Amazing Moments in Timbre #8

Flourish – Sarah Hennies

From the very beginning of the piece, Sarah Hennies’s Flourish for two vibraphone players, leads us into an extraordinary, mystical, new world of sound.  What is so enigmatic about this piece is that a lot of the music happens in a realm of timbre beyond what is written and what is played.  Precisely and cleanly scored in minimalist fashion of single-measure repeating cells, the atmospheric reverberations produced by the vibraphone are here left to write their own counterpoint.  

Sarah Hennies says of the piece, “the “repetition” really unfolds and evolves over time, which is a phenomenon I don’t totally understand…I’ve been working with material that sounds at first like static repetition but is, in fact, music that evolves in changes over time (either acoustically/physically or perceptually or - usually - both).” (email to the author)

Owing to the unique capabilities of the vibraphone, the touch of the individual players, and the acoustic properties of the room in which the piece is performed – including the shape and size of the audience – one can surmise that a new piece might emerge at each performance.  While this is often said of live musical performance in general, this might be truer of this particular piece than most others. What happens is akin to improvisation, only the sound improvises itself in a variable and fascinating way. 

About the Vibraphone

Vibraphones are keyboard percussion instruments, often used in jazz music and percussion ensemble.  They consist of tuned metal bars suspended over resonator tubes with motorized butterfly valves at the top.  This unique feature produces an other-worldly vibrato or tremolo. Additionally, the vibraphone has a sustain pedal, like a piano, increasing the instrument’s ability to produce auxiliary sounds.  The bars are typically struck with mallets having a variety of tip types such as rubber, yarn-wrapped rubber, and cord-wrapped rubber. Since vibraphones have metal bars, they can also withstand mallets made of harder substances like wood or brass.  Most interestingly, they can be bowed with a double-bass bow.  

Vibraphones produce harmonics, the first of which is two and a half octaves above the fundamental (the main pitch of the bar being struck or bowed), which players are carefully taught to produce.  Pitch bending, as heard in the opening of Flourish, is also possible.  The vibraphone, in many ways, challenges our perception of percussion instruments, of notated music, and of sound itself.  Hennies, in discussing the capabilities of the vibraphone, described its timbre as, “very complex and rich and unpredictable.”  (email to the author)

About Minimalism

Minimalism in classical music emerged from the avant-garde scene in 1960s New York.  American Composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich are widely associated with the genre.  Often making use of short, repeated motives sometimes said to meander around in no hurry to reach a particular melodic goal, but rather to revel in sound itself, the music is rhythmically intoxicating, subtly fluid, and rather entrancing.  Reich’s music often appears on lists of music to zone-out to. As YouTube commenter Michael Colonna said of Reich’s Six Marimbas, “My kids thought I was crazy but when Drum and Bass came along they finally understood.”

About Sarah Hennies

Hennies, born in 1979 in Louisville, Kentucky, has emerged as a leading voice in avant-garde, contemporary music whose work is political, psycho-acoustically challenging, rhythmically vivid, and both touching and humorous.  Her pieces are best enjoyed live as they often provide interesting accompanying visual material, as in Falsetto and her film, Contralto, and might change significantly with the variables of time and space in live performance as with Flourish.  Her works have been played internationally and she is active as a performing percussionist in a variety of musical styles.

by Juanita Marchand Knight

Photo: Micke Keysendal

Photo: Micke Keysendal