Bent Frequency: Sarah Hennies Residency

Bent Frequency and the Georgia State Center for Collaborative and International Arts brought composer Sarah Hennies to Atlanta for a brief residency that included a couple of pretty amazing concerts of her music. Friday night’s concert was held at Plaza Theatre and featured Contralto for video and chamber ensemble consisting of violin, viola, cello, double bass, and a variety of both traditional and novel percussion instruments. The video features eight transgender women going through a series of vocal exercises that are designed to help transwomen feminize their voices. The women are featured one at a time and the only time that their voices overlap are moments when Hennies mixes the sound of them singing their highest or lowest notes together to create a chord. The live ensemble served as a sort of accompaniment, the effect making me think of the relationship between a piano accompaniment and the soloist in a sonata. And I don’t know exactly why it made me think of a sonata rather than a cantata despite featuring human voice. Perhaps in the way that it was edited, the film felt a little more like an instrument being played by Hennies (as editor) than a chorus or series of vocal soloists.

Hennies’ approach to the film was very interesting. Instead of featuring people who have gone or are going through the training, she recruited mostly people whom she knew who hadn’t worked with it at all. Their unfamiliarity with the material was obvious and as the film progressed, many of them began reacting to it as though it were silly or absurd. It made the piece come across as critical of the program, though not necessarily in an entirely disparaging way. The overall work seemed to be focused on examining the gender norms of voice and any criticism of the voice feminization program seemed mostly to serve to draw attention to the problems of voice faced by transwomen. In discussing the work with the audience afterward, Hennies pointed out that a lot of the phrases that are included in the exercises seem to have a lot of gender implications that may be seen as insensitive to what transwomen are going through in trying to present as women. I found it to be an effective piece, thoughtful, thought-provoking, and very engaging.

Saturday’s concert at Kopleff Recital Hall began with Everything Else for a variety of novel instruments. Hennies’ notes on the piece note how both “percussion” and “queer” are defined by what they are not rather than what they are. They are “everything else” that cannot be easily categorized. The six performers each had a toy woodwind and some kind of household object with which to make sounds. The main instrument for each musician was their respective household object, with the toy woodwind being sounded briefly here and there. Although it wasn’t bad, I found the concept behind the piece more interesting than its execution. It did go on a little longer than my attention seemed to accept and I found myself thinking about the fact that going to shows like this on a Friday night is a big part of why I’m still single at my age. By the end, my main thoughts were of the insufficiency of the performer’s handling of the toy accordion and the fact that I’ve only heard an accordion in a concert hall once and that was for a piece for bandoneon.1

If Everything Else couldn’t hold my attention, the next two pieces made up for it by being incredibly interesting and engaging. Psalm 2 was for a solo snare drum. The percussionist struck the head of the drum at a steady rhythm of about four beats per second for about 10 minutes or so with the snare wires disengaged. The tone and timbre were changed throughout the piece by adjusting where the strikes landed and also by touching various parts of the rim and head with the hand and, towards the end, a wooden block. The effect was that the reverberations of each beat melded with the others creating waves of different sounds. The resonance was pretty wild and surprisingly varied: sometimes sounding like a plane, sometimes like something out of an 80’s video game, and others like a variety of white noises.

The final piece on the program was Fleas, orchestrated for six thrift-store bells played by six students placed up and down the sides of the audience along with a solo vibraphone, which was played by Hennies herself. The work began with the bells tinkling in a rather pretty manner around the audience. The vibraphone came in with steady, soft playing of single low notes with heavily padded mallets2 at a very steady rhythm so that the reverberations combined into a kind of low moaning sound. As the piece progressed, the bells became more and more insistent and raucous while the vibes moved higher up the scale. As Hennies reached the middle pitches of the instrument, she switched to a lighter padded mallet such that the individual strikes could be heard more directly within the reverberations and it came out sounding less like moaning and more like a kind of crying out, seeming more panicked to me as the pitch grew higher and higher. Towards the end, two mallets became four and the sounds from the vibraphone became more controlled and varied, coming closer to melody. Nearly at the end, the bells were physically dropped, one at a time, onto the floor and the vibes began a slow fade out. The progression of the piece was almost like a slow descent into a painful physical condition, moaning as it began, screaming as it became more intense, and finally gaining control of oneself and, ultimately, the situation. Overall, the effect was kinda wow. Or very wow, really. It was a pretty amazing thing to experience.

1. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I did hear a hyper-accordion played in Symphony Hall once. I’m not entirely sure that should count, though, because I was mostly thinking of the timbre of the acoustic instrument. back
2. They were thick and round like bass mallets and at one point I ended up giggling a little because they looked like googly eyes over a big frowny face made by vibes. back

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