Courtesy of Sarah Hennies

April 7, 2016

A Conversation with Composer, Percussionist and Label Owner Sarah Hennies

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Sarah Hennies is an experimental percussionist and composer who runs her own record label, Weighter Recordings. Besides recording and performing her own solo works, she plays in local percussion trio Meridian and has played in various rock bands throughout her career, existing “somewhere between the experimental world and the underground punk world.” Having moved to Ithaca two years ago from Austin, Texas, Sarah will be taking part in Ithaca Underground’s Naked Noise #7 on Saturday for the first time, playing the vibraphone. Her latest album, Gather & Release, came out on April 5.


The Sun: Tell me about yourself as a musician, what do you do and what’s your involvement in the local music scene?

Sarah Hennies:I’m a percussionist and a composer. I mostly play experimental music and mostly play my own music. I do occasionally play works by other people — I’ve recorded a lot of music by some well-known composers — but I mostly focus on playing my own stuff. I’ve also been a drummer in rock bands for over 20 years. I thought I might stop doing that, because I lived in Austin for 10 years before I moved here and was super involved in the music scene there. When I moved here I was just like, “Okay, my solo thing is happening pretty well now, I don’t need to be in bands anymore.” And within a month I was in two bands here. So I’m somewhere between the experimental world and the underground punk world. I had heard about Bubba [Crumine, President of Ithaca Underground’s Board of Trustees] before I moved here from some of my friends who were in the band Zorch, and when I was looking up whether there was live music in Ithaca, Ithaca Underground (IU) was the first thing that came up.

Sun: How have you found the music scene in Ithaca compared to Austin?

S.H.: I’m really into it. Obviously it’s smaller, but as I’ve told a bunch of people, part of why I was losing interest in Austin was because it was just getting too big. There are good shows here all the time, but I’m also a lot more willing to watch something that I might not like that much here because the shows are so much more fun. It feels really supportive and it seems like people are super invested in watching music.

Sun: So you just had an album come out on April 5, Gather & Release. What were some of your sources of inspiration for the album?

S.H.: The album is two pieces, they’re both about half an hour long. I wrote both of them in Ithaca, one about a year ago, one more recently, less than six months ago. The backing track of most of the first piece is a recording I made walking up Buttermilk Falls with an audio recorder in my hand. Someone had asked me right before I moved here, “Do you find that you’re affected by your surroundings?” and I was like, “No, not really.” And then within a month of living here I was like, “I’ve got to make a waterfall piece!” And so both pieces are for vibraphone with some other elements. The piece with the Buttermilk Falls recording came about because, when I was walking, I noticed that you could walk up the path in a way such that as you got farther away from one waterfall, the sound disappeared really fast. It was sort of like live mixing almost. And so I just thought that would be a cool thing to make a piece with.

The other piece I played for the first time in January of last year at an IU show, it’s another piece for vibraphone, and it also uses a type of sound called bilateral stimulation. That’s an alternating left-right percussive sound that is an element in this type of therapy called EMDR that’s used to treat trauma and different things like that. It’s this weird talk therapy that lets you literally let go of things. That’s not what my piece is doing, but I thought it would be cool to use that as a musical element. And there are other things on it, I could go on for a while.

Sun: Can you pinpoint what it is that drew you to become a percussionist?

S.H.: I have no idea, I was drawn to music really intensely when I was really young. All of my toys were music-related toys, and when I was five I asked my parents for piano lessons. I think they thought I was too young. And then when I was nine I asked them for drum lessons and they said okay — I probably wouldn’t shut up about it otherwise. At the time I don’t know what drew me to drums but there’s lots of reasons now why I feel like I picked the right instrument. I’m really into the way sound can be physical in a way that you can actually feel it, and percussion instruments are some of the only ones that can do that without being amplified or electronic. They’re really visceral and powerful, and I’m interested in those types of sounds — things that are really immediate, and you experience it in more than one way than just hearing it. That’s true of everything, but it feels more physical or something with percussion.

Sun: Do you have any overarching philosophy or approach to the way you make music?

S.H.: Not really. There’s this composer Alvin Lucier who does tons of stuff with echoes, he has all these piece that are about echoes. Several years ago someone was telling me this story about how people always ask, “What is he so obsessed with echoes?” And my friend was like, “He just is, he just goes into a room and starts snapping because he wants to know about all of its echoes.” And that made me sort of re-think my approach to making music to be about: what are the things that I’m just drawn to? What am I just naturally interested in? It’s this unexplainable type of thing where, once I started doing that, it opened up all kinds of other stuff, this weird world that I’m still moving around in.

Sun: I also understand that you have your own record label, Weighter Recordings — what made you decide to start it?

S.H.: It’s a really small label, and originally I only started it to release my own work. Around the same time, around 2010 or so, I had like five albums of music done, and the whole process of asking people to release my work just makes me crazy. I just hate, especially if it’s not someone I know already, I just really hate the process of being like, “Hi, total stranger, will you please spend money on me?” And also it was a speed thing, I was making so much stuff, I was worried that by the time it came out on someone else’s label I wouldn’t be interested in it anymore. So the first release was a CD of mine, and in the time it took me to get the first thing out I just kind of stumbled into finding other places for everything else. I also ran a label in the early 2000s, I released three things and then it kind of fizzled out. But I like running a label, I really like telling people about music that they might not have heard of. The label that I’m doing now is basically the good version of the old label I was doing in college. I’ve released five things now and only two of them were mine.

Sun: Let’s talk about Naked Noise. What’s your role going to be?

S.H.: This is my first Naked Noise. I’ll be playing vibraphone, and a lot of what I do with the vibraphone is really long, drawn out textures and events. So I’m just going to show up and plan to do the types of sounds that I normally play, but with the assumption that I’m probably going to do something different also. I honestly have no idea what to expect because I haven’t been to one, I was out of town the last two years for both of them. I’m super excited about it, and the group of people they have this year is full of really awesome people.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]