Ig Henneman

Ig Henneman and her choices

by Anne La Berge

I met the Dutch composer/performer and bandleader Ig Henneman when I first arrived in Amsterdam in 1989. Even though her career as a composer/performer was still in its early stages, I was already deeply impressed by the sheer diversity of her activities. Improvising on the viola and composing, not only for her own bands, but also for ensembles of all shapes and sizes, she was already making her stamp on the Dutch music scene. On a more personal note, I felt immediately that we shared a dedication to extremes in structure and a belief in improvisation as part of our musical languages as composer/performers. In 2007, I commissioned the work Bow Valley Whistle for flute and samples. During our collaboration I learned even more about how Ig composes and the reasons behind the aesthetic choices she makes. I have enjoyed performing this quirky and very personal work worldwide. When Ig mentioned that she would be celebrating her twenty-fifth anniversary as a composer/bandleader and her sixty-fifth birthday this year, I thought it these milestones would be the perfect occasion to have an extended chat about her life and work.

We talked at the dining table in my apartment just outside the center of Amsterdam. Ig has just peeled off multiple layers of rain gear after a courageous bike ride across town through heavy Dutch showers.  We’ve had our first cup of tea and bites of the chocolate cake that Ig has brought from one of our favorite bakeries nearby her apartment in the center of the canal district.

This interview was done for the Women and Music Foundation in recognition of Ig Henneman’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a composer/bandleader and her sixty-fifth birthday. The title is in reference to the many choices Ig has made throughout her wonderfully abundant and multi-faceted career.

An interview of Ig Henneman by Anne La Berge – August 2010

Composer/performer Ig Henneman celebrates her twenty-fifth anniversary as a composer/bandleader and her sixty-fifth birthday this year. As part of the celebration, she will be touring with her new international Ig Henneman Sextet. The compositions and improvisations in the sextet concert program include homages to some of her artistic soul-mates including Thelonious Monk, Emily Dickinson, Jimmy Giuffre, Ian Dury, Galina Oestvolskaya, Misha Mengelberg, Morton Feldman en Francesco Landini.

This anniversary tour is a celebration of the pivotal moments in Ig Henneman’s career as composer/violist/bandleader in both the modern classical music and improvisation worlds and includes a select group of musicians that Ig regards as musical kindred spirits.

In her own words, Ig sees this project as another step forward. “I have worked for years with the Henneman String Quartet and I feel like it’s time for a new band. This anniversary is a good reason to form a new group. Through the years, I have met many musicians but few kindred spirits. The new Ig Henneman Sextet consists of kindred spirits that I have built a history with and one newcomer. They are Ab Baars on saxophone, clarinet and shakuhachi, my partner in life and work; Wilbert de Joode on bass, my soulmate in all the years I’ve spent as a band leader; the Queen Mab Trio, Lori Freedman on bass clarinet and Marion Lerner on piano, from Canada, with whom I’ve played many beautiful concerts in the last eight years; and as “newcomer,” the Berlin trumpettist Axel Dörner. I have also known him for years and see this as the right time to invite him into the sextet. We start rehearsing three days before the first concert. Because it’s an international group, there’s not enough funding to support a whole week of rehearsals. I prefer to rehearse very fast when preparing for improvised-music concerts anyway.”

A: First off, would you give us a short description of your upcoming Kindred Spirits project? Why did you develop the program the way you did and why did you ask these specific players to join you?

I: The first reason was that I will be celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday. It’s a silly reason because nobody is interested in my birthday but I wanted to show my friends and family what I am doing because I am proud of it. And then I realized that in 1985 I began my career as a composer/bandleader when I started my first band, the Ig Henneman Quintet. That was twenty-five years ago and those twenty-five years are worth celebrating.

A: And the rock band FC Gerania?

I: That was nobody’s and everybody’s band. I was not the leader.

So twenty-five years from when I started leading my own bands was a better reason to have a celebration. It was in 1985 when I really decided that I had my own taste. It’s a small word, but taste is so important to have to know what you really want to do. In 1984, the rock band fell apart and I wanted to improvise more. I started collecting material and listening to New York improvisers. I gathered many things around me and decided that it was time to have my own band, be the boss and develop my own ideas. In general, I think that a band with a leader always works the best. There was a huge period in the 60’s where people denied leadership and believed in the collective. In my opinion that is a total misunderstanding of how things work and a waste of time. So I decided instead that I wanted to have my own band. First I started collecting material and, at the same time, I listened to a lot of musicians to find musicians that I wanted to have in my band. I asked the guitar player, Regina Gorter, who I already knew from FC Gerania. I wanted a bass player and discovered Wilbert de Joode, who had impressive energy and dedication. He had been playing electric bass and was just starting to play the double bass.  He wasn’t even using his bow when we first started working together.

So the quintet became Regina Gorter on guitar, Wilbert de Joode on bass, Theo Bodewes on drums and Eric Boeren on trumpet. I worked with the quintet from 1986 to 1993. There were different formations during those years and Wilbert was the only consistent member throughout. We made the CD ‘in Grassetto’ that was released in 1991.

A: So you began collecting kindred spirits with your first quintet in 1985.

I: Yes. Now after those twenty-five years I want to start a new band and I wanted to give it something that reaches out to people. Offer a view on myself. That’s why I’ve given this project the name Kindred Spirits. The people that I choose to play with have been my inspiration and some of the most important people to me in all those years. The list includes performers, composers, writers and poets.

A: Let’s backtrack a bit. You spoke about Queen Mab. Why did you go so far away to unite with these players in 2002?

I: I was very tired at the turn of the century. I was fifty-five at that time. I had worked so hard. Made a lot of CDs for my own Wig label, composed a lot, had different bands and different projects, and I had to keep the Wig Foundation up and running. I felt like I needed to get away from my life here. Maybe that was one of the reasons. Lori and I always kept in touch after she played in one of my Tentet projects and she sent me the Queen Mab duo CD “Close” that had all different guests. I loved that CD so much that I just called her and told her that if they ever wanted me as a guest I’ll would be there.

During our first (Queen Mab duo plus me as guest) tour we were traveling back from Banff to Calgary by car I and said, “I think this is the Queen Mab trio now.” They agreed. We were simply three independent musicians that wanted to play together. It was not my band. Lori and Marion were at the point as free improvisers where they wanted to explore more and move on to a new phase. I brought in more compositional material. It was good for them at that time to work with me and it was good for me to play with them because there was plenty of room for me as an improviser. We all three kept adding more and more material.

I: Were you looking in other directions for something to feed you as an artist then?

I: Yeah, I wanted to play more and have less responsibility. Until then, I had always been the band leader, nearly always the only woman, and all the stuff that comes with that. I felt like the whole Dutch system was wearing me down. People think that we are spoiled here in the Netherlands. Of course we are spoiled because we have the system that supports the arts and our activities, but it’s not like we can simply hold our hand out and get money for our projects. I had to learn so many professions to build my career: start a foundation, serve as director, do the business, take care of the finances, manage a CD label and organize the tours. It’s totally insane and when I reached fifty and kept running and running, it became harder for me. When I look back at that period, I see that I had wanted to play the viola more. Because I was so involved organizing and preparing the projects and concerts, I actually didn’t have enough time to work on my skills as a player in the way that I really wanted to.

A: Was that also the time when you and Ab started playing together?

I: Yes. That was in 1999 and it was totally coincidental that it happened. We wanted to take some time away from Amsterdam and we went to Rome. We met some improvisers there and were asked to play as a duo on the Controindicazioni festival in October. It was their idea. So we thought about it for a couple of days and decided that, as long as we were there, we’d give it a try. We were totally isolated from the world at that time because we were working every day, the whole day. I was composing and practicing viola. Ab was practicing tenorsax and clarinet. We had weeks and weeks to develop a program and to try things out. Our festival concert was a huge success. People really loved it. And then every time we returned to Rome we played a few duo performances. That was the beginning. For the last five years we’ve played and toured together quite a lot.

A: Do you think your duo with Ab would have happened anyway, somewhere, somehow?

I: I have no idea. Maybe not. If they hadn’t suggested this, we may not have discovered that we liked to work together so intensely.

A: Do you and Ab usually work with one or two guests? I’ve seen you perform as a duo, for instance at the Jazz Festival in Ottawa, Canada. That was a lovely concert.

I: We do a lot of duos, too. For instance, we’ll be at the Molde Festival in Norway next week. But we like to include guests when we tour.

When we celebrated our fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays together, we toured from Amsterdam down to Palermo and we played in each city with a different guest. That was really nice. We did all kinds of small concerts at clubs and little festivals.

A: So the duo will last forever?

I: As long as I keep playing.

A: Another long-term ensemble project is your string quartet. Did your quintet sort of evolve into a quartet or did you stop one project before you thought about the next?

I: The quintet still existed when I formed the project on Emily Dickinson with the first Tentet combination. I wanted to do a project using poetry and the work of Dickinson spoke to me. The Tentet projects were all individual projects with different combinations of players that I put together in the early 90’s. Those larger projects gave me many possibilities for composition and instrumentation. The quartet evolved out of the Emily Dickinson project. At that time I wanted to have a smaller band that could do smaller things because working with a group of ten people is totally insane. Too many people. You can use ten musicians in a specific project but for touring a quartet is better.

A: And why did you settle on a string quartet this time?

I: I wanted to find out what I could do with strings alone. I listened a lot to improvising string quartets. Most of them I didn’t like at all. But I wanted to try it out myself. And using the double bass is totally different from composing for a classic string quartet instrumentation. Most of all, I wanted to have more space for different volumes. That was one reason why my string quartet was the first ensemble I put together that had no drummer.

A: That sounds like a big move. Were the Tentets also amplified?

I: We worked mostly with microphones. But with the string quartet we did a big project called Westwerk where we played in all kinds of little medieval churches. The concert was completely acoustic and it was so nice that we were not amplified. I really liked it.

A: Did you have sleepless nights wondering about who would be in your string quartet as you were forming it or did it happen organically?

I: The string players Wilbert de Joode, Tristan Honsinger and Mary Oliver were already in my Tentet band and I had been working with these people for a long time. It just felt right. The quartet lasted from 1994 to 2004. Ten years. We had our last concert in 2004. I never decided to stop it. I became so involved with the Queen Mab trio and with my duo with Ab at that time that I didn’t pursue concerts for the quartet. I was composing a lot and needed to divide my time between composing, performing, practicing and management. When I look back on the transition time between the quartet and my recent projects I see that I’ve grown enormously as an improviser in the last eight years. I have a much clearer idea what I can do and what I want to do. Of course, my technical skills are not getting any better these days. I often describe myself as an old painter that uses a rough brush but still knows exactly what she or he wants to produce rather than depending on an array of virtuoso techniques. It is less important for me to depend on so many technical skills than on my creativity and resourcefulness.

A: I recently heard a composer explain to me that she found it a shame that singers lose their technique as they age. I think that many older performers can offer such a rich palate of experience and character that the comparison between technique and depth of experience is somehow irrelevant. Have you had this experience as both a composer and as a performer?

I: I learned to produce a viola tone that suits my own musical language much later and I did it on my own. It was after my conservatory training and I was almost thirty years old, I think. Now, after all these years, I finally love my instrument.

A: I can see that love when you play. Have you found a new home in the last eight years or so?

I: It’s fantastic. I really love it. I think it has to do with deciding to go to Canada and to play in a duo with Ab. That gave me the room to focus more on my instrument. It was always there. Especially with the rock band. In the days I played with FC Gerania I had a golden Barkus Berry viola, a very loud and ugly instrument.  One time I wanted to play a single note in the intro of a song during a concert in Paradiso. As I was just getting into playing a low C that I wanted to last forever, the drummer came in and I lost my chance. Since that time I’ve always longed to do something that is really mine and now I’ve found it. I trust that when I’m on stage these days I can even surprise myself. It’s such a good feeling.

A: Let’s talk about composition. That is yet another musical activity you pay serious attention to. You’ve spoken about needing to make decisions regarding how much time and energy you invest in practicing, performing, composing and managing. Do you decide consciously each week or month how you’ll juggle all of these aspects of your musical life?

I: I decide by the day and the month and the year. In retrospect, I see that making decisions was somewhat dictated by need. By, “I have to do this and I have to do that.”

A: Did you feel that you wanted to continue as a composer/performer and that you needed the viola to do that?

I: To be a composer/performer is such a luxury. As a performer, I have far more contact with my audience. When I improvise (call it “instant composing”) on the viola, I use my intuition in ways where there are no thresholds between soul and sound. I don’t have to deal with all the complicated baggage that fully notated composing requires. I don’t need to notate everything. The music is immediately there and I don’t have to wait for other people to perform it. As a performer I can share my music with colleagues on the spot. It is less lonely than composing. And on top of that, improvising is an important inspiration for my composing. It feeds my imagination. Enough reasons for keeping up the viola.

A: Let’s look back a bit now. Bands, improvising and the viola have clearly been deeply essential to your musical world. And then composition snuck in. You’ve been actively composing in the two different streams since you were in your early forties. But, at some point, you decided to seek a composition coach. What led you to do that?

I: That was a long time ago. I got a commission from the Leids Studenten Kamer Orkest as part of a program of women composers. They asked me to write an orchestra piece. I phoned Theo Loevendie to ask him what I should do. He said, “just jump in the water and I’ll help you.”  I knew him because I had taken counterpoint from him in Haarlem when I was seventeen. After that first phone call, when I every now and then got stuck, Theo helped me out. Later, I showed Ton de Leeuw my film score and he told me that it was composed with verve. He seemed to like my work but told me that I was too old to start being a composer. I was 40 at the time. After that, I met up with Maarten Altena and he told me that he was studying with Robert Heppener. Maarten had a similar strange background to mine and I thought that perhaps Heppener would be good to work with. I had worked with him when I was studying at the conservatory in Amsterdam and liked him. He seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I only went to him when I needed him to have a look at what I was working on. The first time I called him I was totally stuck. His first advice over the phone was to say, “OK. When you intend to sit at your table and compose at 9.00 am, then sit at your table at 9.00 am.” We all know that this should be very simple to do. But it’s so true that one needs to be reminded to do it. The other thing he said on the phone was “just write something down. Then you can throw it away.” We then made an agreement that I would write a short piece everyday. It felt very good. I’ve used some of the material later. I did a bass clarinet piece with him. He was very important to me for a certain period even though it was only four times a year or so. I went all the way to Limburg to see him.

I would never have dared to be a composer if I had stayed in the classical music world. In that world, you have to feel like you’re Mozart to compose. While I was playing in the rock band I wrote songs and you know, every band in the world needs songs.  But later, when I went back to my classical roots as a composer for totally scored pieces I felt like I didn’t know enough and thought that it would be good to have someone coach me. In the end, I made a good decision to ask Heppener because our work together was exactly what I needed. He told me ten years later that he had found my material so minimal that he often wondered what I would do with it and was impressed with my solutions. He gave me the confidence to keep searching and looking for that unique trait I gave to my compositions.

A: You come out of an unusually talented family.  Your brothers and sisters have all achieved respectable careers and some of them are also artists. Did all of your siblings play musical instruments at a young age as you did?

I: Nobody. I was the only serious one. My brothers and sisters played a bit of piano, recorder and guitar. My mother said that I always sat next to the radio and listened to music. She also played a little bit of piano. Mostly old Dutch songs. When I was five years old I wanted to play the piano. It was my thing.

A: And even though you were such a successful young pianist, was it your choice to move on to violin?

I: Yes, I dreamed about playing the violin. My mother told me just to keep playing the piano but finally I got a violin. You know, children mostly choose something that belongs to them, that suits them. I was too lonely playing the piano and I wanted to play with other people. I even remember that I was very proud that I could show off that I was a violinist while walking through the streets of Haarlem with a violin case in my hand.

A: And when did you change to the viola?

I: While I was playing in ASKO, (*) I switched to viola. I loved it. I started playing with ASKO as a violinist but at that time they needed a violist. After that I studied with Louis Metz here in Amsterdam and Erwin Schiffer in Tilburg.

A: The viola has a specific historic baggage and a special sound. What is it about the viola that you love?

I: I love the range of the instrument. I’m not a fan of high pitched instruments. I like male singers more than absurdly high virtuoso voices. The conservatory education and discipline for the violin is totally linked to virtuosity and that didn’t grab me. I wanted to play contemporary music and the viola suited me much more. I could make my own choices about the sounds I used and make my own interpretations without all that history on my back. And the viola tradition is more lazy. Its more about filling in the parts. Now I understand why I liked playing it in an ensemble such as ASKO. For a composer its very nice to sit in the middle of an ensemble. I could hear all the low instruments and I enjoyed the musical roles the viola played.

A: When you look back at your career moves, can you think of any that stick out? It sounds to me like your story is a wonderful series of developments.

I: It just happened intuitively. I never made a career plan. When I played with symphony orchestras I simply knew that I did not want to be there. There were things that I clearly did not want to do but I wasn’t sure what I did want to do. I was curious and wanted to try things. I remember when I was in the rock band and I wrote my first song. It surprised me that there were things in me that I had to say. My inner voice said to me, “Hey!! I love to make songs!”

One of the papers I wrote in high school was about blocks with black and white people scratching their nails on the blocks. While I was writing I realized that I had a real need to write and to create. That surprised me. I had a good education at a girls’ school and we had many music and art classes but it was the time I wrote this paper and later when I made my first rock song that I felt my creativity and my need to express something.

A: As an outsider looking at your family, I would have assumed that the minute you were born you were told that you were supposed to be creative.

I: My father had his own business and we were a family of independent spirits where everyone created their own opportunities. My mother was a perfect organizer. She had been a teacher and she was very talented and creative, especially in drawing.

A: So you didn’t feel that you were required to be creative?

I: No, not at all. But I was required to take responsibility for what I wanted to do. That’s what we learned. Don’t run away. Just do it. My mother thought that creativity was what we needed to learn well. She supplied us with toys and taught us crafts and how to use our hands early on. Being an artist is, of course, something else. But I was used to feeling that I could create something new. I also trusted that I could find people to help me or to teach me things I wanted to learn.

A: I think it’s remarkable that you had the courage from early on to phone someone up for help.

I: When I was ten or eleven, I wanted to change piano teachers from the one I had, Lottie Koekoek, to a man. My mother handed me the phone and told me to find one. I had to do it all myself and I did it. That was part of my family education. It’s incredible when I see what parents do for children now.

A: Shall we touch on your role as a woman in the Dutch musical culture?

I: I’d like to talk about the woman thing in reference to the all-woman rock band FC Gerania that lasted from 1977 to 1984. This experience was very, very important for me. Not only did I start writing my first songs at that time but we made our historical mark as women. We could play everywhere because it was the second feminist movement here in Holland. I am actually a product of the second women’s movement. That was the time when my career started. In that band we did everything ourselves and there were no men judging how we did them. This was unusual then for a group of women musicians.

A: Do you think about your career in terms of being a woman?

I: After I was in FC Gerania, I didn’t want to think about these things anymore. I decided not to look at it. The only other time I looked closely at that chapter again was in 1991 when I was involved in organizing the Congress on Women in Music. I found it very important to have a central role in such an important event for women. I have many things to say about women’s issues but for myself I try not to think about it too much. The only thing I would like to say is that when I meet young women I like to hear their stories. When I see them struggle with their careers in their thirties it is important to me to talk to them and to encourage them to keep going. I feel like I can be a role model for them.

A: Do you consider yourself a role model because of your history?

I: I don’t know. I’m the only woman in Holland from my generation that does what I do, as far as I know.

A: I have one more question. If you would look at your career as if it were an image, a film or an abstract form, rather than a list of events that you’ve experienced, what would you see?

I: I am very visually oriented. When I think about composing a piece I mostly see geometric figures in my head. Similar to that paper I wrote in high school. But I don’t see my life as a visual image. Not like a Mondrian painting or something. As I get closer to this upcoming anniversary tour and look back at my life, I see my huge family and then my move to Amsterdam and then being unhappy at the conservatory and then this blooming rock band and then all of my own bands with their creative explosions and then now, in the present, as I, an older woman, search for what is still possible for me to do. And I see that I am looking forward to developing specific things that I want and need to do.

This whole Kindred Spirits project is an enormous undertaking, like so many I’ve done before. It feels different though, in that I realize that I know how to produce this project in my own way and if bits go wrong, I’m too old to be stressed. That is a very good feeling. In response to your question, I would say that the colors of my life are less bright. This also has to do with the fact that there are people around me who have died recently. In the applications for funding for this project, I wrote that the sounds from this project could range from a ferocious train to a totally abstract white painting. But that’s how I feel about my life too. There is more sadness and there is more peace.

* ASKO was one of the first new music ensembles in the Netherlands. At that time it was still a student chamber orchestra