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Katt Hernandez: Spiral Passes

By Published: May 19, 2010
Katt Hernandez plays violin with a hand and eye versed in the vagaries of natural sound. A student of microtonal music, she is also steeped in European folk traditions, and skilled in classical forms of improvisation. While her work goes in many directions, it stays sharp and swift and supple.

She is equally adept in all modes of musical reasoning. Whether alone or in ensemble, she wraps her mind around her improvised, atonal melodies and anti-melodies, on the fly, always keeping course throughout performance, never failing to set wheels down before she lands.

All About Jazz: You've lived in many places, Katt.

Katt Hernandez: I lived in Philadelphia for the last three years. I went to Baltimore a lot when I lived there...Philly's like an hour or two south of New York and an hour or two north of Baltimore, so living there might continue the illusion that I'm living everywhere at once...I really love Baltimore's music situation. There's a really amazing scene there of people doing really interesting, iconoclastic things.

AAJ: When I first saw you, you were playing with Audrey Chen, at the Frantasia festival (Livermore Falls, Maine), in 2008.

KH: Oh, yeah. That's right. We did the duo.

AAJ: Now had you played with her before?

KH: Yes. I met her in 2003, at the High Zero festival in Baltimore. We started working together more when I moved to Philadelphia, because we were in close proximity. I love working with her. She's great. Very imaginative.

AAJ: I got the sense she was in her own world when she was performing with you that night.

KH: I think there are a lot of improvisers who kind of create their own sonic universe, and then if you play with them you sort of go to that place. One of the interesting things about improvised music is that there are people who are using a more agreed upon musical language, and then there are people who are creating a musical language that they wish or hope will lock up with other kinds of things without changing too much. I suppose I try to do both depending on who I'm playing with and what the situation is, but some people really tend towards one or the other.

AAJ: That brings me to another point. In The Long Awaited Etcetera (High Zero, 2001), you sort of let the other musicians circle around you like you said, let them go—even though you're the feature—you hand off the ball (to use a football metaphor), you're like a quarterback who hands off the ball instead of running the play yourself. It worked very well. It's very democratic, egalitarian.

KH: Well, I suppose I have egalitarian ideals and a lot of the reason I play improvised music has to do with that. It's interesting it comes across in that particular way!

AAJ: And then at XFest 2010 (Lowell, Mass.) you did sort of the converse of that in your performance with Max Lord, and the dancer Teresa Czepial. And you sort of went into a direction, and Max saw you going there and he let you take the show. That worked, too.

KH: When I was really young I was hanging out at the Zeitgeist Gallery (Cambridge, Mass.) a lot, and I saw literally hundreds of concerts during that time. I remember there was one concert I saw and it was David Maxwell

, and a young saxophonist, and a bassist. They were playing, and I noticed that when David and the bassist would go in a particular direction this saxophonist, who was in his early 20s, would always follow them. But the other two would not follow each other. And this was a huge revelation for me. Because I was like, "Oh! You can have a situation where you're following each other but..." A lot of the early jazz recordings you have people who are doing things that are in different universes and completely coexisting, and they're totally listening to each other.

This really fascinates me as a way to make—changing those elements in different pieces, or within one piece, is a way to effect a very clear, spontaneous way to make form. You can make pieces that have very stark structures to them by playing with that. And if only one person in a group decides to play with that, it can affect the structure of a piece and give it a lot of depth, a kind of variety that only staying one way wouldn't give.

AAJ: What if everyone's doing it. Would that be too much of a mess?

KH: No. I think that's the highest—if everyone is thinking about that when they play, as a structural way of thinking, I think that that is the best situation to play in in a lot of ways. It's a very kinesthetic thing.

AAJ: In your Modern Antique (Means of Production, 2010) performance at Third Life Studios (Somerville, Mass.) with Steve Norton

Steve Norton
Steve Norton

you were playing in tandem but it also seemed that what you were doing was very—you were both going in your own directions. So you were playing together and apart at the same time. You were doing some chromatics...Can you improvise on a tone row?

KH: I've certainly worked at it! I worked on that a lot a while ago. I started thinking about that because of Mat Maneri

Mat Maneri
Mat Maneri
. When I was younger I took a couple lessons with him when I moved here (he's a few years older than me). And he was working on that a lot. Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
1927 - 2009
's microtonal stuff was also often presented in the context of making some kind of—not a twelve row—but making some kind of serial process out of it.

AAJ: There's also rhythmic and timbral serialism.

KH: I haven't worked with that, no. I kind of feel that rhythms and timbres need more time to sink in for the people listening. Even serial rows, I don't usually do that when I'm improvising at all, unless the other person is doing it, because that would entail really not listening.

AAJ: Too intellectual?

KH: There's very intellectual ways of playing that are interactive, but unless the other person is also engaging or they're doing something that asks for that, then it's pretty non-interactive.

AAJ: Too clinical?

KH: Non-interactive. Any system of arranging musical parameters can be full of life, or full of clinical deadness—and either thing can be really beautiful.

AAJ: What goes on in your mind when you're doing a performance? Are you thinking of scales? Are you imagining things?

KH: I'm imagining things!

AAJ: So imagination plays a large role in your work?

KH: Absolutely...I suppose a lot of what I imagine happens right before I play.

AAJ: What do you imagine?

KH: It depends entirely on who I'm playing with...I think when I listen to music, when I see people play I often see colors and lines in the air, and things of this nature...They're like phrase lines or vectors.

AAJ: Notes on a staff?

KH: Not even close. It's completely abstract and kinesthetic, in the way that emotion is. Part of the reason I play music is it doesn't work to verbalize these things.

AAJ: How about emotion. Does that play a role in your work?

KH: In some ways I hope not. Emotion...

AAJ: The poet Wallace Stevens said that "Music is feeling, not sound."

KH: I think that's a metaphor. Music is definitely sound! That is what it is. It's sound. I think...

AAJ: What do you expect your music does for your listeners?

KH: I hope it gives them some kind of experience in hearing the same thing that I think is beautiful. When I go and I play for other people it's because I think I've found something really awesome and beautiful and I want to share it with them.

There's a second aspect to it, which is that when people gather together to listen together, this creates—I don't want to say community—when people have a shared experience like that I think that that's a really important thing. And that it can secondarily build community, but to have a space—when I, when anybody, gets up and plays they are creating a certain kind of space, with their sound, or with their presence. And if emotion is a part of that—for some people it is not. For me it entirely depends on who I'm playing for and who I'm playing with and where I'm doing that. What I'm trying to express, or whether I'm trying to express anything at all.

AAJ: Where does the beauty come from?

KH: Things that are beautiful, or things that I think are cool, or things I hope will give me new ways of looking at the world, give me more doorways to walk through in the world. So I hope by creating a space with those things that I am creating that for others.

AAJ: These are traditional romantic notions, emotion an imagination. I'm wondering how they play with...

KH: How they play with modern music. I understand. I guess that that must be in their somewhere, because I took classical music lessons from the time I was twelve. And my father played Chopin in the house all the time, and he was definitely trying to express emotions by doing that. But if it is it's not a conscious thing. It's not a thing where could point and say, "Well at this moment, I am expressing the emotion of sadness."

AAJ: But there is a store of lived experience that you're somehow transmuting into your own work.

KH: Yes. To go back to what you were saying about imagination: I'm really lucky. I know a lot of really good stories that are true. I think that when I'm playing music, I am definitely thinking about those stories. And of course when I'm playing, there's no words, so I'm not telling a story as I might with words, but I think in some respects I am transmuting the act of telling a story.

AAJ: So you're kind of a storyteller?

KH: Yeah. I think that that's if there's a specific way that emotion and imagination play in my "stuff," that's how I experience it...The story of how these strange urban improvised music communities form and all of the iconoclastic amazing people who perform them and all of the different struggles and amazing miraculous things that each of these people lives in their lives and knowing about that—and then maybe having a room full of them to listen to music together is a story. They're all stories, which certainly I have feelings about and imaginations about. And that informs probably everything I do.

AAJ: Apparently there was music in the house when you were growing up.

KH: My grandma and my great-grandma, these old Pennsylvania ladies, went around with their matching wool suits in a big gray Cadillac with an eight-track player. They used to play lots of music. My great-grandma played klezmer music on the accordion, and my grandma would learn stuff off a player-piano that was in our house and on another piano. They kept two pianos so they could do that.

AAJ: Did your father play professionally?

KH: No. He really wanted to, but he didn't.

AAJ: That's a shame...But he must have been very proud of you when you went into it professionally.

KH: He didn't live that long. But yeah, he seemed to be glad I was going into music. He definitely gave me a lot of encouragement. He mostly played Chopin and Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin
Scott Joplin
1868 - 1917

AAJ: That's great.

KH: I grew up in Ann Arbor (Mich.) I went to this alternative high school, called Community High School, it was one of these 1970s—it was like if Howard Zinn and you and [Boston local arts promoter] Alan Nidle ran a high school. Except it was public. It was free. The only music program there was this guy who ran jazz bands. The jazz bands went out and played gigs to earn money so they could have their equipment and their rooms in the program.

The University of Michigan was there. I started taking composition classes there when I was 16. I just banged on a professor's door and he let me in. There was a guy who was doing a 20-piece free improvisation ensemble at a time before there was any program like that in schools. And high school kids would just go and play there.

My first teachers and the first people I was in bands with were all women, and girls. We had a free-improv string quintet because there was this guy in town who was dong free improvisation. But we didn't listen to any records. That's the thing. We didn't know—hardly anything about what free improvisation means...

AAJ: Did that give you maybe a fresh approach to it, seeing it with an innocent eye?

KH: I think we had a very fresh approach to it. And I'm really really happy that I had that experience. Me and another violinist and two cellos and a bassist, and we rehearsed like four or five days a week. We would sit and say, "17/8—that's a hard rhythm, let's play that!" And we'd do it with our backs to each other. We would do these insanely rigorous exercises in the way that high school kids who are exploring something would.

And then Dr. Arwolf was around town. He was this mad record collector. He would put on these slide shows with lots of poetry about music. One of the first shows I ever did, I was 15 and he had the Stockhausen descriptions, two-sentence descriptions, and he had me and some other kids come and play those.

AAJ: The kind of thing where you had to fast for eight hours before you played?

KH: Yeah! And I did that...When I was a kid, my family life was kind of troubled, so I spent a lot of time kind of living in the university buildings, so I was around all these people who were doing interesting things all the time. I went to all thee composers forums.

University of Michigan had a great electronic music studio. My teacher was George Balch Wilson. He was really into electronic music in the 1960s. And they still had this amazing studio—tape decks, and lots of ARP modules, and the university's recital halls were still set up for quadraphonic sound. And he told me a lot of tales of avant-garde electro-acoustic music in the '70s...And in Detroit, which has an amazing jazz scene, I got to study with the saxophonist Donald Walden. It was hard coming to the East Coast where everything is so academicized. It kind of made my stomach turn.

AAJ: Well, you certainly have a good academic sense, a grasp of theory.

KH: There's imagination. I think if you study theory right, it's all about imagination. And you wouldn't do it in an academic setting because unless you're very very lucky most of them could be dentists talking about teeth.

AAJ: Back to Modern Antique...

KH: I remember we were playing these lines that were all spirally.

AAJ: It was like a strand of RNA spiraling around a strand of DNA.

KH: I wouldn't have thought that, but it's cool that you think it.

AAJ: It's still still a mystery to me how you were able to do that.

KH: That's a wonderful place to stand, when you can be following each other very closely.

AAJ: And you'd never played with each other before.

KH: No. We'd been in Matt Somalis' Metal and Glass Ensemble together.

AAJ: Maybe it seeped in from there, having heard each other in that context.

KH: Also, Boston has a very particular music culture, which we'd both been living in for a long time. I think a sort of shared language evolves here in some respects.

AAJ: You close with a piece that is like musique concrete, where Steve does some growling and you immediately make some scratchy sounds.

KH: Yeah, I remember that.

AAJ: Very slight growl, and you pick up the cue right away. And you stopped at just the right time and made the silence part of the composition.

KH: Cool!

AAJ: How did you become such a good listener? Just by listening, I would guess, practice.

KH: Yeah, practice. There are ways of playing where you don't. There are whole musics that are less focused upon that and on many individuals at the same time kind of not listening to each other so closely, but I think—for me, the music is much more interesting if everybody listens very intently and has the full range of possibilities at hand at any moment, to make something...I think a lot of people come to free improvisation when they are in their twenties, and I came to it when I was 14. I don't know how I developed certain things. I was a kid. You sort of get things by osmosis, more.

I play with so many different kinds of musicians, and for me that's a travel, and if I don't listen, I've missed the thing in front of me. It's like if you went and saw the Sistine Chapel with one eye. I'm much less worried about going out and "making my thing" than I am about saying, "Wow! Here's this world, with all these extraordinary things in it." If I bring what I have here, then here are all these other extraordinary people. If I listen, we can make something.

AAJ: I sometimes see a parallel in what you are doing with what Joe Maneri did, Especially at XFest, where you went from a snippet of classical improvisation, to a kind of folk fragment, to microtonal, to concrete. Going in all different directions but somehow making them fit together. But you were doing that before you met Maneri.

KH: Certainly when I met Joe and saw another musician who was much older than me who had done many sorts of things that some people would see as being conflictual, and this guy doesn't see any of it as being conflictual, that probably made me look at other circles I was running around in where they said, "You can only do this." But here's this extraordinary musician and he's not doing this, so I don't have to either. Joe is my mentor. I learned many amazing things from him—he's a major influence.

I was doing many sorts of things before I met him and trying to figure out, how do I make my music, and interact with other people making their music, and give honor to all of this accumulated life experience. And I was thinking about those questions a lot before I met him. So it was more like a continuation of thinking about that than suddenly beginning to think about it.

AAJ: You're going to Sweden, and you've been to Sweden.

KH: I met a man there and fell in love with him and that's why I'm going there.

AAJ: Is he a musician?

KH: He does some electro-acoustic music, he does some poetry, he does some dance, he does street performance sometimes. He was meditating and lived in the woods for three years; he makes clothes...

AAJ: Are you going to be living in the woods with him?

KH: No. I did, I lived in the tent for a little while with him but in the winter it was too hard. It was too hard for my violin....A year ago fall I did a residency at the electronic music institute in Stockholm, because he was working there and I found out about it through him. A lot of my work with microtones, I try to find like b-tones, and other acoustic artifacts that are not what you're playing but are the result of things in the air that you're playing, and analog synthesizers fascinate me for this reason.

AAJ: b-tones?

KH: If you play unisons that are not unisons, if you play the distance you get all these acoustic artifacts, you get these other sounds in the air. The waves hit each other and make small rhythms. Or you hear partials that are very far away from the tones you are playing. I spent a great deal of time studying how to make those sounds a lot more prevalent than the tones that I play here. I work a lot with harmonics that way and other extended techniques on my instrument because—I like the way they sound.

And I like the way you can make electro-acoustic music out of a piece of wood that way. I suppose it's sort of a commentary that I play this antiquated object that's made out of wood.

Selected Discography

Katt Hernandez/Steve Norton, Modern Antique (Means of Production, 2010)
Psychotic Quartet, Gliomas (Fire Museum, 2010)
Katt Hernandez, Flight (Desperate Commodities, 2009)
Katt Hernandez/Evan Lipson, Hisswig (Self-produced, 2008)
Katt Hernandez, Unlovely (Self Produced, 2007)
Damon & Naomi, Within These Walls (Damon & Naomi, 2007)
Ex Reverie, The Door into Summer (Language of Stone, 2007)
Noah Babayoff, From a Window to a Wall (Language of Stone, 2007)
Assif Tsahar, Solitude (Hopscotch, 2004)
Katt Hernandez/Marc Bisson, Seven Gingambobs (Self-produced, 2003)
Dan DeChellis Chamber Quartet, Making the Argument for the Line (Sachimay, 2003)
Dan Dechellis, Chamber Music (Sachimay, 2002)
Katt Hernandez, et al., High Zero: The Long Awaited Etcetera (Recorded, 2002)
Katt Hernandez/Adam James Wilson/Arto Artinian, Darker (Stone Quarry Records, 2001)
Katt Hernandez/Adam James Wilson/Jonathan Vincent/Aaron Trant/Arto Artinian, Unify (Stone Quarry Records, 2001)
Frank Pahl, In Cahoots (Back of Beyond, 1993)

Photo Credit

Pages 1, 2: J.H. Kertis

Steven Leah

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