Duets for Solo Snare Drum
John Cage’s One^4 (1990) for solo drummer consists of a number of time ‘brackets’ for left and right hands during which a single sound should be produced, for as long or short a duration as the performer wishes within the confines of the time allocated to that bracket. Austin-based composer and performer Nick Hennies’ version for snare drum is the first time I’ve heard this piece, so I can’t really say how it compares to other interpretations. What is evident, however, is the way in which Hennies leaves plenty of space around each individual sound; for me the effect of these silences is to disrupt the habitual turning away from the sounds themselves to consider the narratives (beginnings-middles-ends) in which they may be embedded, allowing them to stand somewhat on their own. Of course, ‘sounds themselves’ and ‘silence’ are also both narratives, so the piece sort of loops back to the score upon which they both tug, but cannot escape from.
Six blasts of white noise from an FM radio form the basic structure of Kleine Trommel und UKW-Rauschen (“Conceptio”) (2000), composed by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger. Within this noise, snare drum rolls mirror the radio static in a disorienting and disconcerting act of mimesis. Hennies’ control of volume and timbre is spot-on here: the broadband hiss of the drum is almost indistinguishable from that of the radio, and it is this ‘almost’ that seduces and beguiles the ear with a delicious confusion of production with transmission.
However, the piece I like most from this release is Hennies’ own composition Cast and Work. The majority of this piece’s twenty-three minutes consists solely of a continuous roll on a snare drum with the snare off. Listen closely, and an astonishing variety of tones and timbres can be heard; my guess is that these variations are as much a result of unconscious micro-adjustments of muscles and posture as they are conscious decisions, the result of a performer duetting with his own involuntary body, like a kind of musical automatic writing. To my mind the addition of cacophonous strings from fellow Austin musicians Henna Chou, Brent Fariss and Vanessa Rossetto towards the end of the piece seems a little unnecessary, Hennies’ direct and instinctively intelligent engagement with his own performance practice being without doubt absorbing enough.
Three quite conceptual works, then, yet throughout something remains that is not concept: call it sound, or performing presence, or whatever, it is clearly perceptual and affective rather than conceptual in character, concept being the solo that is always heard as a duet. This is essential listening for anyone interested in thoughtful and compelling new music, and I’m excited to hear what Hennies’ new label Weighter Recordings has in store beyond this excellent debut release.