Most of the work previously heard from Nick Hennies and his label Weighter Recordings takes the form of solo percussion, though many of his ‘solos’ subtly play with the expectations and assumptions of solo performance. His new release on the recently-reformed Quakebasket Records pairs another solo piece, “Settle”, with a large-scale ensemble work entitled “Expenditures”.
I have described “Settle” as a ‘solo’, but it is in fact written for 2-3 vibraphone players, with each part being recorded by Hennies and then mixed together via the wonders of multi-tracking. The uncertainty as to precisely how many players would be needed to perform the piece live belies the ambiguity that emerges from Hennies’ performance technique: his trademark ringing chordal ostinatos create an overlapping manifold of oscillations, with tones fading in and out of audible range as performed notes and contingent resonances mingle indistinguishably. A ghostly half-riff, half-melody and half-echo, adds an unsettling, almost agitated quality, and the use of dynamics also helps to shape the abstract field of sound into something more expressive. Absurdly simple as premise yet dazzlingly complex as percept, “Settle” sounds too rich to be a solo, yet too bare to be anything but.
The key concept of “Expenditures” would seem to relate to the title of both the piece and the album: apart from Hennies’ vibraphone, the rest of the players in this seven-member ensemble produce strained, grunting timbres that seem to sonify the very notion of effort. The ‘work’ of the work — not only that of the musicians, but also that of the sounds themselves as they jostle and grind against each other in a crowded acoustic space — is heard as the music’s content; the line in the sand between the mimicking of expenditure and actual, energy-depleting (or transferring) work becomes so trampled and scuffed as to become completely untraceable.
Yet as indistinguishable as this line is, you know it must be there, and that’s what makes the piece and Hennies’ work in general so irresistibly beguiling — this thought that you should be able to tell the sleight of hand from the hand, the rabbit from the hat. Because the seductive myth that music doesn’t represent anything meets its final deconstruction in the act of performance, Hennies’ music sets to work actualising this unravelling that is already in play, bringing together the physical, the perceptual and the conceptual. “Work” demonstrates this process in both ‘solo’ and ensemble formats, showing that while his percussion work is refined and focused, the ideas underpinning it have much broader application. For anyone interested in thoughtful and thought-provoking new composition, this is indispensable.