Gather and Release
Sarah Hennies’ new album for Coppice’s label Category of Manifestation begins with a soft bed of white noise, out of which emerges a resonant high-pitched tone. The timbre of the noise subtly shifts in waves, suggesting the circular brushing of the skin of a snare drum. Varying between left and right channels, the sound is soothing and entrancing — the liner notes suggest that the technique is related to a form of therapy called bilateral stimulation. A deep thump introduces a sustained bass tone, and the intensity slowly begins to rise as ringing, repeatedly struck vibraphone notes are added. The piece reaches fever pitch before giving way to a sharp high-pressure water leak of sculpted noise. Many of the sounds here are familiar from previous Hennies releases (under the name Nick), but while the experimentation with a particular way of playing percussion is still there, “Gather” sounds more considered and fully-formed as a piece than any of the Ithaca-based composer’s previous work.
Second track “Release” opens in much the same minimal, relaxed vein, but takes an unexpected turn about halfway through. A steady metronome click, seemingly mic’ed so closely that each end of its swing sounds in a different channel, is underpinned by a vague, ambiguous noise looming in the background. After a while the background noise fades away, and as the metronome continues to click a middle-aged man with a broad American drawl (I imagine him as having a fantastically bushy white beard) begins to recite a sad poem about a mother’s grief and regret. In the liner notes the man is identified as Hennies’ grandfather. His voice is almost drowned out by squeals and squeaks, perhaps made by rubbing a drum skin. Once the poem is finished the metronome is replaced by a walking beat on a bass drum, and we are back in the familiar Hennies realm of ostinatos and ringing vibraphone notes, as if nothing unusual had happened.
Initially I was a bit thrown by the poetry recitation — as usual I started listening without reading the liner notes first, and had no idea what was coming — but after a few listens it started to make a bit more sense. Hennies has long been interested in psychedelic and US underground music, as performed for example by her previous band The Weird Weeds, as well as in the Cagean experimentalism with which I generally associate her solo output. The close, sustained attention to sounds afforded by her use of ostinatos doesn’t necessarily need to exclude more narrative-driven material, and after the initial jarring reaction the combination of the two comes to feel more balanced, especially in relation to the harsher noise used towards the end of “Gather”. With this album, Hennies shows how experimental music can be personal and intense, without forsaking a thoughtful respect for sounds — it’s another engaging and intriguing listen from the percussionist.