Saxophonist-composer Ingrid Laubrock and percussionist-composer Sarah Hennies have traveled wildly divergent paths in their careers, but in many ways they’ve reached exciting creative crossroads. The former, an improviser of feverish intensity and versatility, leads or co-leads a number of incisive, improv-focused small groups, including Anti-House and Ubatuba, and recently debuted her first long-form, primarily composed works on last year’s dazzling Contemporary Chaos Practices—Two Works for Orchestra (Intakt). Hennies has meanwhile drifted from daring percussion soloist to conceptually-bold composer, as in her acclaimed Contralto, which mixes video and chamber music performance to examine the often-devastating societal pressures felt by those undergoing gender transition. Laubrock, a native of Germany long based in New York, is self-taught, while Hennies earned her masters at University of California-San Diego. They discussed their professional arcs and their current work this past February in Stockholm, where both performed at Edition Festival. Laubrock played in the agile Anthony Braxton Octet, while Hennies presented Contralto.

Photo: Caroline Mardok

Ingrid Laubrock: So you’re from Kentucky?

Sarah Hennies: Originally, yeah, from Louisville.

IL: How long ago did you leave?

SH: Twenty-two years—I was born there and left when I graduated high school. I don’t have much reason to go back either, because none of my family lives there anymore. I don’t really care for it. Actually, I tell people I’d want to live there if I hadn’t grown up there. It’s really pretty, it’s very nice, and very cheap, but they aren’t always the nicest people in the world.

IL: You’re now in Ithaca?

SH: Yeah. I was in Austin for ten years after grad school and then I moved to Ithaca five years ago. I just realized that Tim Feeney [a member of Meridian with Hennies and fellow percussionist Greg Stuart] played on something of yours…

IL: Yeah, he’s from around there, right?

SH: He taught there for five years. He was the one that put Ithaca on my radar, and I played there once and it seemed nice. Tim told me it killed him to move away.

IL: I think we recorded the orchestra piece when that was happening. He was in doubt about whether he wanted to stay at [University of Alabama] because he was always on the frontier. He always had to fight to bring in new students.

SH: It’s a football school and I think they only wanted someone to teach kids drumline and not a bunch of weird [stuff].

IL: But he did. I spent a week there with Braxton and it was great. In that sense it felt like a good school—open-minded.

SH: Yeah, he attracted a bunch of cool grad students who are now finishing—young percussionists who want to do interesting everything.

IL: Sometimes when I ask people where they studied it seems like it’s the teacher more than the place that made them choose.

SH: I went to San Diego because of a teacher, and also because I knew it was an all-contemporary music place and I had gone to a pretty standard state school for undergrad. When I picked a college, I didn’t know any better—I just didn’t want to be at home anymore. That was my criteria. I had seen it on a list of acceptable music schools.

IL: Did you play drums?

SH: Yeah, I started playing drums when I was nine—as a rock drummer. I played in indie rock bands from age thirteen to now-ish. When I moved to Ithaca I swore I was going to stop playing in bands. The first time you tour by yourself after touring with other people, it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened. [You realize] I can go anywhere I want, I don’t have to wait for anyone to take a shower… but as soon as I moved to Ithaca, I met my friend Peter who’s a really incredible songwriter, and I started playing with him.

IL: If I spend too much time writing—which I sometimes do, just getting into that—I feel like I do the bare minimum of saxophone practice, just to keep it in shape. There’s a slight bit of depression that creeps in because I miss playing with people—I really need it. When I do a gig it’s like, aha, I was missing that. As much I love the intensity of composing, I don’t like only that—I need the interaction.

SH: I just did a short tour with a band at the end of last summer and we had a couple of practices before we left. We were playing a song and in the middle I just thought, “God, I love playing drums!” It’s weird that that’s a weird feeling, but there’s something about the feeling and sound of playing a drum set!

IL: There’s so much physicality. My husband [Tom Rainey] is a drummer and I notice that kind of release.

SH: I wrote an essay really fast for something where I was supposed to give a fifteen-minute presentation. I knew I wanted to talk about trans representation as far as people on stage or on TV, but it ended up being framed around [the question of], ‘Why did I play drums?’ The example I use is: ‘Why is Michael Jordan the best basketball player ever?’ I don’t know. He just is. I’m almost 40, and until less than two years ago, I never analyzed why I picked drums. When I was five years old, I really wanted to play piano and I never got piano lessons—and I’m still not good at piano—and then four years later I wanted to play drums and I got drum lessons. I never thought about it. I have no way of knowing if this a real thing or not, but being raised as a boy who’s terrible at all boy stuff, it makes sense to me that a nine-year old would choose them—because drums are an intensely male-gendered instrument. So the line in this essay I wrote was that ‘the only thing I could figure is that I decided that good drums=good boy.’ It’s a stereotype about trans people that before they’re out they’ll do things like join the army or get married and have a bunch of kids or climb a mountain—things to prove that they’re men. But when you’re nine and you’re in Kentucky, you don’t know.

IL: Were you always aware of it?

SH: No. One day five years ago I realized it like that [snaps fingers]. As soon as I thought it, I was like—this is crazy.

IL: It’s such a complex subject, but it seems like now people can at least address that, if they’re feeling anything like it.

SH: Yeah. I was making the connection—there’s no reason that I’m especially good at drums, but for whatever reason, and I’m not saying this to brag, but for whatever reason, I’m a very good drummer, and I was very good when I was ten. It doesn’t make sense to me. This is kind of the same thing. Gender doesn’t make sense—there’s no reason that someone is one thing or another thing. That kind of stuff has become really interesting to me—not just gender, but any question about…

IL: …what are we? In the 90s, I was close to a person who was transitioning at the time, and she spoke to me a lot about it, including her vocal therapy. It brought me back to that when I was watching your piece. The voice is so personal and she hated her voice. I know what that’s like, too—if I listen back to this talk, [I think] ‘Oh, god I can’t listen to it.’ She was always like that about her voice, that it would give her away. And I felt with your piece, you’re very openly expressing that—that you are a transgender woman. She was trying to keep anyone from knowing, and she relocated to another country and I think it went really well for her there, but while she was doing all of that she just wanted a new life.

I keep describing the last ten years like I've been swimming in a pool and every time I do something new, it's the same pool, but it just keeps getting bigger.
Sarah Hennies

SH: I’m almost positive the first trans person I ever met was someone I was on tour with who had moved to New Mexico because they didn’t know anyone there. I think until pretty recently people felt like they had to do that.

IL: I think people were incredibly moved by your piece [Contralto]—and I’m sure you get that a lot.

SH: It’s getting weird, honestly. I don’t know how to talk about it. Part of it is getting a little worn out by doing it all of the time. I haven’t collected my thoughts about this, but there’s something really weird about doing this piece and having people come up to me immediately afterward and say, ‘that was so wonderful, that was so powerful.’ It’s really weird, especially when it’s tied up into this thing that’s legitimately difficult on a day-to-day basis. But I’m just not home enough anymore.

IL: I know that feeling well. I just got back from three months of non-stop touring and I felt like I collapsed over Christmas. I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to do anything.

SH: You get to come home and be with your person and you don’t want to do anything but stare at the wall.

IL: I feel like touring can really take it out of you, and it happens—it happened with Anthony’s music tonight. People want a little piece of you. While it’s super nice and I’m always happy when people love what I do, of course, it’s draining.

SH: I assume you’re a full-time musician?

IL: Yes.

SH: I was hoping this would come up. I have been working 40-hour-a-week jobs for fifteen years, until last May. It’s another thing that I haven’t figured out how to talk about.

IL: If that was the case and you’re suddenly living with music and you’re getting all of that attention, it sets a bar and you have to live up to it.

I love looking at other people's scores, especially when I don't know how much of it is written. Some people are very conceptual improvisers and disciplined, and other people write wildly.
Ingrid Laubrock

SH: I definitely have had the, ‘Is this piece the only thing I’m ever gonna do?’ thoughts. But the longer I did those jobs, the more and more I hated it. And the more and more busy I got with music, the harder it got to do. Not just emotionally, but also logistically hard. When I finally quit, I was comparing it to the experience of transition—that afterward you don’t wake up every day and say, ‘Hooray!’ You wake up every day and think, ‘Thank god, I don’t have to do that today.’

IL: And then that wears off.

SH: That’s not to say that I’m not really happy about what’s happened—it was literally my dream to not have a job I hate.

IL: I’m the opposite. I left home because I couldn’t bear being there anymore. I’m from a really small town and everything was falling apart—my family, my friends. I had collected these people who were into jazz and weirdo music, some who lived miles away—and all of them descended into hard drugs. The day after I graduated, I left. I stayed in Berlin for a little while with my boyfriend doing odd jobs like waiting tables, tele-sales, and it was so soul-destroying and horrendous. Then we moved to London. I was a teenager and I was out of everything and depressed and unfocused. The last year in Germany I had become really shy and introverted. In London, nobody knew who I was so I would go into the subway, playing saxophone. I played recorder as a child, so I figured out some Bach pieces and it sounded terrible.

SH: So you taught yourself saxophone? What made you want to do that?

IL: I had always listened to jazz and I thought [saxophone] was the coolest instrument. I played piano as a kid. My parents are amateur musicians—my dad is a big Beethoven fan. My recorder teacher was pretty hip—we played early music, Baroque, and even something approaching new music, which was pretty interesting for a kid. In London, I just went in the subway and realized I could make some money. I’ve never not been a musician, but I’ve done all of the grimy, gritty, horrible shows.

SH: In another life that’s what I would’ve wanted to do. I’ve never had that experience of just going for it and having a terrible quality of life.

IL: There was something really liberating about it.

SH: I met my ex when I was nineteen years old and we were together for sixteen years. We needed money, so I had to get a job. If I had been alone, I probably would’ve gone in the subway, too.

IL: In America it’s still so expensive to study. I have slight regrets about leaving and not going down the official route because I think I would’ve really loved it. I went to college really late. I was 29. [I went] for a year at a post-diploma course and I lapped it up.

SH: I only did two years of grad school and I wouldn’t have gone if I had had to pay for it. I was thrilled to play Xenakis pieces, but other than that I just wasn’t that into it.

IL: Sometimes it’s good to find out what you don’t want to do, where you don’t want to end up.

SH: I met Greg Stuart in grad school and it was very clear that we were not like the other percussionists. Even when the two of us were doing percussion-y things, it was still so obvious that we were not in the same world. That was the most valuable thing about grad school—meeting the one person I still work with.

IL: I really enjoyed that long piece of yours, “Flourish.”

SH: Thanks! It doesn’t feel old, but it’s an older thing—[from] six or seven years ago.

IL: It was really well put-together. The beginning reminded me of Samuel Beckett or something. I love the attention to detail on the aural phenomenon.

SH: It’s so funny because I never do this, but I made that piece in a couple of hours. One day I got the bug and thought, I’m going to go record something, and two hours later that thing was done.

IL: Did you record it with someone or did you overdub the layers? I saw the score…

SH: Oh, the score came way, way after the recording. At the end of the session I recorded myself [speaking], ‘three, two, one, stop.’ I like recording and editing a lot. That and this other piece, “Settle,” were made, not under the same circumstances, but for both I didn’t think I was doing anything important, and then later they became these things that I became personally tied to.

IL: I like the one minute of silence.

SH: Yeah, I kind of ripped off Michael Pisaro. That’s my one admission. I really like his piece “A wave and waves.” It’s an hour long and there’s five minutes of silence between the two sections. It’s excellent. [Over the course of] an hour, five minutes isn’t that long. I’ve played it a couple of times.

SH: Yeah, I kind of ripped off Michael Pisaro. That’s my one admission. I really like his piece “A wave and waves.” It’s an hour long and there’s five minutes of silence between the two sections. It’s excellent. [Over the course of] an hour, five minutes isn’t that long. I’ve played it a couple of times.

IL: For me, doing Contemporary Chaos was a huge difference. I’d never worked with a bunch of new music musicians and the amount of detail to chisel out colors…

SH: Are those totally composed pieces?

IL: No, they’re not. Most is composed but there are sections of improvisation which have some prescribed zones and some sign language conduction, so there’s a possibility to react and to regenerate and to mold it in time. I had two different conductors: Eric Wubbels did the really straight stuff, and Taylor Ho Bynum was doing the shaping or sculpting. Erica Dicker would be doing some of the string backgrounds. But the bulk was composed.

SH: It sounded that way to me, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

IL: That’s also the idea. I wanted to go from one thing into another universe.

SH: Trio Meridian gets [that reaction] a lot: “It sounds like composed music!’ And we’re like, ‘So?’ But here I am doing it myself.

IL: I do it too. I love looking at other people’s scores, especially when I don’t know how much of it is written. Some people are very conceptual improvisers and disciplined, and other people write wildly.

SH: I think, at first, I felt that Contralto was a huge departure—because obviously there’s film—but the more I thought about it I realized it was actually tying together all of these different things that I had been doing for a while. In a lot of ways, the piece is totally different, but to me it feels more like the next step forward than that I’m in a totally new place. All of the commissions I’ve gotten in the past year or two are nothing like that, or what came before it. I mean, it sounds like I made them. I wasn’t analytically saying, ‘I’m going to go in a new direction,’ but it just kind of happened. You get asked to do a piece for flute and nine voices and… I just cannot do my thing for that instrumentation, and I really like that about people asking me to write stuff. I keep describing the last ten years like I’ve been swimming in a pool and every time I do something new, it’s the same pool, but it just keeps getting bigger. I had the idea for Contralto at least a year before I made it. In the summer of 2016, I won some money so I could afford a camera and that’s how the piece got made. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a film with only trans women? But I didn’t have a camera.

IL: Were the people in it all in a class for speech therapy or something like that?

SH: My original idea was to use all people from a class that’s taught in Ithaca, but only one person wanted to do it—well, two, but one was the instructor of the class.

IL: How did you do it, asking people? How many people did you ask?

SH: I went to the class one day and I mentioned the project and told them I could pay them a little bit of money and only one person said yes.

IL: I understand that.

SH: Yeah, of course.

IL: It’s amazing you found people of such different ages—including the kid!

SH: She’s our friend’s kid.

IL: She seemed relaxed with you compared to some of the other people.

SH: I wouldn’t have thought of this, but my partner Mara was listening in the other room while we were doing this, and she said, ‘Julie is doing this like she’s in school.’ She’s doing exactly what you’re telling her to do because she’s used to going to school every day. She just turned 16. She also said the stuff that was the hardest for me to hear. I had to watch it a lot before I even caught this, but there’s one little detail at the end where everyone’s talking and there’s droney music and Julie makes some kind of ‘whatever’ gesture—I can’t even talk about it without getting choked up—but she looks like really quietly devastated.

IL: I loved the droney part because the way it was edited left you wondering what question the subjects were asked. Was it, ‘What would you like your life to be like?’

SH: No, the question was, ‘Can you describe dysphoria?’ It’s this thing that everyone agrees is impossible to meaningfully impart to someone who’s not experiencing it—not just dysphoria, but the whole experience of being cis-gender [as a trans person]. The reason I picked that question was because I figured that no one would have the same answer. But what I got was way more incredible that I would have ever anticipated. A bunch of people didn’t even answer the question. Josie, the teacher of the class—she’s at the end of the cycle—I think she came prepared with a memorized speech, because they saw the questions beforehand, but she’s speaking like she’s reading a script, like she had practiced it. It seems like such a simple question, but I thought it would needle into people, and it totally did.

About the Author
Peter Margasak is a Berlin-based music journalist who spent more than two decades as a staff writer at the Chicago Reader. He's currently at work on a book about the intersection of jazz, experimental, and rock music in Chicago between 1992-2002.