New Voice: Karl Henning


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Karl Henning studied clarinet, conducting and orchestration with Nancy Buckingham Garlick, conducting and theory with Jack Russell, and composition with Jack Gallagher, Paul Schwartz, Judith Shatin, Walter Ross, Louis Andriessen and Charles Wuorinen. Karl’s formal study resulted in a B.Mus. with a double major in composition and clarinet performance at the College of Wooster (OH), an M.A. in composition at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) and a Ph.D. in composition at SUNY Buffalo. After his doctoral work, Karl spent four years in and near St Petersburg, Russia – a period of informal arts study which he finds in many ways equal in importance to his years of formal training.

Karl’s music has been played and sung on each of three continents (North America, Europe and Australia), including performances given by the Helmondse Orkestvereniging in the Netherlands, the Shoalhaven Chamber Orchestra in New South Wales, the Ithaca (NY) Brass, the Collegium Cantorum of the Cathedral at Uppsala (Sweden), the Illarwarra Choral Society (NSW), Boston’s own King’s Chapel, and the Cathedral Church of St Paul (both on Tremont Street), First Church in Boston (in the Back Bay) and St Paul’s Cathedral in Cambridge (MA).

Recent work includes: Annabel Lee, a setting for vocal quartet of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, written for the Libella Quartet (who will perform it a second time this spring); When the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy for shakuhachi, handbell choir & tenor drum; and Plotting (y is the new x) for violin and harpsichord, written for EmmaLee Holmes Hicks and Paul Cienniwa who will perform it in Boston and in Newport, RI this March.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

Probably, being in a region or all-state band which was playing Hindemith‘s Symphony in B-flat. From the first moment we started rehearsing it, I found the rhythmic profile and pitch world exhilarating, and I was further elated at the thought that my lifespan overlapped with the composer’s. This experience was probably the earliest event which set me to the serious consideration to seek to be a composer, myself.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Early on, Beethoven and Stravinsky were powerful influences; Beethoven, not so much for soundworld, but for getting an idea of how to manage a piece, on larger and smaller scales. Stravinsky has always been a strong influence, both specifically for certain sonic approaches, but also in a way complementary to Beethoven: how convincingly to *subvert* classical musical ‘architecture’. Later on, and in different ways (save that, again, the influence is subtle and elemental, for my music sounds nothing in particular like theirs) Chopin and Shostakovich.

But the fact is that I have continually “adopted” more and more influential composers over the years: Morton Feldman, Hector Berlioz, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and going on . . . .

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

I do my creative work around three jobs (two of them non-musical); so I have settled into a regular habit of composing while riding the train or subway. So, pen and paper are still regular tools for me. The convenience of a good notation software cannot be overestimated (nor the professional look of the resulting sheet music); and I very happily use Sibelius 7; and at times, I either modify, or make additions, to a piece while in the process of plugging a pen-&-paper sketch into the Sibelius file. On occasion, I compose a piece entirely “on the fly” in Sibelius. 

Long ago, I adopted a sort of “two-tier” approach to a composition; I would sketch a sort of ‘global outline’, would decide on an overall duration, and would plot out in broad terms successive sections. Depending on the piece, I would fill in musical detail to a greater or lesser degree. 

But (and I think this is related to my insistence, over time, upon continuing to perform, myself) I was always alive to the linear ‘narrative’ of the piece; and it generally happens that I modify (or even, abandon) elements of The Grand Scheme (above) as I am working on the piece. 

Often I compose the ending of a piece first (or early on), so that I know where I am going at the last. (I still typed “often” there, although as I consider the matter, I don’t believe I have “pre-composed” the ending of any of the most recent 15 pieces I have composed . . . .) 

Whether I am working by placing ink onto paper, or mouse-clicking entries, I think of the composition as a sort of mental improvisation. As a performer, I am actually not at all a good improviser; I feel I am a stronger improviser with pen and paper . . . .

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

Three fellow composers and I here in Massachusetts have recently (in a word) formed a group, called The 9th Ear; and we played our first concerts on 31 Jan & 1 Feb. For the occasion I composed a quartet for flute, clarinet, guitar and double-bass. (This was one of those rare instances in which I created the entire piece “on the fly” in Sibelius.) The scoring suggested to me the style of a piece to be called Jazz for Nostalgic Squirrels. Two elements which had “external” origins: the idea of amplifying the guitar came from my composition instructor from my days at the College of Wooster, Jack Gallagher; and the idea of “swinging” the eighths was Peter H. Bloom’s (the flutist). 

When I was at Wooster (separately) one of the pieces we studied was Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw. One of the notes I made to my score was a verbatim remark of the teacher’s: “Do you realize that the entire piece is in 4/4?” The rhythmic profile of the piece is so rich, that the fact may elude the student, that none of that rhythmic interest is created by changes of meter, per se, but music is written in such a way that there is no tiresome metrical repetition. The Squirrels is one of a number of pieces in which I have made a point of applying that lesson.

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