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Katt Hernandez: Spiral Passes

By Published: May 19, 2010
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.

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