Nick Hennies · Flourish

Nick Hennies · Flourish

Nick Hennies is fast establishing himself as one of the most deft interpreters of contemporary solo percussion repertoire. His realisations are known for their rigorous attention to detail. Flourish is the latest in a series of works composed by Hennies for vibraphone that expand the sonic vocabulary of the instrument. Using mostly conventional playing techniques and a variety of mallets, two players move around a single instrument performing blocks of stationary sound. Through consistency and regularity in performance, the sounds are free and open up beautifully complex sound worlds from Nick’s simple repetitive playing.


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.

An admirable display of discipline
- Canto 1. The most beautiful clock I’ve ever heard.

in which one can almost hear Hennies’ teeth clench,
- Canto 2. Like a cold cup of coffee and a slice of watermelon.

behind which, one can almost see the speechless King of Denmark,
- Canto 3. I stop listening and wait for a curve.

the mercurial and singular figure sat on stage, under the prospering wings of flowers,
- Canto 4. A bright complexion, a Polaroid of difficult decision and chemical process.

flourish is the evolving shimmer as he drops inflorescence architecture onto the bars below,
- Canto 5. The hunched and intense craft of eyes that never blink.

flourish is Hennies’ work getting even lighter.
- Canto 6. Everything heads straight up.

Percussionist Nick Hennies is already ‘hot’ for a while, at least in this office, with his strong, minimalist percussion music. Here he plays vibraphone, or perhaps two of them, as it’s subtitled “for vibraphone duo”. I assume he plays along with himself, or maybe he’s got four hands these days? Not that you can actually note this easily, as in this minimalist piece, things sound sometimes like it’s been played with just one hand. The whole piece is divided into various sections – although it comes as one on the actual CD. I haven't got a clue how he does it, but on one hand there is quick rhythmic material (and how he does that is not a mystery of course), but there is also ringing singing overtone material in this music, which he may achieve through rubbing the sticks on the surface of the vibraphone, or perhaps by playing his vibraphone with a violin bow. In his piece he moves between these two – the hitting and the bowing – sometimes alone, and sometimes together with each other. Think Steve Reich, but less the melody. Keeping rhythm in a straight, fixed line, while adding these beautiful overtones, gradually staying with just overtones and then moving back to the more rhythmic sound, but then in a higher range on the instrument. A most delightful and beautiful work of utterly fine minimal music of the highest concentration.

In the last several years, Hennies has performed, among others, numerous pieces by Alvin Lucier, so it’s not a total surprise to encounter that decided influence in “Flourish (for vibraphone duo)”. What may be a bit surprising is how fresh and alive and downright absorbing the music is despite, or because of, this influence. Though for duo, the work can apparently be performed by a single musician; in either case he/they move about the vibraphone, playing defined sequences at different points. Within each segment, there’s a consistent rhythm, faster or slower, the initial pair of mallets generally joined by the second, resulting in shimmering patterns of overtones and room-molded sounds. There’s a clear lineage to works like Lucier’s “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas” though Hennies dispenses with sine tones and doubles the acoustic instrumentation. As in those pieces, one teeters ever so delicately on that divide between the aesthetic and the science experiment if one chooses to make the distinction (I do this less so than many, I’m guessing, but still there are times in Lucier’s music where the sheer experiential data outweighs the beauty). The transparent presentation of sonic phenomena can be off-putting to some but, in this instance, I find the results gorgeous, mysterious and compelling enough in themselves, more than enough to sensuously wallow in.

(While writing about this release, I had occasion to see an in-store concert by Tom Johnson, performing (with Carol Robinson) two of his works, “Music with Mistakes” and “Questions”. It provided a fairly clear offset to Hennies’ music insofar as it wandered rather far into the science – actually, in this instance, mathematics – end of things, any emergent properties all but evaporating. In fairness, Johnson eschews such emergence but, as intellectually interesting as some of the night’s sounds were, a good part of me longed to hear something along the lines of “Flourish”).

Right from the start, those great bent tones entrance, more so when mirrored a fraction of a second apart; you know you’re hearing an iterated acoustical phenomenon yet/and you could listen for hours. The work is more chronicle than narrative, each segment a kind of time period within which something happens (what isn’t?), the sequencing taking care not to leave any two overly akin portions adjacent to each other but otherwise with no hierarchical sense. Surprises abound. When the rapid-fire second series begins, at first it sounds ordinary enough but one gradually picks up layers and patterns that weren’t overt on first blush and when the second pair of mallets emerges, the spectral sheen produces waves of giddy sonic glee. Each section is given several minutes to gestate, allowing the listener to piece together relationships within the sounds and there are plenty to discover. It closes with a near-silent episode, sounding as if one is hearing the music from a house two doors down. A wonderful recording, automatic for fans of Hennies or the lineage of which he’s a part.

Je ne sais pas combien de disques j'ai entendu avec Nick Hennies (pas des masses en tout cas), ni depuis combien de temps je croise ses enregistrements, mais une chose est sûre, c'est que c'est la première fois avec Flourish que j'entends une œuvre écrite et interprétée par cet excellent percussionniste. Et putain que c'est bon ! car si ses interprétations et ses improvisations m'ont laissé de bons souvenirs, voire très bons, cette composition se révèle quant à elle aussi riche que prometteuse.

Ce n'est pourtant pas grand chose cette composition : deux fois trois blocs de sons (plus une coda) pour vibraphone, séparés par un silence ; une structure simple et symétrique qui évolue par blocs successifs. Les blocs 1, 2, 4 et 5 jouent sur le décalage entre les baguettes, décalages temporels ou écarts entre les différentes baguettes utilisées (dures, médiums ou douces), tandis que les blocs 3 et 6 jouent plus sur les nappes, les résonatrices du vibraphone et l'espace. Seulement, tout est écrit et joué avec une sensibilité incroyable et une attention minutieuse : de la précision métronomique des premiers blocs basés sur des répétitions rigoureuses et obsédantes, à l'aspect inouï et inattendu des nappes sonores finales, jusqu'à la coda qui bénéficie d'une prise son très lointaine, ce qui la rend d'autant plus énigmatique et fantastique.

De plus, Nick Hennies prend ici le temps qu'il faut pour dévoiler toute la richesse de chaque bloc sonore. Au bout de cinq-six minutes, de mystérieuses harmoniques finissent toujours par s'enchevêtrer de manière énigmatique, comme si Hennies jouait une musique "spectrale" mais de manière naturelle. Le jeu sur les résonances et les harmoniques tisse un corps complexe et riche d'harmoniques et de variations microtonales, tout en faisant attention à la façon dont ce corps (une sorte de "réseau spectral") remplit et/ou produit un certain espace sonore.

Une très belle composition et une interprétation rigoureuse et minutieuse de cette étude pour vibraphone, harmoniques et espace sonore. Conseillé.

Music for vibraphone duo. Although how Texas percussionist/composer Nick Hennies manages to perform it unaccompanied isn’t specific – Consumer Waste provide no background; you get a CD-R pegged inside a cardboard cover and no more – but Flourish’s discreet sonic splendour quickly overrides the logistics. Stretched over a duration of 36 minutes, six processes play themselves out and simply stop. No connecting tissue, no transitional material: this is structure as anti-structure, each segment suspended in jellied silence. The first sound you hear is counterintuitive to how those schooled in Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson would imagine the vibraphone. Notes bend and the initial attack and decay is phased in loops like Steve Reich on a budget (as these days he ought to be), and sound begins to occupy sculptural dimensions. The second sequence is busier and at first something of a shock – how could Hennies be so structurally casual as to merely meander from one thing to the next? But as your ears drown in overtones you understand – it’s all about the sound.