Sarah Hennies Trusts the Unknown in Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre

For Sarah Hennies’ Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre, Yarn/Wire and the Mivos Quartet joined forces as a “dream ensemble” comprising two pianos, two percussionists, and a string quartet. Not only are these some of Hennies’ favorite instruments — she calls them “touch” instruments for their prominent tactile nature — but the players included many longtime trusted collaborators. Faced with infinite possibilities for the Apr. 4 event, Hennies was guided by an image of light and her experience with tinnitus.

Miller Theatre employs a routinely satisfying format for their Composer Portraits series: the featured composer selects pieces that represent both the culmination of their practice to date and the concerns currently guiding their future work. Between pieces, Executive Director Melissa Smey and the composer have a conversation onstage, offering greater context for the works and insight into the composer’s methods.

Hennies is an embodied creator, and she shared that she has learned over time that she needs to directly engage with her music as she composes it. Early in her musical career, Hennies gravitated toward percussion instruments because of their physicality, but after years of playing in bands, her hearing is now altered by tinnitus. While she says her hearing doesn’t feel compromised, the increased ringing in her ears is a constant experience that further sensitizes her to sound.

Sarah Hennies and Melissa Smey in conversation -- Photo by Rob Davidson

Sarah Hennies and Melissa Smey in conversation — Photo by Rob Davidson

The world premiere of Spiral Organ, named for the area inside the cochlea that analyzes frequencies and transmits signals to the brain, had a percussive start. Chimes quickly overlapped with Laura Barger and Julia Den Boer’s synchronized piano clusters, pinging at the top of the instrument’s register like partially muted distant gongs. String harmonies faded in and out, Russell Greenberg and Sae Hashimoto eliciting waves of sound on vibraphones, and tiny bells pierced the texture of the Mivos Quartet’s occasionally uproarious unpitched bowing.

There was also some localized, high frequency sound that slowly dawned through the distracting buzzing and ringing onstage. It seemed like a tech problem at first, but it persisted. It drew more attention. Tim Munro’s program notes illuminated the answer: Hennies had created a simple four-note sine wave chord that sounds like what she hears with her tinnitus. Eventually, she replicated this harmony in the string quartet, granting public access to her real psychoacoustic experience.

The Mivos Quartet with Yarn/Wire -- Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre at Columbia University

The Mivos Quartet with Yarn/Wire — Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre at Columbia University

Despite this gesture toward the invisible and unknown, Hennies hasn’t always trusted her intuition in the creative process. It is a main question in her current practice. She finds it fascinating that there are vast parts of our subconscious mind we can’t access, that part of us is inaccessible and operating on its own logic. Her favorite phase of the creative process is hearing new works for the first time because that often uncovers new dimensions of her work that were percolating in her subconscious. She continues to find that her best material emerges when she allows herself to compose in this way, where not everything is immediately explained or understood.

In Borrowed Light, which had its U.S. premiere in this program, Hennies proceeded with only an evocative title and a single musical idea regarding string harmonics. What emerged was an hour-ish piece of short interlocking phrases for string quartet that faded away or stopped abruptly. Mivos Quartet would play four overlapping rhythms, strong and solid in repetition, even if the harmonies conveyed uncertainty and tension. When the string harmony changed after a pause, the subtle shifts felt like a blaze of glory; but even the most pulsating sections fizzled out into silence, and the entire piece became an epic decrescendo.

The Mivos Quartet performs for Sarah Hennies' Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre -- Photo by Rob Davidson

The Mivos Quartet performs for Sarah Hennies’ Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre — Photo by Rob Davidson

The piece holds as much silence as it does sound, and that silence was viscerally alive in the audience. Sometimes it was the inevitable effect of a lengthy decrescendo; sometimes silence was an abrupt halt or jarring interruption, and often the pauses were disconcertingly longer than expected. But they also became the only certain thing in the piece. The Mivos Quartet’s pristine articulation and elegant performance, bowing more and more quietly until the unpitched strings were barely perceptible and like a distant breeze, created a place worth lingering, a place without expectations.

In both Borrowed Light and Spiral Organ, Hennies creates textures of uncertainty without brutality. They provoke discomfort and also provide relief, maintaining a sense of interiority even as they connect to epic themes. Through silence, patience, and intuitive trust, Hennies reveals the depth of peace and sincerity of interest she grants to the unknown aspects of herself. We are invited to follow her lead, touch the unknown, and accept that what haunts us might become our great beauty.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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