005: Sarah Hennies

Our writers on Sarah Hennies' tribute to Prince

Welcome (back) to Organ Grinder, an experimental music newsletter edited by Jinhyung Kim—it’s been a while! This one’s got blurbs on Extra Time, composed by Sarah Hennies and performed by Andy Meyerson, released October 25 on Hasana Editions.

Organ Grinder is still looking for contributors! If you want to write with us, shoot Jinhyung an email at organgrindermusic@gmail.com.

Round Table

Our writers’ thoughts on a new release. This section will be the core of each issue.

Sarah Hennies with Andy Meyerson, Extra Time (Hasana Editions, 2020)

From Bandcamp: “Working with a variety of musical, sociopolitical, and psychological issues, the American composer/percussionist Sarah Hennies often explores queer & trans identity, love, intimacy, psychoacoustics, and percussion. For this volume, she invited the San Francisco-based percussionist and co-founder of queer nü-metal collective COMMANDO, Andy Meyerson to collaborate and to actualize some of the scores. All pieces in Extra Time are intricate reworked versions of various elements of well-known songs by Prince, in an acoustic percussion-work situation. For example, in the album centerpiece ‘Kisses,’ the percussionist is instructed to perform four simultaneous tempos while sometimes independently speeding up or slowing down individual hands and feet. During this already a near-impossible task, the percussionist must also attempt to toss several objects into a metal bucket placed increasingly far away from where the percussionist is seated. This volume could be Hennies’ conceptual method of re-constructing popular culture while testing the limits of technical virtuosity at the same time.”

Purchase Extra Time on Bandcamp.

Chloe Liebenthal: I’m not even going to pretend to know what’s going on throughout Extra Time. There’s a lot of different sounds, which I am told are loosely based upon various Prince songs, and lots of very interesting artistic concepts behind it all. Attempting to puzzle out what those concepts are, however, and how they actually relate to the sounds being created has led me towards a litany of dead ends.

So let’s talk about Prince!

Has there been another pop star—before or since—so fantastic? The recent Sign ☮ the Times boxed set proved that Prince had dust bunnies under his bed more sonically enriching than most artists’ entire discographies. I’ve been really enjoying DJ UMB’s recent twitter threads that delve deep into the tangled threads of Prince’s personal mythology, musical personas, and multifaceted approach to songwriting; they’re helping me appreciate old favorites in a brand-new light. I also found this Reverb article about Prince’s radical drum machine techniques insightful. Really, any well-considered writing on Prince is guaranteed to draw my attention. After all, Prince was brilliant in a way nobody else has ever even approached. 

And that’s why, despite basically just being baffled by Extra Time, I feel a certain affection towards it. At the end of the day, we’re all just Prince fans, writing Twitter threads or recording modern-classical reinterpretations or even just dancing alone in our bedrooms to those immortal grooves. I may not quite understand Extra Time, but I’d like to think I share the same passion that animates it.

Jinhyung Kim: I’ll confess: I know embarrassingly little of Prince’s discography. Something like the new super-deluxe Sign o’ the Times box set might fill me with awe, but I can’t appreciate it in the same way a die-hard fan could; it’d be like the difference between reading the diary of a casual acquaintance and that of your best friend. That’s probably why, going into Extra Time, I didn’t have to deal with the added complication of figuring out how it’s a Prince tribute album, even after having read the liner notes. I say “added” ‘cause, first and foremost, I need to figure out how I feel about Extra Time as a Sarah Hennies album.

Its being a Hennies album, however, is completely transparent—it fits into compositional modes she’s worked in for years. On some cuts, minimal mallet percussion produces hypnotic textural (“Crazy”) and rhythmic (“Rain”) uniformity, with minute variation as well as gradual structural change. “Kisses” is an endurance test whose tension arises from being perpetually on the verge between remarkable and ridiculous: at times, I put myself under a spell trying to parse some frankly insane polyrhythmic calisthenics; at others, I laughed at the absurdity of it all. It’s a testament to Andy Meyerson’s chops that he can make “Kisses” feel both meticulously controlled and like it’s about to fall apart at any second.

While my baseline enjoyment of this sort of conceptual minimalism is pretty high, I don’t really see myself coming back to Extra Time. On one hand, its tracks are a bit on the short side for a composer whose works reach 20, 40, or even 90 minutes in length; this is where mesmerization and development take hold. The material on Extra Time, however, ranges from 5 to 16 minutes long. I also don’t think there’s enough timbral variety to furnish four distinct tracks—a cursory listen to Casts (another Hennies record with shorter compositions) should show what I mean.

What the album lacks is a certain visceral quality that emerges from the superhuman ability and focus required to conjure and maintain Hennies’ sound-worlds; this takes time in multiple phases, dynamism at an atomic level, or both, to manifest outwardly. We don’t get much of either. But (super-)physicality is crucial to Hennies’ work, especially as performed music—it animates the human struggle at the heart of her pieces. I don’t care whether a composition is “conceptual,” or an idea in essence, but that idea needs to justify taking up 5 to 16 minutes rather than a few sentences. Despite its consummate performances, Extra Time lacks that justification more than most other albums under the composer’s belt.

Zachariah Cook: I double checked and yep, Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution is included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Prince is in good company—the registry also includes early Edison experiments, presidential speeches, and works by the likes of Stravinsky and the Village People. Now, have any of the registry’s other inductees inspired such galvanizing love as to lead 21st century artists into deconstructing their work while disposing of a bomb and performing backflips through radioactive hoops all in a high stakes game of The Floor is Lava? Didn’t think so.

Extra time is exactly what it sounds like Hennies and Meyerson had on their hands when undertaking this conceptual endeavor. (Hennies’ other 2020 piece The Reinvention of Romance is a real stunner, though.) Maybe in a decade, when Extra Time is eligible for inclusion, the Library will see fit to induct it into the registry as a companion piece to Purple Rain—as a way of documenting for future generations that people LOVED Prince. Not least of all experimental musicians.

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