Sarah Hennies — Gather

Buttermilk Falls © Sarah Hennies
Buttermilk Falls © Sarah Hennies

Before I left my home of 10 years in Austin, TX and moved to Ithaca, NY, a friend asked me, “Is your work influenced by your surroundings?” I replied, “I don’t think so but I’ve lived in the same place for ten years. Ask me again in six months.” It was a few months later that I visited Buttermilk Falls State Park, a breathtaking system of waterfalls near Ithaca’s southern border, and immediately declared, “I must record this!” While I did find the sound of the waterfalls (barely distinct from white noise) to be powerful and compelling, I was particularly struck by the way adjacent waterfalls – some of them quite loud – were sonically discrete from one another. Each waterfall would become inaudible within a few feet of walking toward the next, making it possible to create my own spontaneous sound collage by choosing the direction and speed I walked toward and away from each subsequent waterfall. I attempted to recreate this multi-sensory experience by recording my composed walk up the gorge, with an awareness that my recording could suggest but not replicate the feeling of actually being in the park. Not long after that, I suddenly realized that I was transgender while attending an indie pop music festival in New York City.

As I worked with the Buttermilk Falls sounds, I became increasingly aware of my own presence and felt the need to respectfully but deliberately insert myself into the proceedings. A recording of nature implies that a person was in that location, which in turn implies that a field recording is actually much more than a simple audio document of a site. The park is, of course, more than just the sound of water and I am more than a hand holding a microphone. Certainly, I have chosen to hold the mic in a certain way in a certain place for a certain amount of time, and the site itself is ever-changing due to weather, time, and the eons-long process of erosion that created the park in the first place. If I’m not only recording water, what am I recording? If I am not only the one who presses the record button, what am I? Attempts to answer these seemingly simple questions quickly revealed a bewildering identity crisis as I realized that everything about this was far more complicated than it seemed.

My method of working generally involves letting the material dictate my decision making, and if I wanted to respectfully use this recording for music then I needed to figure out how to account for my own presence without, as Morton Feldman would say, “pushing the sounds around.” The way forward was to simply present the park and my self as concurrent beings, tied together only by our shared presence and the unspoken promise that we were both slowly wearing ourselves down until the day we finally vanish. I punctuated the waterfalls with the sound of my vibraphone, an instrument I have come to profoundly identify with after years of research and playing. The vibraphone’s seemingly neutral, sine-wave like tone holds in its depth a vast pool of sound with breathtaking immediacy and chaotic acoustic properties that quickly emerge with even the slightest examination. It’s a fine metaphor for my own existence. Furthermore, I have been a drummer and percussionist for almost 30 years and feel intimately tied to a practice that is largely made up of strange noises and awkward, cumbersome keyboard instruments.

Percussionists are an anomaly. Steven Schick rightly points out in his book The Percussionist’s Art that we are the only musicians who do not play, “an instrument.” Due to the increasingly varied whims of composers, since the early 20th century percussionists have been required to collect manufactured (drums, cymbals, marimbas, etc.) and “non-musical” found objects (clay pots, leaves, tin cans, etc.), often having to learn entirely new “set-ups” for each new piece of music. According to Schick, a glass bottle or metal pipe lacks a standardized performance practice that perhaps burdens a pianist with the weight of history and tradition. While this is partially true, there is absolutely a codified, historical standard for playing most percussion instruments; for instance, many people spend years perfecting their snare drum roll for their orchestra audition or finding the perfect tin can for that John Cage piece. Due to widely accepted standards of tone and technique, instruments with highly anomalous acoustic properties such as the woodblock, snare drum, triangle, crotales, and so on are relegated to a single predictable and expected use (Alvin Lucier’s solo for triangle is a rare pre-21st century exception). It’s this standard of tone and technique that has relegated these noise-making instruments of great depth and highly unusual acoustic properties to a life of convention and predictability that ignores and obscures their full identities.

Furthermore, percussion since the 1960s and into the present day has moved far beyond the standard definition of a percussionist as, “one who strikes objects.” The variety of tasks given to the percussionist in the world of avant-garde music is so vast and varied that a percussionist can expect to play almost anything that isn’t already another instrument (cello, flute, piano, etc.). If a percussionist could be called upon to play nearly any imaginable object in a piece of music – if what you can expect to find in a piece of percussion music is ANY object – then what defines a percussionist must be something more than simply the objects we play. If the role of a percussionist is clearly going far beyond, “one who strikes objects,” then what, precisely, is a percussionist? The question is deceptively complex and has no easy answer. Percussionists are unique not because we lack “an instrument,” but because we are the only instrumentalists with the freedom to define ourselves.

In this malleable space lies a commonality between percussion and queer/trans identities in that they are most easily defined by what they are not. Due to a seemingly infinite number of varied and nuanced queer identities, almost any definition of “queer” necessarily requires invoking its much simpler antithetical identity of “straight.” A queer person is not straight, a percussionist is not a cellist, a transgender person is not cisgender. Any simple answer one might give to the question of, “Well, what is it, then?” crumbles under even the slightest examination, assuming that, “everything else,” is not an acceptable answer.

What to do with the instrumentalist who has no instrument? What to do with the woman who is not accepted as a woman? One of our culture’s most deeply, intensely held beliefs – that we are immutably men and women – does not apply to trans people and, in turn, society has no space for us. Interacting with the world means perpetually navigating an existence that is dependent on the highly unreliable act of others seeing us as we see ourselves, either to relieve often constant dysphoria or to avoid quite immediate questions of personal safety. Trans people are required to constantly re-assert and prove that we are what we say we are, both to the world and to ourselves. There is intense, unrelenting societal pressure to not be transgender. It is in this spirit that I am reminded of the pulsing, vibrating, screaming woodblock that says to its listener, “Look at me. I am here. I am not what you think I am.”

“Gather” is the process of discovering that finding one’s place in the world is both breathtakingly joyful and profoundly terrifying. It is the acceptance that feeling joy and terror is preferable to feeling neither. I now think back to the question, “is your work influenced by your surroundings?” with a laugh and a sigh.

— Special thanks to Greg Stuart for informing the ideas in this essay and whose work and friendship is a continued source of inspiration.

— Sarah Hennies performs at Fylkingen on Friday 10 February 2017 as part of Second Edition. Buy tickets/festival pass here.