Name: Hannis Brown
Recent Commission: Music for Hotel Elefant, ETHEL string quartet and Barneys Holiday Windows: One is a chamber-music installation to accompany a glass sculpture by the artist Dale Chihuly. The other is an electroacoustic score to a massive castle built of ice.
Labels: Lumberton Trading Company
Musical Recommendations: I imagine that most people reading this know John Zorn as the saxophonist who squeals a lot, but a few nights ago I heard the JACK quartet perform his Necromicron and it completely blew my mind. I’d recommend checking out that Zorn – John Zorn the composer.
I will also mention Tristan Perich at least once in this interview. Last year, he and the pianist Vicky Chow (of the Bang on a Can All-Stars) released Surface Image for solo piano and 40 individually-tuned, 1-bit electronic speakers. Listen to that.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
While I didn’t consider myself a “composer” until graduate school, I started writing songs in the 8th grade. I grew up near Phoenix, Arizona and the summers there are so unbearably hot (often 110-120 degrees) that I spent an entire summer – all day, every day – learning to play a pass-me-down nylon string guitar. I was particularly obsessed with early Paul Simon and 60s folk music and folk rock.
That love of acoustic music eventually led me to Django Reinhardt which, in turn, led to the 1950s/60s guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, whose all-acoustic Virtuoso No. 1 was probably my first big non-folk influence. That led to jazz, and ultimately Charles Mingus, who kind of changed everything for me. Mingus’s music really introduced me to the concept of the composer – a puppeteer who sketched out big ideas ahead of time, played with instrumental combinations, etc.
Later, in college, I really got into the music of Béla Bartók and György Ligeti. For some reason, although I had a happy childhood and have led a pretty great life to date, I’ve always liked the tormented musicians the most. Mingus, Bartók and Ligeti all have that. In a sense, most rock and roll worth listening to – the anxious, angry stuff both on and beneath the surface – has that, too.
My earliest near-religious musical experience, however, happened when I was 7 or 8, and while I can’t remember the when/where details, I distinctly remember the intensity of emotion. I had played violin since the 4th grade and was playing the Gustav Holst’s The Planets: “Jupiter” with a summer youth orchestra. During the regal slow movement, I had this indescribable, near-religious feeling. It was the first time I ever felt anything like that, but over the years, I’ve felt it sparingly, but again and again. It’s the feeling I use to identify sounds that really resonate with me.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Of course, I’ve learned a lot through imitation. As a jazz musician, I spent hours and hours by myself trying to learn every possible chord inversion, a la Joe Pass, and play octaves like Wes Montgomery did. And I think that I’ll still always want to play guitar the way that Jonny Greenwood does with Radiohead or Adrian Belew did on those Talking Heads records. Or make mesmerizing, shifting textures like Tortoise or Steve Reich.
For me however, the biggest transition toward building my own voice has simply been playing or collaborating with others. I played a weekly jazz gig for years and I learned a LOT about my own idiosyncrasies, particularly in the context of chaos: someone gets lost and everything falls apart and you actually have to listen.
Somewhat similarly, my work as a film composer has really put tools in my hands that I never thought I’d need, but have become essential elements of my core sound. Sampling everyday objects (pencils, knives, coins) to build textures and layering sounds of breathing – the whole one-man-orchestra thing – owes a lot to late night film and commercial work. Trying to come up with a solution and inadvertently reinventing the wheel, but finding something really compelling in the process.
That said, I never really felt comfortable calling myself a jazz musician or a film composer. It took me a while to realize that I was trying to chase a down-the-center career when my heart was really in the weird stuff just off of that path. When I let go of trying to fit in either mold, my artistic career really started to move.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Oh man. There are so many. There’s the need to come up with a really unique voice, but one that’s different not for the sake of being different. I reject so many ideas because they remind of other ideas (both others’ and my own) that it can become crippling.
There’s also the necessary ability to step away from a composition and say “this is done” or “this was a good exercise, but even though I put a month into this, there’s really nothing here.”
I think that the biggest challenge lately for me, however, is simply keeping myself hungry. The angst and transiency of being in one’s 20s are very useful compositional tools. I still have those feelings, but they’ve changed somewhat and I find that I need to look for and siphon those anxieties.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My “studio” is my New York Living room. And it’s really simple. I don’t have any treatments on the walls or windows (and I live on a busy street frequented at night by motorcycle gangs). It’s not that I’m specifically trying to give my recordings a specific lo-fi aesthetic or “character,” it’s just that the sound of a room isn’t something that’s ever really bothered me. And few of my favorite recordings (in any genre) have that sterile studio sound.
I use a Protools Mbox as an interface into Logic (a software digital-audio workstation). I record my vocals, violin, banjo and foundsounds on a single shure 57 mic.
I think that if I was better/more familiar with more types of technology, I’d use them, but in a lot of ways, I’m still more of a pen-and-paper/acoustic instrument type of guy. For me, the technology is more of a way to capture improvisations/ideas and color in post-production. Of course, there are a zillion exceptions.