Sarah Hennies is a composer and percussionist who describes her work as drawing on an “often gruelling, endurance-based performance practice”. It’s a brave musician, then, who commissions a piece to play from her, as there’s a good chance some of that gruel will come your way. Luckily, guitarist Cristián Alvear was looking for a challenge, and so we have “Orienting Response”, the first solo piece I’ve heard by Hennies that doesn’t involve percussion. It’s certainly a feat of endurance, but I’m left wondering how much of that is written into the composition and how much relates to Alvear’s own precise, measured performance style.
The album is divided into two parts, both of which are compositionally identical, each containing the same ten sections of repeated one- or two-bar patterns. These patterns are generally absorbing in their gentle flatness, maintaining a consistent volume, tempo, and structure for some three or four minutes, before moving on to the next section. The exception to this is a rapid strumming section, which Alvear begins quietly before building into a big crescendo. The patterns, although simple, are very diverse in terms of harmonic and rhythmic density, which gives the impression of there being more variation in tempo and volume between the sections than is in fact the case. A low-pitched, minor-key pattern sounds somehow slower than a higher-pitched major-key one, for example. Sometimes Alvear skips a silent beat or fluffs a note, but as per the composer’s instructions all of these ‘mistakes’ are left in rather than being edited out, underlining the intense concentration and precision required to perform the piece.
The consistency and steadiness displayed by Alvear in his performance of “Orienting Response” reminds me of the constant even tempo of a long-distance runner, a skill evoked in a not-too-dissimilar fashion by some of Laurence Crane’s compositions (for example his ‘Piano Piece no. 23 Ethiopian Distance Runners’ on the Apartment House “Chamber Works 1992-2009” release). At large public running events, the organisers will often hire ‘pacers’ whose job is to complete the run in a fixed time that other participants might be aiming for, a feat of consistency that to me seems even more impressive than completing the distance itself. I’m no runner, but as a cyclist I know the quiet joy of settling into a steady, focused rhythm, muscles straining but happy, brain absorbed in the ongoing physical activity. There’s something of that enjoyment to be found in listening to “Orienting Response” — a challenge not without its gruel, but also not without reward.