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Interview: Dylan Henner

12 March 2021

Enigmatic composer Dylan Henner lets the music speak for itself on his latest release, which is a nod to two of the artist’s favourite works of American minimalism, honoring the originals whilst also putting his own stamp on these musical points of departure. Beneath the surface of simplicity is a creative spark of layered intrigue, and an inquiring mind that clearly processes experience and grapples with big questions through music. Join us as we uncover some of the mysteries shrouding this latest release from just two weeks ago.


Celeste: It seems you have been quite prolific in recent times, putting out a number of albums, the latest of which is ‘Great Prairie Plains: Studies of American Minimalism.’ Tell us a bit about your background as a musician and your journey to get here, putting out more interesting new work on the back of several other recent well-received releases. What has spurred this recent flurry of creativity?


Dylan Henner: I think two things got me here. Firstly, it’s lockdown. I can’t do much except write music! When all the social events, live music, culture and most outdoor activities are taken away, you have to do something to ward off impending, inevitable madness. And it turns out writing music is something that works for me. 


The second thing is that I tend to write music all the time anyway. The turnaround speed has probably been increased by environmental circumstances, but regardless of what’s going on in the world I will probably still always write music all the time. Sometimes I like to set myself specific projects, such as creating arrangements of music I love, or highly involved concept albums about a theoretical assessment of the nature of existence.


My musical background is not special. I studied music in school, and took some instrument lessons, including tuned percussion instruments such as marimba, which I now play a lot in my solo music. I discovered synthesisers when I was a teenager too. My love of field recordings came when I became a photography assistant for my day-job and began travelling around the world.


C: Could you tell us more about this latest release and what aspects of the process were most creatively stimulating for you? Was there a particular area of your craft a musician you were hoping to develop, or was this work driven more by inspiration and intuition?

DH: This latest release was driven by a love of the original pieces of music. In C was hugely important to my musical education, and opened a door to the minimalist and ambient music and avant garde music that I now hold as central influences to my own work. The Su Tissue piece is a work I really love but has become so rare I have long resigned to never owning a physical copy myself. My cover of the latter is based mostly in a selfishness, a desire to own the work somehow. In both cases, it was a joy to dive into the make-up of the works and to understand the core characteristics that define who and what they are. Like unravelling their DNA. And in doing so, I unravelled some of mine.


C: This album comprises two long-form pieces, and I wondered: why did you choose these two works in particular, and why side by side as an album? Were there any other pieces you considered for this project?


DH: I also considered Metamorphosis by Philip Glass. I intend to cover that too, one day. But the work needed for these two was difficult enough for an album. I do feel they are complementary musics. They’re both considered minimalism for different reasons. Su Tissue’s piece is founded entirely on repetition - the original keeps the same two chord sequence throughout, for the entire duration of the album. The Riley piece is minimalist because of its structural sparsity. Because each individual player in the ensemble (though in this case, just me) is required to play, say, three or four note sequences for an extended period within each movement. The harmony is built up by accumulation of miniature parts. But together, the two pieces are like two sides of the same coin: the study of American minimalism I explicitly reference in the title of the record.


C: I believe you originally formed your deep knowledge and connection with Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ at school-time when your teacher allowed you to study this piece in preference to the straighter classical music they normally taught. I’m wondering where the deep interest came from that drove you to persuade your teacher to study and transcribe this work in particular? How did you first hear it?


DH: I first heard the piece as a teenager. My mum was (still is!) a choir singer, and had a passing interest in 20th century minimalist music. It wasn’t a deep love of hers, or even something she spent a great  deal of time with, but her passing interest was enough to catch my attention. She showed me musicians like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley. It was enough for me to understand the boundlessness of music and creative expression. That music is all around us, in everything, all the time. I found it more interesting than much of the rest of the music around me, including the material I studied at school. I of course appreciate the genius of classical composition; I was just more inspired by minimalist and avant garde music then.


C: It’s interesting how you’ve kept similar key structural and textural elements, but with such a different sound palette; the end result is perfectly distanced from the original whilst still honoring its form. Was the choice of marimba a deliberate and immediate choice, or had you experimented with a range of timbres? In what ways did the original work inform these kinds of creative choices? 

DH: The marimba was a deliberate choice. It’s a really fitting instrument for larger arrangements because it can be layered without muddying the frequency field, which is of course crucial when you’re recording at home, one part at a time. If I had tried this for piano, for example, it would sound like a mess. The marimba groups really well into ensemble playing, to make up an engaging texture without choking the space. You can have 20 marimba parts (I think there’s about 20 in my version of In C) and still hear the air between the notes. There’s a few more instruments in the Riley cover: synthesisers, piano, some very quiet cello parts, a VST choir borrowed from the soundbanks for my last album The Invention of the Human.

C: By contrast, your adaptation of the 2nd Movement from near-mythical "lost" album ‘Salon de Musique’ by Su Tissue, is much more faithful to the original. Could you tell us more about what drew you to this piece originally? I understand you were driven to recreate it primarily because of the sheer impossibility to find hard copies of the original record. Would you like to see your work become part of that mythology of rarity with the cassette run you’ve just released? 


DH: Yes, absolutely. The record sells for around £300 a copy, at the time of writing, if you can find one. But the music is really special and really important to me, and this was the best way I could think to honour it and to enter into this kind of relationship with it. I don’t need to be a part of the mystique - my version of the piece will (hopefully!) last much longer than the limited cassette run and will remain widely available on digital formats after it sells out. In a slightly unlikely dream, I also really hope that my version can take some of the weight of responsibility away from Su. I understand she is uncomfortable with the interest her music has generated, and has long requested to remain out of public view. Perhaps the existence of a cover can help share the burden.


C: This work expands on the original with an extended coda of dreamy synth. It seems no coincidence that this track is roughly twice the original, and I wondered what relationship the second section has with the first, and how this developed out of the source material. Was this an intuitive process, or were there particular compositional principles at play? 


DH: Something between the two. I think it was important for me to create an arrangement of the piece instead of playing it through as closely as I could. Otherwise it would be meaningless - there would already be a much higher quality version in existence. So my intention was to follow a path illuminated by Su’s music. It’s not the path she took, nor the path someone else might take, but it’s the path my own version of the piece took. Musically, my addition to the piece uses the same themes, the same harmonic structure, but the timbral shift sets it apart from the rhythm and fullness of the earlier movement. Thematically, I borrowed an idea from William Basinski: the passing of time represented by gradual disintegration of textural clarity.


Lastly, I wonder: where to from here? Clearly you are a restless artist, and with a number of instruments in your command, it seems the possibilities are boundless. Are you working on any new material, and what kind of ideas are you interested in exploring next?


DH: I’ve been working on a follow-up to my 2020 album The Invention of the Human. This one - unlike the synthesised choir of that record - is made entirely of my own voice, through a huge range of processing treatments. It’s designed as a kind of thematic cousin. I’m also now sketching out ideas for another album, which is just in its beginning stages now. And I finally invested in equipment to begin playing live. It seems a good time, in enforced isolation, to start preparing something to eventually share with a real audience.


And so, after taking a closer look, the finer details emerge and interest lingers. A warm thank you to Dylan Henner for sharing so openly and offering some deeper insights into the thoughts that inspire, the process behind the creation, and the music that touches softly, but deeply. With the glimmers of future projects already on the horizon, we look forward to seeing what materialises. 

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