 

I knew I was going to be generating a lot of material, so I got one of those big oversized pieces of score paper and started messing around on the cello, and I wrote down anything that I thought was worth keeping. And after I had filled the piece of paper and thought, “Well, this is probably enough for an hour and a half of music,” I started looking at what I had written down and noticed that there were discrete groups of types of material that went together. Groups of pulsing quarter notes or groups of ascending two-note phrases, or material that dictated the form of the piece. The cello part was written entirely before the percussion part, because I knew I was going to this residency and I figured I could write the percussion part much faster than the cello part, which turned out to be totally true. [laughs]

But as far as your question—I didn’t have a clear sonic idea of, “I want this,” but I had been thinking about the piece for so long that I don’t feel like I had to think really hard about how it should sound. I just sort of knew what felt right to do.

JAMES: I think I’ve experienced that as well, that composing can be characterized as a certain kind of thing that you’re doing, and sometimes a lot of the composing I get done is just the month I spend thinking about the piece and then suddenly I have a week. And it’s like, “All right, well now it has to be on a paper somewhere.” But that’s okay because so much of the process happens ahead of time.

SARAH: Yeah, I think I work really fast, but also that’s not including the weeks or months of me just sort of percolating about something before I write a single note. So that’s why I’m able to work fast because I usually have such a clear idea about what I want by the time I’m sitting down to write music that it doesn’t take very long.

JAMES: One of the things I love about your music is how patient it is, and the durations that you’re asking listeners and performers to sit in and be a part of. Is that temporal aspect also kind of intuited?

SARAH: Yeah. It’s totally not mysterious at all. It usually is based on, “How long can I listen to this before I feel like I don’t want to listen to it anymore?” And then stopping just short or just past that, depending on the piece. I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the root idea, how long can I listen to something before it sounds like it has stopped unfolding?

JAMES: You’ve said in a few places that you feel this piece is your best work or it’s at least an extremely important work for you. What sets it apart from other things you’ve done?

SARAH: I think I’ve been pushing towards longer and longer pieces, but I have to find a reason to go longer. Several years ago, I wrote a piece that I wanted to be an hour long and it ended up being 40 minutes long because I was just like, “This can’t sustain this amount of time.” Whatever the idea is, it has to be an idea that can sustain an hour and a half. And so when I first had the initial idea for this piece, I was like, “Oh, this is the perfect thing to last for this long.” The duration is integral to the concept, like it has to be quote unquote “too long.”

The simplest way to put it is it feels like it ties together everything I care about into one piece. There’s all these different facets of things I’ve been doing for the last 10 years that are all present in this piece that also is conceptually about something that’s very, to me, tender and personal and intense. I don’t want to say it’s the culmination of something, but it feels like I’ve been doing a lot of work for 10 years and everything I’ve done is wrapped up into this one thing and in a really elegant and not ham-fisted way.

Sarah Hennies, photo credit: Claire Harvie

JAMES: I read where you talked about how you didn’t necessarily vibe with all the necessities of music school, or at least the music schools you were at—.

SARAH: No. [laughs]

JAMES: But now you are teaching yourself, and I would love to hear how your own perspective on what music school was for you, versus what you maybe wished it would’ve been, is affecting how you’re now interacting with students and presenting work and ideas to them.

SARAH: Yeah, I really like it actually. I never thought that I would be in this position, but it just happened. I’m not a natural teacher, so I’ve had to get used to it, but I’m really thrilled just to be able to share stuff with people. I mean, I’m not a collector, but I’m kind of a record nerd. I just really, really love playing music for people. Somebody asked me the other day what my primary aim with teaching was, and I said, “I just want people to leave with a broader idea of what the world is like than when they came in.” And so I really just want to teach the class that I wish I could have taken. 

You know, I’m in my second year of teaching history of electronic music and it’s been really fun to develop a syllabus for that that encompasses all of these things that I just never, ever would have encountered in a class at either of the schools I went to, even though one of them was a very progressive experimental school. But nobody was telling me about Kool Herc or Coil or Tangerine Dream or any of these more DIY underground nonacademic things, that to me are just as important as the West German radio studio. I really like it quite a lot, despite being a very hesitant academic. Bard is a very peculiar place with a really diverse array of students. And so the program that we’re in is not at all like a typical music school program. So I feel really at home there and it feels like I can do whatever I want and people seem to respond to it. So it’s great, I really like it a lot.

JAMES: That’s really wonderful. And it’s wonderful, again, amidst conversations that seem to be going on now about what we “should” quote unquote be doing when it comes to all sorts of institutional approaches to music, either whether we’re talking about contemporary classical or experimental, or all the other stuff that isn’t part of those two things. It’s refreshing to hear that there are places that are doing that and that there are students who are thriving in those less traditional approaches to learning about sound.

SARAH: Yeah. I mean, all the praise goes to Matt Sargent, who really has kind of rebuilt that department into something really great, that he/we are able to accommodate a lot of really different types of students with a broad array of interests and techniques that—I mean, Matt is the mastermind of the whole thing and is just a really great teacher.

JAMES: That’s fabulous. So not only are you releasing this album, but you’ve been very regularly releasing material over the course of the quarantine period, and I assume that you’re also working on things now and have other things coming up. How have you felt your creative practice adjust, if at all, to the ongoing circumstances?

SARAH: I’ve been pretty depressed about the death of live performance. I have been performing live regularly since I was 13 years old and I’m 41 now. I’ve gotten kind of used to it at this point, but that was really, really hard for me in the first few months, the idea that this wasn’t coming back anytime soon. So that’s been really sad, but I’ve been lucky enough that people are still asking me to do stuff and I have two or three medium-to-large projects that don’t have strict deadlines right now that I can come back to and leave kind of casually. I’m really happy about that. But yeah, I really feel like part of my soul has died without live performance. It is what it is, but I’m really lucky that I have stuff to work on and people are still asking me to do things. And also that this record and another album are both coming out in the span of a couple of months. I’m not just languishing at home and not doing anything, which makes me feel good.

JAMES: Well, if it’s any consolation, one of my notes when I was listening [to Reinvention] was: “I feel like I understand that these are two people playing this live together by just listening to this album.” I found myself experiencing their performance in a different way.

SARAH: Yeah, I read something a long time ago about the Antony and the Johnsons record I Am a Bird Now, where she said that she wanted the recording quality to sound like it was inside your ear. And I was thinking about that a lot, that I was trying to get a really intimate, very close recording, where it just sounds like the music is right in front of your face. My friend Clifford thinks that it’s like a really brutally intense album, but I don’t feel that way. I feel like it’s kind of urgent in a relaxed way, but I don’t feel like it’s intense. I feel like it is just there in this really lovely way that I’m really proud of. Which is, you know, the whole gestures. And this isn’t a one-to-one relationship where I think the piece is just a representation of this model of living with someone, but the idea of two people who are living together all the time share a lot of mundane time. And a lot of that consists of doing the same things over and over again. And I just thought that was a really beautiful model for making the kind of music that I make.