UK-based label Consumer Waste describes itself as “a low-impact imprint for the publication of contemporary experimental music”, utilising recycled materials for its simple yet strikingly distinctive handmade packaging. For their latest release they have looked across the Atlantic to Nick Hennies, an American percussionist and composer known for his interpretations of music by Jürg Frey, Kunsu Shim, and Alvin Lucier, among others, as well as for his own works. The full title of the record is “Flourish (for vibraphone duo)”, and while Hennies is listed as the sole performer, the fact that two vibraphones are heard simultaneously does not necessarily imply two separate takes, as playing two of the instruments at the same time is possible at least in theory.
Hennies’ composition consists of several segments of several minutes each, performed one after the other in a single long track, with plenty of silence between them. Each segment combines the sounds of the two vibraphones such that unexpected resonances and rhythmic oscillations are produced, in a manner reminiscent of Steve Reich’s renowned ‘phase music’. While Reich’s work itself has arguably played a role in establishing a place for tuned percussion in contemporary music, Hennies’ approach, while superficially similar in its effect, diverges significantly from the precedent set by the older composer. One feels that Reich, whose works from the Sixties and Seventies were often expressly concerned with the psychoacoustic effects of particular rhythms and harmonies, was never able to free his music from suggestions of representational function, with its attendant tensions, resolutions, and transcendences (nor was it necessarily ever his intention to do so). Hennies, on the other hand, is able to create the convincing impression of a music gutted of all but the very barest of minimums, the occurrence of a sound in an abstract, contextless time and space. To put it another way, it seems somehow necessary that Reich’s phase music should always require at least two musicians, and that in fact if there were only one it would be necessary to create a second spectral/specular one in order to produce the required continuum of tension-resolution-tension; with “Flourish” the question of whether this ‘duo’ is the result of two simultaneous performances, a solo performance on two instruments simultaneously, or multitrack sleight-of-hand seems impossible to judge from its acoustic character alone. In the final section of furious metallic clinks and ringing tones, one could forget that one is listening to any kind of instrument at all — or to any number of players.
To me, the notion of an ‘essence of sound’ or of ‘sounds in themselves’ seems a tired old horse to flog — much more interesting, in my view, is the question of who performs in “Flourish” (which is why I keep coming back to it). The music is undoubtedly the product of a highly sophisticated and refined performance technique, yet the sounds somehow seem to happen all by themselves, as if the performer had perfected the fabled art of withdrawing completely from the scene of performance. I’m not referring here to the classic theatrical suspension of disbelief whereby the performer, with the complicity of the audience, hides behind a subjectivity that is not his or her own; rather, the impression is that no trace of a performing subject presents itself at all, not even as absence. What remains, of course, is the subjectivity of the listener. And it is here, I suppose, that Hennies reveals himself to be closer to Cage than to Reich, in that he appears to stand on the side of the listener, listening, as the music happens — as if his concern was not so much what he might be able to say through his music, but rather what he himself might hear if he played in a certain way. The vibraphone sounds heard on “Flourish” are interesting for their timbral and acoustic qualities, certainly. But the record is also a demonstration of a certain way of thinking through performing and composing, one that starts and ends with listening — and one that perhaps encourages a different way of listening from its audience, too. “Flourish” is a release well worth seeking out, and I look forward to hearing more from this talented and thoughtful composer and performer.
– Nathan Thomas for Fluid Radio