Ig Henneman: Performing Colour

Mischa Andriessen

1 ‘During a F.C. Gerania gig, I came up with the idea of improvising on one long note in the intro, but in no time the drummer joined in.

          The career of viola player, composer and bandleader Ig Henneman is a never-ending succession of logical conclusions, steps that on the face of it seem quite illogical. After training at conservatory, she shifted away from classical music to play viola and keyboards in the pop band F.C. Gerania. During the eight years that this group was together, from 1976 to 1984, she increasingly felt the need for a less restrictive musical straitjacket. In 1985, the 40-year-old Henneman took the bold step of embarking upon a new career as a bandleader and composer. Over the following 25 years, experience taught her how much control is required in order to be free.

          Henneman spent the first few years of her new career working on the formation of the Ig Henneman Quintet, which was a fluid line-up, with herself and bass player Wilbert de Joode as the only constant. The quintet started out as an ensemble of viola, double bass, drums, guitar and trumpet, but five years later, when in Grassetto – Henneman’s CD debut as bandleader – was recorded, the line-up had become viola, double bass, drums, bass clarinet and alto saxophone. Replacing a guitarist with a bass clarinettist is a surprising move, but although that decision was to a large extent reached intuitively, as is often the case with Henneman, it was a well-considered decision that ties in closely with what seems to be essential to Henneman’s career: finding an appropriate musical idiom. With Henneman ‘appropriate’ automatically means ‘personal’.

           Ig Henneman Quintet – in Grassetto

          Ig Henneman – viola; Hein Pijnenburg – bass clarinet; Bart van der Putten – alto saxophone;           Wilbert de Joode – double bass; Fred van Duynhoven – drums.

           Recorded in May 1990

          The majority of musicians in Henneman’s quintet are primarily active in jazz and improvised music, but even though in Grassetto is Henneman’s jazziest album its overwrought, dissonant tones make it clear that Henneman’s musical outlook and tastes are very broad in scope and that she certainly does not allow herself to be hemmed in by a single genre. The opening track is ‘Brug (voor Nedly)’ – Bridge (for Nedly) – a title that is short and to the point in typical Henneman style. The Nedly to whom the composition is dedicated is of course Nedly Elstak. Henneman followed improvisation workshops with this celebrated composer, bandleader and trumpeter, and she played in several of his bands. Elstak died on 5 August 1989, less than a year before in Grassetto was recorded. Those workshops were a first step on the road to a flexible conception of music, but it is the word ‘bridge’ that is so telling. From the very first track of in Grassetto, what one can perceive taking shape is without doubt a highly idiosyncratic amalgam of musical styles. Henneman is building bridges between improvised and classical music, between pop and jazz, between early music and contemporary classical. In itself that is not so remarkable; it is the fluidity of the process that is striking. In the title track, for example, a simple, classical-sounding theme shifts perfectly naturally into a rock riff. Within Henneman’s oeuvre, in Grassetto is in any case the album in which the rhythm section is most prominent, sometimes spilling over into unabashed groove, while on later albums such rhythmical emphases are more often intimated than actually enunciated. The daring modulations and an angular directness are aspects that foreshadow Henneman’s later work, betraying her love of the headstrong punk rock of, for example, Ian Dury. Strong, intentionally unpredictable rhythms combined with the guttural tones of the bass clarinet form a stark contrast with thinner upper registers, that of the viola in particular. Set down on disc 20 years ago, in Grassetto is still a convincing and successful early sampling of a highly personal sound. Here Henneman’s wide-ranging musical preferences are still largely organised into a linear succession, like a patchwork; later on they will coalesce to a greater degree.

2 ‘For a long time I was unhappy in the world of music.

At conservatory, in classical ensembles and with F.C. Gerania, but likewise within her own bands, Henneman has been searching for a means to give her taste and her musical ideas the best fitting colour and form. In the case of the tentet, with which she recorded the albums Dickinson, Repeat that, repeat and Indigo, that was essentially a quest to find the appropriate timbre, a combination of assembling the right set of instruments and the right musicians, who had to be able to improvise as well as properly execute the passages composed by her. Henneman opted to use poetry as the binding element for all three tentet albums. For the first she drew inspiration from poems by Emily Dickinson, for the second she took poetry in many different languages about birds, and for Indigo she used poems by Dutch female authors from various eras, from the early 20th-century socialist Henriëtte Roland Holst (1869-1952) to Albertina Soepboer (b. 1969). By the time of her third CD, Repeat that, repeat, the second album with her tentet, Henneman was evidently in full command of the instrumentation: three clarinets (bass included) instead of saxophones, and trumpet and cello instead of trombone. The piano has also disappeared from the ensemble and there is a more prominent place for the flute. As usual, the compositions were gradually fleshed out and fine-tuned by the musicians during a tour. Repeat that, repeat was recorded at the end of a series of concerts entitled ‘De Nachtegaal tijdens de slaap’ – The Nightingale while sleeping. The typical jazz idiom had to a large extent disappeared from Henneman’s musical language by then, but her compositions were tailored to the individual musicians, just like Duke Ellington’s bespoke compositions. Wearing the caps of composer and bandleader, she has endeavoured to take full advantage of her familiarity with their tone and their specific musical qualities in these compositions. The personal input of the musicians is always substantial and essential to this music’s success. The musicians who work with Henneman must be self-reliant and one quality that they cannot be lacking is the ability to perform colour.

          Ig Henneman Tentet – Repeat that, repeat

          Ilse van de Kasteelen – voice; Michael Moore – clarinet / bass clarinet; Ab Baars – clarinet; Hein Pijnenburg – bass clarinet; Mariëtte Rouppe van der Voort – flutes; Mary Oliver – violin / viola; Ig Henneman – viola; Tristan Honsinger – cello; Wilbert de Joode – double bass; Fred van Duynhoven – drums

          Recorded in May 1995

Eleven compositions based on as many poems about birds – about a swan, a nightingale, an ibis, swifts, seagulls and other species. Probably drawing on the time she had spent working as a composer for film and theatre, Henneman manages to avoid the pitfall of literal illustration. These are no obligatory imitations of birdsong, but 11 salient characteristics of profoundly different animals. For example, in the setting of Primo Levi’s ‘Il Canto del Corvo’ the crow sounds menacing thanks to the intrusive beat of the march. The swifts, by contrast, sound playful and brazen, yet in the musical expression of Guido Gezelle’s poem lurks a certain melancholy: these graceful birds are as vulnerable as any living creature. The final track on Repeat that, repeat is ‘The saddest noise, the sweetest noise’, after the poem by Emily Dickinson. This composition appears on the Dickinson album, but the setting of this version is totally different. If you listen to them in succession, then you can hear how much headway Henneman made in a short space of time. The duet between double bass and saxophone on Dickinson sounds wholly improvised, and however empathetic the playing might be the composition loses something of the pervading mood of wistfulness that is generated by the slow, compelling rhythm. The duet in the second version, this time between double bass and bass flute, is more regimented and in the improvisation the structural line remains intact, so the composition as a whole resonates more clearly. The courageously borne sorrow of Emily Dickinson’s poem is now expressed more urgently by the music. In Repeat that, repeat, Henneman brings together antipoles with much greater clarity than on the album in Grassetto: vitality and repose, playfulness and restraint, tension and relaxation, control and exaltation, composition and improvisation.

3The most wonderful thing about improvisation is the dawning of the feeling that a direction is emerging.

          Henneman’s oeuvre can be divided into three categories. There are compositions that are fully notated, written on commission for ensembles and/or soloists, there are wholly improvised pieces such as her work with Ab Baars and Misha Mengelberg, and lastly there is a great deal of her work that is a hybrid of composition and improvisation, in which written material serves as the basis for improvisation. For Henneman improvisation and composition have always been strong, mutual influences. The fully notated compositions have become increasingly similar to the improvised work, even in terms of texture, while initially these were two different domains for her.

          Having operated for many years within the rigid strictures of pop music when playing with F.C. Gerania, Henneman felt a growing urge to be free, to be able to do what she felt. However, at that time free improvisation did not necessarily produce what she had hoped for. Her 25 years as a bandleader have to a large extent been a lesson in the balancing act of guidance and letting go. Henneman gradually assimilated the widely divergent influences, from punk singer Ian Dury to the Renaissance composer Francesco Landini, from the occasionally well-nigh kitschy music of Mink de Ville to the uncompromising oeuvre of Galina Ustvolskaya. Over the years Henneman has devised a means of embodying her highly developed and nonconformist musical tastes with greater ease and ever more convincingly. This is often reliant on finding the right timbre and creating an open structure for the music, a form that allows timbres and the full range of dynamics to best come into their own.

          Realising this has often proven to be difficult, because there are marked differences between classical and improvisational idioms. In the first place it is difficult to commit ‘what exists as an abstraction in your mind’ to manuscript paper, and you then have to explain it to those who will be interpreting it. ‘Make sure that he or she understand the notes, for only then does the music truly exist,’ says Henneman. ‘It’s easier to convey that if I’m there in person.’

          That sometimes requires some effort with the fully notated works, while for the compositions that are moulded through improvisation the difficulty is preventing the compositional line becoming obscured in the free improvisation. With totally free improvisation the crucial component is the intelligent handling of the freedom and of the harmonic material that is created on the spot.

          The divergent worlds of improvisation and composition converge most explicitly in the Henneman String Quartet, with whom she assembles a programme with compositions, sometimes based on work by other composers such as Franz Schubert and Francesco Landini, that are elaborated through improvisation. The programme also includes two compositions that are fully notated: ‘Tratti per Arpa’ and ‘Righe per Corde’. These pieces fit seamlessly into the programme that is to a large extent improvised. The fully notated material breathes the same freedom, while the partly improvised pieces follow the thrust of the compositional line and never derail into mere infill or frippery.

          Henneman String Quartet and Godelieve Schrama – Strepen

          Ig Henneman – viola; Oene van Geel – violin / viola; Alex Waterman – cello; Wilbert de Joode           – double bass; Godelieve Schrama – harp

          Recorded in November 2003

          On Strepen – Stripes – one can clearly hear how Henneman brings together the different disciplines. The unusual make-up of this string quartet aside, the composed passages retain a marked looseness, which immediately lends the music a totally different feel. While the composed sections are more playful than one might expect, a strict restraint can be heard in the improvisations. This is not the kind of dogmatism into which some ‘Free Jazz’ has degenerated, nor does it leave the listener with the sense that the musicians are doing whatever they want. The music is bristling with ideas but maintains a clear direction; the abandon is somehow kept in check. A fine example is ‘Verdronken Meisje’ – ‘Drowned Girl’ – a composition that is distantly related to Schubert’s famous string quartet, Der Tod und das Mädchen. After the first solo, the ensemble takes up a mournful but melodious theme that is twice interrupted by the same dissonant intrusion: the beauty of the maiden versus the pervasiveness of death. Those two bowed notes dismantle the melody completely.

          Henneman’s skill in bringing together the different idioms of classical and improvised music is also evident in the two works that she wrote for ‘improvising string quartet and harp’. The classical harpist Godelieve Schrama collaborates in exemplary fashion with the string quartet of musicians from the realms of jazz and improvised music. These are striking illustrations of Henneman’s long-cherished vision: merging diverse playing styles and modes of musical thinking to elicit the creation of a new kind of music.

4 ‘I was so tired that I thought it would be delightful to join in somewhere.’

          A drawback of Ig Henneman serving as a bandleader and running her own CD label was that it left little time or space for the musician in her. The constant organisation of performances and recording sessions, producing, delivering new compositions on time – in short the whole rigmarole of being a fixer and manager which means that time for personal practice often goes by the board, as can staking a claim to a space to perform solo on a stage that is already pretty limited, especially in a tentet. All this meant that at a given moment Henneman was keen to see the back of the managerial aspects and responsibilities. It was then that she was presented with the opportunity to tour across Canada with clarinettist Lori Freedman and pianist Marilyn Lerner, the Canadians who form the Queen Mab duo. As part of a group rather than its figurehead, Henneman rediscovered the fun in playing and her love for the viola, thus learning to allow more freedom into the music as well, especially in her own playing.

          After this Canadian tour, Henneman became a fully fledged member of what then became the Queen Mab Trio. The unusual ensemble of clarinet / bass clarinet, viola and piano gives the musicians huge leeway and opportunities, but it simultaneously places a great responsibility on their shoulders: the balance in this ensemble sits on a knife edge and there is no rhythm section, no groove to lean on, as it were. If one of the three musicians contributes too little, then the result is automatically bare, but in Freedman and Lerner Henneman has found two associates who also dare to improvise without using the idiom as a life raft that you can jump on to beat a retreat to terra firma. With the same rigour that they would impose on themselves when composing, they force themselves to tell their story effectively and diligently, even in the free passages. Just like Henneman, Freedman and Lerner push the envelope of their instruments’ capabilities and are fond of a transparent frugality. The music is measured, but miserly it is not. The self-imposed strictness does not result in sterile music; the musicians give what they themselves would wish to receive.

          Queen Mab Trio – Galina U

          Marilyn Lerner – piano; Lori Freedman – bass clarinet / clarinet; Ig Henneman – viola

          Recorded in November 2002 and October 2005, includes a previously unreleased recording from May 2006

          Galina U has been compiled from compositions that Henneman contributed to the Queen Mab Trio albums, See Saw and Thin Air, along with ‘Overtoom’, from a previously unreleased recording session. For See Saw Henneman contributed three tracks: ‘Marilyn L’, ‘Lori F’ and ‘Galina U’. The latter is an evocative ode to the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, in which Henneman endeavours to mirror Ustvolskaya’s idiom with ominous, compelling rhythms and piano chords hammered out with full force, and she succeeds in coming unmistakably close while fortunately retaining her own vocabulary. It is a rough-hewn and intractable work that is harrowingly uncomfortable. It is as if Henneman were holding up Ustvolskaya’s inexorability as an example and after all these years is at last obeying her own will unreservedly. Henneman is more clearly present as a musician in this trio than in her own ensembles. The compositions are also more lucid because they are pared down even more, are better able to accommodate emptiness and silence, thus setting off the contrasts even more keenly. All three musicians share equal responsibility for the music, which might explain why Henneman grows into a role as commentator here, someone who complements the conversations with measured interventions and manages to shift the modality. The viola sometimes merges seamlessly into the unruly sound of clarinet and piano; at other times it stands out clearly. Henneman often deploys the viola percussively and she dares to bring out what has been described as ‘beautiful, but not in any conventional sense’ – her signature sound on the viola – with vivacious, unorthodox techniques.

5 ‘What I want to hear has become increasingly clear in my mind.’

          After the successful collaboration with Lerner and Freedman, Henneman did not return to her Tentet and String Quartet. Besides the composition assignments that she continues to receive and fulfil, she has increasingly devoted herself to free improvisation. Improvisation is an ideal opportunity to explore an instrument’s possibilities and to discover the still unknown colours it can produce. ‘Instant composing’ is a form of logical thinking that can preserve improvisation from its greatest enemy: being overly free. Such freedom cannot be gratuitous; it is a proffered opportunity that must be handled with care. For Henneman improvisation is an essential step on the path to the transparency and purity that she wishes to attain in her music. She no longer needs music to be technically perfect, as in her classical days, but it is important that the improvisation is executed with concentrated intent and conviction – that is true freedom. Henneman and her improvisation partners cannot allow themselves to lapse into gimmickry or simply filling in temporal space for the sake of it, but must truly exploit it, use it like a precious jewel. ‘Instant composing’ is the term that Henneman uses for this modus operandi, indicating that for her it is certainly not about the process alone; the ultimate objective is a composition that meets the same quality standards as music that is fully notated. Improvisation is just a different way of getting there.

          Duo Baars - Henneman – Stof

          Ab Baars – tenor saxophone / clarinet / shakuhachi / noh-kan; Ig Henneman – viola

          Recorded in July 2006

          The CD title Stof, which means ‘material’, also in the sense of textiles, as well as ‘dust’, is as telling as ‘Brug’ – Bridge – the name of the composition that opened Henneman’s debut album. This material represents the transience of improvisation, its ephemerality, as well as what Henneman is searching for most, besides colour, in her music: texture. The duets with Ab Baars, who has been Henneman’s partner in improvisation and in life for many years, do ample justice to the word’s two-fold meaning. The music is often rarefied and brittle, so distinctly stripped back to the essence of air and friction but also materialised. The pieces have not been left as invasive flashes, nor are they a succession of unrelated ideas; they are recognisable attempts to construct something from nothing or almost nothing, to create on the spot, as well as to understand, support and where necessary contradict one’s fellow performer in that creative process. What resonates is two voices that belong together without being completely subsumed by the other; they literally play with one another. These pieces sometimes possess a wittier lightness than Henneman’s previous albums. However, it also includes more emotionally intense tracks such as ‘Stof – To Eiske’, in which the tension is ratcheted up across a timespan of more than 10 minutes. This piece returns inexorably and unremittingly to the beginning of the tale. As Samuel Beckett put it, ‘Try again, fail better.’ This is utter vulnerability, devoid of false sentiment. It seems as if Henneman’s fingers become entangled during an ever-accelerating solo and then re-muster themselves, receiving assistance from the clarinet, which starts to take up the theme softly and warmly. Then the music slowly dies away, the notes becoming sparser, the tone thinner, raspier and shriller, until silence falls.