Nick Hennies, Work
- Settle [10:23]
- Expenditures [40:28]
Nick Hennies lives in Ithaca, New York. He was formerly based in Austin, Texas and is perhaps best known for his explorations of the vibrational properties of woodblocks. The very informative promotional literature for this album tells us that ‘Nick Hennies makes music from work – and work into music. Simply put, work is process and one of Hennies’ goals as a composer is to shape the possibilities of a given instrument as well as its sonic imprint. The result is austere, lyrical solo percussion music that focuses on resonance, natural overtones, room acoustics and slowly developing structure.’ We are also told that Hennies likes to explore quite a wide variety of musical approaches in his creative output.
Musical people tend to have all sorts of values attached to their listening and experience of music, both in their own music and that of others. I’m no different and I tend to value some sort of consistency in an album of work. I should say though that in the absence of a dialogue with Nick himself I can only go on what I have to listen to. So for reasons of my own I found one piece to be of great interest and the other less so. Others will differ in their perceptions, obviously. There are two pieces, the ten minute and the forty minute. To my ears the ten minute piece Settle speaks of an almost environmental approach to listening, restraint in execution, intense concentration, personal discovery and even expression. The album is worth purchasing for these qualities alone. A solo vibraphone gently but firmly sets out a simple shifting ostinato which flirts with arpeggiation. A well placed occasional shimmer in the background and a harmonic sheen in the later stages of the piece lend interest to the austerity of the foreground. It’s a simple as that. There’s no fatigue in the piece owing to the diatonicism of the instrument (I assume it’s equally tempered). The beatings and combination tones are rich yet tightly controlled in that they don’t overpower the clearly percussive nature of the work. The inharmonicity of the metallophone does its work beautifully. It’s somewhere in the depth and strength of concentration on the sound of the music that Nick Hennies has something going.
The longer piece Expenditures is for ensemble and vibraphone. From the promotional literature we are told that ‘Here Hennies is joined by several Austin new music regulars, including bassists Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Brent Fariss, drummer Chris Cogburn, clarinettist Jon Doyle, trombonist Steve Parker and violinist Travis Weller. As Hennies puts it, the goal of the piece is for the musicians to play sustained tones on the same pitches as the vibraphone and then eventually to play ‘work music,’ where the players each come up with their own phrase to be repeated until the end of the piece.’ Expenditures begins like Settle with a solo vibraphone ostinato, drawing the listener into the same world of restraint and concentration. Then the spell is broken as it shifts from being a listening environment in which ‘sound’ overrides ‘music’ and process overrides gesture to an environment where the history of Western music seems to rudely intervene. Distinct ‘contemporary’ structures take over and a more analytical frame of mind is required to process the stream of musical information as other instruments begin to weave formal patterns and create ever changing timbral structures. For me this is too much too soon, though the last minute or so returns to a more contemplative mood in which the vibraphone and a low drum succeed in creating something of the simplicity and strong sonic interest which gave the fist piece so much of its elegance.