Composer Catherine Christer Hennix is known for her expansive, durational works composed using Just Intonation. The Wire contributor Philip Clark talks to her before her new composition, For Brass And Computer, which premiers as part of The Long Now, a concert lasting more than 30 hours and taking place in the cavernous former power plant venue Kraftwerk Berlin
Catherine Christer Hennix is sitting in a cafe a few doors along from her studio in the Mitte district of Berlin drinking a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and giving me the lowdown on how, even in this city famed for pumping up the volume, finding venues suitable for her music is a virtual impossibility. A look of indignant annoyance crosses her face as she recalls how, rehearsing in her studio a few weeks ago for a new piece to be premiered this weekend at The Long Now, one of her neighbours phoned the police to complain about noise pollution. “This city is hopeless,” she says. “I’m not certain how for much longer I can stay here.”
When Hennix moved from her native Sweden to New York City 40 years ago, the vast and unspoilt downtown loft spaces she saw might have been specifically designed for the longform meditative music she calls her own. Encounters with Henry Flynt, La Monte Young and the Indian classical musician and raga master Pandit Pran Nath were, she has said, “a life changing revelation”, and the work she will be presenting at The Long Now finds her keeping the faith. For Brass And Computer – for trumpet, French horn, trombone, microtonal tuba and computer – will fill the space of the Kraftwerk Club, the former power station turned venue hosting The Long Now, with sounds that obey the laws of Just Intonation, the tuning system which has earthed all Hennix’s music. “Have you been to Kraftwerk?” I ask. Hennix replies that she hasn’t, but that her piece will be test-run in situ tomorrow evening, and I wonder to myself if the unconscionably enormous dimensions of the building – like the Grand Canyon has been walloped into the middle of Berlin – will, at last, prove worthy of her acoustic ambitions.
Hennix’s vision is nothing if not ambitious. The problem with Western music, she says, looking me straight in the eye like I must never be in any doubt about it, is that equal-tempered tuning sucks the life out of sound, leaving it drained and colourless. And so, the logic follows, her intricately tuned sounds and the extended durations over which they resonate, would be considered ambitious only by the low ambition of Western music, eaten by hidebound protocols and commercialism. Such concerns place Hennix squarely in a lineage that would include Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock and Terry Riley, but her distaste for commercialism also helps explain her relative neglect. Only during the previous decade have her transformative pieces from the 1970s – like The Electric Harpsichord and Blues Alif Lam Mim In The Mode of Rag Infinity/Rag Cosmosis – made it to disc.
“For Brass And Computer was commissioned by [tuba player] Robin Hayward for his group Zinc and Copper,” Hennix tells me, as we turn to current concerns. “All his musicians also play in my band – so it’s my band without me.” And this piece, of course uses Just Intonation, I say, but can she explain how? “Well, in every way,” she responds, surprised by the question. When I push further, asking how the music moves forwards in time, her answer brings us to the essence of Hennix and her work: “There is no time.”
Another line of questioning, attempting to determine what material she hands Hayward’s musicians, either as a starting point or way of orienteering their ears, is taken the wrong way. “They’ve been working with me for ten years, so I’ve given them a lot,” she responds. But what about the specifics of this new piece? “I give them the pitches they have to play, and they learn from me when to move to the next pitch. From me, they learn how to listen.” So they tune into the resonance of the sounds, and move forwards from there? “Yes, depending on which resonance is happening,” she says. Does Hennix have any inkling over how long this process will play out? “That depends on the venue. Normally they throw us out after four or five hours.”
Which puts me in mind of Terry Riley’s thought that Western music “moves too fast because it’s tuned wrong”. “Well, there are many more pitches available in Just Intonation than in equal temperament, which is very limited. Just Intonation is not an alternative to equal temperament – I have no time for this idea of ‘alternate tuning systems’ – equal temperament is an alternative to Just Intonation, and a very bad one. You talk about music moving through time, but my discovery of Just Intonation showed me not how music could move, but how it could be static. I don’t use percussion, I don’t use rhythm or any harmonic progressions. It’s just pure sounds.”
Hennix explains that, after her initial interest in Xenakis and Stockhausen, meeting La Monte Young was a lesson in the value of doing more with less. She led a trio in Stockholm which she describes as the loudest in Europe, but in New York loft spaces could house sophisticated rigs of speakers – an impossibility in what she describes as “small apartments” in Sweden.
“The speaker is my instrument,” Hennix asserts. “High technology is required for making a sophisticated sound. I’m told that there is a very good system in the space this weekend and I need speakers which are clear right across the range, from 20 hertz in the bass right up to 20,000 hertz – all of it is part of my music. It depends also on the space, how the resonance works, and you have to try it out. Concert halls prove completely inadequate for this music; such spaces are designed for pieces that are thirty minutes long. Really, I need a room where I can be with my sounds 24/7.”
Hennix explains that there is such a room in her house, but that nobody can go there because her house is too small. She would be willing to play every night if she could, she says, but her performance at The Long Now will be her first proper gig for three years. Given the challenges of mounting her music, have any experiences matched her expectations? “Museum spaces are the best,” she says. “People there are dedicated and they don’t throw you out almost as soon as you’ve started.”
So to hear Hennix’s music, audiences have to be dedicated to seeking it out, then to devoting appropriate time to it? “But that is the original concept of music, that you go and listen to it, not buy a CD and listen at home – which is a complete distortion of the whole conception of sound.”
Catherine Christer Hennix’s For Brass And Computer is performed by Zinc & Copper at Kraftwerk, Berlin, on 26 March, as part of The Long Now, produced by MaerzMusik as part of the Berliner Festspiele.