Ig Henneman Sextet – Cut a Caper

There is a well-known piece by that great American composer Morton Feldman called The Viola in My Life, marked by incredibly slow attacks and a sense of almost sculptural stillness. I vividly remember that when I first saw the title written down I mis-read it as ‘The Viola Is My Life’. I kept that version stashed away in the unconscious until the first time I heard Ig Henneman playing, and learned again that there is always some truth in a misreading.

      As a capacious box set released to mark her 65th (really?) birthday last year announced to newcomers and confirmed to longer-standing admirers, Henneman has made the sound of that once dismissed and overlooked instrument – which counts a remarkable number of important composers, from Mozart to Hindemith to Benjamin Britten, among its exponents – not only ‘her own’, in that rather bland formulation we use for anyone who has technical mastery, but has also placed it at the centre of her musical world. It is by no means a truism to say that she composes for the viola. This is not just a matter of range, of where the notes happen to fall statistically. It is about the entire language and cast of the music. Henneman cheerfully contradicts the idea that the viola is a hermaphroditic oddity, underpowered, lacking in muscle and possessed only of a muted lyricism. Whether in her duo improvisations with saxophonist and partner Ab Baars, also a key member of the sextet, or at the centre of her ten-piece ensemble (which is one of the most creative but still one of the most underrated groups on the current European scene), Henneman shows that yin and yang are not opposites that tug away from each other and are only meaningful in opposition. Quite the contrary. They only exist in a complex, dynamic dance.
Consider the opening of ‘Moot’, a title which suggests something much more interesting and interactive than the usual (and usually mis-used) English sense of ‘a moot point’. To digress for a moment, one might say there are no moot points in Ig Henneman’s music; it is all directed to some clear end, even it does retain some fruitful ambiguities. No, a ‘moot’ is a meeting or gathering or encounter, and if to some extent every improvising situation is a moot, then its use here is almost definitive.

      The viola is my life. Why is that formulation both self-evidently right and crashingly wrong for Ig Henneman? It is wrong because the words suggest some kind of inward virtuosity, a merely private encounter between instrument and player. One of Henneman’s most remarkable qualities is her gift for association, or to use another English word which has been degraded over time, her sympathy. Consider it more in the musical sense of ‘sympathetic’ strings, or something that resonates in time and tune with the original source. Henneman’s highly sympathetic musicianship can be witnessed in the Queen Mab Trio with Lori Freedman and Marilyn Lerner, where the emotional geometries do, indeed, partake of magic; it is evident in her marshalling of the Tentet; also in her String Quartet, an outlet for a personalised kind of ricercare, musical ‘research’ of the most delighted and delightful kind; and perhaps most of all in the current Sextet. Listening to these tracks, with their ‘solo’ excursions, ensembles and subdivisions, the impression one invariably takes away is a group voice, a collective understanding that works in a common direction even when the parts and the voices seem quite fractured and dissociated. (It’s very instructive to listen to Henneman’s Sextet and then immediately put on some of the oldest and earliest jazz records: Ladd’s Black Aces, or Lovie Austin, or the Clouds of Joy, or even Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Do you hear the similarity? The earliest jazz groups had fiddles and clarinets before they had saxophones and pianos, but more important is their sense of how the collective moves within and against itself, how much disorder can be contained within the chorus structure or just 12 bars. Try it and see. Or rather hear.)

      The gloomier observers of jazz’s decline from hot to cool to feverish and cerebral always lament that jazz has lost its contact with dance. Here’s a group that always seems to be re-engaging with dance, even if it is the kind of ‘dancing in the head’ that Ornette Coleman choreographed forty years ago. Perhaps it has something to do with the male/female twinning that one sees on stage, or perhaps the echoes of early dance-bands in the instrumentation. But isn’t there also something in the pitch of the music itself, right from those floor-clearing measures at the beginning of ‘Moot’, that suggests there is movement in this music, something that addresses the body as well as the listening head?

      More questions than answers, but that is in the nature both of this music and of this musician. Ig Henneman’s music always asks us questions of ourselves. It doesn’t make insistent demands. It proposes, and argues, advances and invites, whirls away on its own but always returns. Perhaps the Morton Feldman title is more appropriate after all: the viola in my life . . . for Ig Henneman consistently presents a music that is in and of the world, not at all detached and vapidly transcendent but a music that addresses us as individuals and as members of society, physical beings engaged in the social caper rather than abstractions in a concert hall. Whatever the case, the viola is at the heart of it . . .

--Brian Morton