Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Ig Henneman                                                                                                       Francesca Patella©2010

One of Morton Feldman’s more whimsically titled compositions is “The Viola in My Life.”  It is a piece that so resonated with the composer when it was penned in 1970 that he wrote three more versions of it in what for was for him rapid succession. Feldman was clearly inspired by the viola, an instrument whose distinctively veiled timbres are very much the product of its disproportions to the other members of the violin family: though it is only 1/7th larger than the violin, the viola is tuned a fifth lower; by contrast, the cello is twice the size of a violin, but tuned just an octave below the viola. Subsequently, the viola perfectly fulfilled two contrary needs for Feldman: it provided the sonic equivalent of the flat surfaces he admired in the paintings of Philip Guston and Mark Rothko, while giving voice in this piece to a rare rhapsodic impulse. Feldman achieved a carefully crafted duality for the viola in the piece that is unique in his monumental body of work: while the viola is ostensibly in the foreground, it is not at the expense of the unity among instruments that Feldman so rigorously maintained in his compositions.

Still, the viola was not in Feldman’s life very long. The instrument seems to inspire dalliances like Feldman’s or the melancholy that permeates Bartók’s Viola Concerto, composed as he was being sapped by leukemia, but not long-term commitment. That’s why the music of the Dutch composer-improviser Ig Henneman is so intriguing, as she has placed the viola at the center of a quarter-century’s work, currently celebrated by the release of Collected (Wig), a 6-disc retrospective, and the debut tour of Kindred Spirits, a dozen new compositions scored for her new sextet. While Henneman’s music differs from Feldman’s on so many counts, there is a noteworthy consensus between them as to the qualities and capacities of the viola. She understands as well as Feldman that, lacking the violin’s soaring high register and the cello’s robust lower register, the viola can best assert itself in the interstices of an ensemble playing at softer levels. She also resembles Kyle Gann’s description of Feldman in No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’ 33” (Yale University Press) as “an unabashed intuitionist, someone who delicately weighed each sonority by ear and flaunted his independence from theoretical mandates.”

However, Henneman’s creative trajectory differs fundamentally from those of Feldman and most composers in that she only began to compose and lead her own ensembles in earnest at the relatively ripe age of 40, and then waited five years before recording her first album on her Wig imprint – in Grassetto. As a result, there’s a conspicuous absence of “early work” in Henneman’s discography; indicative of this is the inclusion of both her first and third albums in Collected (both feature bassist Wilbert DeJoode, a charter member of her Tentet and String Quartet projects, which are also represented in the box set). This is not to suggest that Henneman’s music has not changed over the years. Arguably, she has made greater strides as an improviser in collective settings like Queen Mab Trio (with bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Marilyn Lerner) and her duo with multi-instrumentalist Ab Baars (Collection devotes a CD to each); but that is ultimately a measure of the maturity and durability of Henneman’s improvisation-inviting approach to composition and ensemble play from the outset, processes in which DeJoode has played a central role over the 25 years (there’s a fine detailing of the Henneman-DeJoode collaboration in Kevin Whitehead’s New Dutch Swing). Unsurprisingly, Baars, DeJoode, Freedman and Lerner comprise the bulk of the Kindred Spirits sextet – trumpeter Axel Dörner rounds out the group.

Assessing Henneman’s evolution as a composer is tricky; there are no obvious markers like Feldman’s early embrace and eventual abandonment of graphic notation. On any given recording, she’s stylistically all over the lot, yet there is an overarching refinement to the interplay of scored and improvised materials in each piece that is beguiling. The music for Strepen, a film by Carrie De Swaan based on paintings and etchings by Jeroen Henneman, makes the case with music rife with flat surfaces and rhapsodic moments (Collected includes an extras-loaded DVD of the work and the music on a separate CD). The score for her String Quartet and harpist Godelieve Schrama spans Vivaldi-bright sawing, Impressionistic ripples and barely audible pointillism. Occasionally, a soloist will glide or hover over the ensemble, but more often than not, improvisation is used structurally to create bracing contrasts within a piece; even more than the scored passages, the collective improvisations reinforce the suggestion of movement in De Swaan’s layered, often hypnotic treatments of Jeroen Henneman’s stark images. “Eclecticism” fails miserably to describe this or any other of Henneman’s recordings, because it is suggests that she’ll access anything. Something quite the opposite is at work – a rigorous, winnowing sense of taste.

“It sometimes takes a long time to settle on something in a composition,” the Amsterdam-based Henneman recently relayed during a phone conversation. “I once found myself writing a big third in a piece and questioned it. So I looked at it and looked at it. I left my composing table and came back two hours later and looked at it before I finally decided that’s what I want.” “Taste” is a term Henneman is quite comfortable with in describing the bottom line of her decision-making process, a measure of which is the absence of generic “fast lines” virtuosity in her compositions: “Although my scores look very simple there is a hidden virtuosity in them in the sense that if the timing is off and the tempi are not played with conviction the music falls from the edge. So the compositions are not as simple or easy as they seem.”

For Henneman, taste is synonymous with the viola, the instrument’s qualities driving her choices as improviser as well as composer. “In bands,” she explained, “the viola has a timbre that makes that you have to fight for your role in a group, composition-wise. From that aspect I learned a lot concerning instrumentation.  When I play with louder instruments or instruments that easily cover my viola timbre, the musicians start with trying to play as soft as possible. I always explain, ‘do your thing’ as long as you are aware of the power of silence. That means make holes in your parts. Keep silent every now and then. Use dynamics. I then can find my role on my viola without forcing my sound, my muscles. Use the small sounds, make long lines and thoughts that maybe will be interrupted every now and then.”

It’s one thing to convene an ensemble and apply such specifics on the ground floor; it’s another to come into a long-standing cooperative like Queen Mab, the duo of Freedman and Lerner. More than a dozen years later, Queen Mab’s 1997 debut, Barbie’s Other Shoe (Nine Winds), still exudes a palpable integrity of purpose and methods, one seemingly resistant to a third party, regardless of her or his skills set or sensitivity. With Freedman joining Henneman’s Tentet for its last largely text-driven album, 1998’s Indigo, the stage was set for a 2002 tour with Henneman as the duo’s guest artist which led to Queen Mab becoming a Trio. The reason Henneman is such a snug fit, according to Lerner, is that “Ig comes to the table with balanced consciousness and respect for both compositional and improvisational elements in the work. I think it can said that one of the major challenges with creative improvisation is to compose music which has a spin, makes a statement, contains a gesture, and yet also is a springboard for the imagination of the performers. I think that, to a large extent, Ig achieves this with the Queen Mab Trio. I find that her pieces are succinct, no extra notes, and really interesting architecturally, much the same as her improvisations. Her passion comes through along with an unrelenting devotion to the music.”

All of this is evident on Galina U, the QMT compilation included in Collected (the name doesn’t reference an alma mater, but Russian composer and pianist Galina Ustvolskaya). Seven of the eight pieces were originally issued on their previous Wig CDs – 2005’s See Saw and 06’s Thin Air – and the almost all-Henneman program is more representative of the occasion than their history of parity in presenting their respective compositions. The track that leaps out more athletically this time out is the title piece. Ustvolskaya, dubbed “the lady with the hammer” by a Dutch critic, is a logical touchstone for Henneman; their shared penchants for unusual sonorities, extreme dynamics and pummeling attack are powerfully condensed in the ensemble, and complemented by Lerner’s concussive solo Freedman and Henneman’s withering duet. In a roundabout way, the lady with the hammer also sheds light on the sensibilities Henneman brought to her current music from her years with FC Gerania, the all-female Dutch rock band. “It’s pulse,” Henneman said, connecting the dots. “Of course, when the dynamics are soft and there is silence in a piece, you tend not to notice the pulse so much. But it is there. I make its importance clear it whenever we begin a new piece; otherwise it won’t work.”

Henneman believes emphasizing pulse, timbre and dynamics keeps composition and improvisation “close to my soul so that I don’t have to use my brain so much. You can write out a long complicated line and write very brilliant variations on them and it is all very well thought out but it doesn’t move you. I try to work with something like fugue, where each musician is silent some of the time and plays their own part. It allows for improvisation. That’s the best situation for me, when the music is close to your soul.” 

FMP in Retrospect

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