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Hannis Brown: Oh Ah Ee - A musical self-portrait

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Your debut album “Oh Ah Ee“ is a cornucopia of different styles. What's holding the album together in your opinion? 
Initially, I wanted the album’s coherency to be its specific lack of coherency. Thought processes are constantly fragmenting and scattering and with “Oh Ah Ee,” I really wanted to capture a spectrum of different moments in my head—make a musical self-portrait of who I am at this moment.
I really tried to approach each song with an open mind, but I found that a lot of what came out of me were transcriptions of the anxiety I have about certain issues relevant to me at this point in my life: sense of place, sense of purpose, etc. All of the lyrics are really about that: “Nothing I Know Of,” “Never Know Where I Am Going,” “Don’t Want To Go Anymore.” The instrumentals scattered throughout the album are meant to be part breathing exercise/part hyperventilation in reaction to the song that precedes it… hence their phonetic names “Ahhhh,” “Eh AhOoo,” and so on. Ultimately, I think that sense of anxiety, coupled with similar recording techniques and use of found sound percussion, makes for a common thread that runs through the music.

Are the Rock-song format and a band line-up ideal for presenting unusual ideas in an accessible way?
I do feel that a “weird indie rock” album is a way to really explore different possibilities while maintaining an element of accessibility. Some of the more popular indie bands out there—Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Deerhoof—make really experimental, boundary-pushing music and most people I know seem to be able to absorb their music more easily than that of John Zorn or Xenakis. 
That being said, I just wanted to make something as personal as I possibly could, without worrying about what genre it fell under. I love a lot of different types of music, and groups like Talking Heads or Radiohead are certainly at least as important to me as Mingus or Bartok. I do a lot of film scoring and collaborative work, which excites me a great deal, but I wanted to make something that I didn’t have to run by anyone else or tone down. I also wanted to write music that I could personally perform, without involving too many outside musicians.

With its forays into so many different genres and thought-spaces, would it be correct to say that the album is a sort of summary of your work so far?
I would say so. I started out singing Simon & Garfunkle songs in my bedroom, became a jazz guitarist, went to school for classical composition, and started writing atmospheric music for film. All of those things have become intrinsic to who I am as a musician. I really wanted to use the full spectrum of my musical experience thus far, which meant incorporating the various tools I’ve acquired in my relatively short musical career.

Charles Mingus is quoted as an important source of inspiration ...
His music has always had an intense psychological effect on me—as much so as any other music I’ve heard. It’s very personal—very primal while being very intellectual. It seems like it could fall apart at any moment and that volatility has always really excited me. So often in jazz, a soloist goes into autopilot over a predictable rhythm section. But the instability of Mingus’ work seemed to really keep all of his musicians on their toes and emotionally involved. That’s part of what I ultimately want to create with my own music—a headspace that makes you lean forward and wonder whether everything will come together or explosively fall apart. I really admire that Mingus always sounded only like himself while, with relatively few exceptions, constantly pushing himself into new territory. He was as brilliant conceptually as he was in the execution of his music and that, in my opinion, makes for a truly amazing artist.

Microtonal music makes its entry into Rock through the backdoor on “Oh Ah Ee“. What does it add to the equation from your point of view?
I think that it adds to the element of discomfort created by some of the pieces. I used it very minimally on “Oh Ah Ee”—two violins holding the same note, then slowly glissing away from it in opposite directions, saxophone parts that bend around the diatonic notes of traditional Western music, a graphic cello piece that keeps the instrumentalist constantly sliding up and down the fingerboard. 
Microtonality has always elicited an interesting emotional effect for me. I’m using it mostly as an effect on this album, but masters like Ligeti and Scelsi used it to create amazingly evocative sonic spaces…think of the former’s “Atmospheres” which Kubrick used in “2001: A Space Odyssey:” it makes for such an emotionally intense and otherworldly sound.

The press release characterizes the pieces as “stream-of consciousness-compositions.” Do you, as one song title implies, “never know where you're going,” before setting out to work on a piece?
I think that my background in improvisation really lends itself that sort of composition. I do often plan the curve of a piece, but if my head jumps to somewhere unexpected, I’ll often follow it and determine later whether it works for me or not.

What kind of sound were you looking for with regards to the record as a whole?

Something about found-sound percussion has always really interested me—I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I wanted that to be an element that ran through “Oh Ah Ee.” I didn’t have the equipment or space to record drums, so I pounded on my metal heating system with a stick, drummed my fingers on my desk, slapped the bottoms of garbage cans, and tapped beer bottles with pencils. A lot of it was for the sake of experimentation and I threw a lot of stuff away before I came up with sounds that I really liked, but I think that it creates an element of intimacy… the album sounds like my living space, which I might not have gone for if I was a more astute producer or had access to better equipment or a professional studio. Like I’ve mentioned, I wanted to make something that sounded like me and using the objects I surround myself with seemed like a natural way to help accomplish that.

One of your most important projects at the moment is writing a string quartet for Ethel. How did that come about?
A friend gave me a copy of their their 2003 album “Ethel” and I really fell in love with it. They have a great punkish quality that sets them apart from the sterility of so many “new music” ensembles. I really wanted to work with them, which seemed like a long shot given that I’m a relatively unknown composer, but I emailed them a link to some of my instrumental music, and they wrote a very complimentary note back saying that they’d love to work with me.
It’s still very much in the conceptual stage, but the aim is to do something really collaborative—they’re great improvisers and I want to leave a lot of room via graphic/proportional notation for them to really bring themselves into the piece. I’ve also been playing around with using “prepared” instruments: sliding pieces of paper under the strings to create buzzing sounds, deadening tones with paper clips, etc. I’m really excited to see how it all pans out.

Homepage: Hannis Brown

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