Kansas City composer Dillon Henry's mix of traditional analog instrumentation, electronic, digital and ambient sound sources needs to be heard to be believed. Currently a doctoral student in Musicology at UMKC, Henry's range as a composer covers everything from straight-up classical to kaleidoscopic solo piano to indescribable musique ;concrète. It's a pleasure to share an interview with the artist about his pop-punk roots in high school, his flexible approach to composition and what makes Kansas City a great place for music.
Introduce yourself. Where do you live and work?
I live in Kansas City, Missouri, and right now I’m still student. I’m getting a doctorate in composition as well as a master’s degree in Musicology (music history, basically) at UMKC. I’ve been drifting further and further west as time goes by: I was born in New Hampshire, moved to Virginia, did my undergrad in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon, got my master’s at the University of Michigan, and now I’ve been here for the past two years. I just started working in the LaBudde Special Collections archive here on campus as well which I’m very excited about. Believe it or not, some people actually really like doing research and archive work, and I’m one of them! Seriously, folks, libraries are great (and no one is even paying me to say that!).
The music on your SoundCloud page is all over the map: straight-up classical, experimental, string quartets, and much more. There’s a rich well of creativity here. How would you describe your approach to composition?
I honestly don’t think I have a single set approach to composition, which might be part of why my music runs such a wide gamut. I may be getting a doctorate in composition, but I got into music by playing guitar and drums in pop-punk bands in high school. I barely even knew who Beethoven was when I decided to pursue composition in undergrad, and thankfully I was naïve enough for that not to deter me. I still love pop-punk, and these underlying musical ideas of accessibility and frenetic energy continue to permeate my music, but I’ve also absorbed influences of other genres, of singer-songwriters, of classical composers, etc., and so I try not to fall into any single rut. I love so many different genres and artists and I try to keep all of these influences in mind when I write my own music. And honestly sometimes I just hear a track and think: “Wait. Could I write something in this style?” And that’s how I wound up writing a Muzak-sounding track for a film a friend of mine made.
It probably sounds cliché, but I do treat every piece differently, and I’ve tried to absorb a large number of styles and let the musical material of any specific piece dictate how the piece should continue.
What do you feel you’re best at?
I think I’m best at not taking myself too seriously. I know a lot of people writing some great music, but I also know a number of people who have this composer-as-genius/worship-my-brilliance persona, and they wonder why people are alienated by their work and their attitude. Music can certainly be powerful, but I think it’s most powerful when you’re being real and not giving yourself some illusory grandeur. And in my case, I like to think my music is honest but not pretentious, and I feel like even my more ‘academic’ stuff is accessible without being vapidly populist. It’s not apparent in all my works, but I also like to throw in a decent amount of humor in my music, as humor has always played a huge role in my life (see: basically all of my library catalog recommendations). A good blend of humor and drama adds poignancy to both the humor and the drama, and for my personal taste, this makes a much more effective work of art than something that is all serious all the time.
What makes Kansas City a hub for so many powerful classical and avant-garde composers?
Well this city has so much to offer, and at a fraction of the cost (and oversaturation) as cities like New York and Los Angeles. The Kauffman Center is the most beautiful concert hall I’ve ever been in, and here in Kansas City, I’m just as comfortable there as I am at the Saloon in Westport, drinking a Manhattan and listening to live bluegrass. So not only is there something for everyone here, but there’s no elitism; you can both go to the symphony hall and enjoy music at a dive bar, and nobody’s going to think less of you on any part of that spectrum. Everything is fair game here, and it’s all readily accessible. When I first got into town two years ago, I went to see a Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts concert that took place at the Grünauer restaurant downtown, and it was such a unique and unexpected combination of experimental electronic music and Austrian cuisine; I knew right then that I’d feel at home here.
What tools do you use for composing?
For classical composition, Sibelius is my best friend; it’s music engraving software. Basically, the least glamorous part about composition is making your music legible for people to perform. Sibelius lets me put notes on the page and play it all back on the computer with crudely synthesized instruments and sort of get a feel for what the finished product will sound like, and it also gives me the capability to gussy up the printed music so performers can read it and do it justice.
For electronic compositions, the computer playback basically IS the final product, so for that I use Ableton Live. Since I don’t need performers for purely electronic works, I don’t need to make a physical score or make it look pretty. I have a small MIDI keyboard to input notes, and then I apply different effects and edits to the sounds and go from there. And if I use both electronics and live instruments, I use both Sibelius and Ableton and try to make my Sibelius score accurately represent the piece’s electronic elements.
Oh, and of course I use good old pencil, paper, and electric piano to germinate most of my ideas.
What may surprise a listener about how your music is created?
Probably how little I actually use a piano or any sort of instrument once I decide on the building blocks of the piece I’m writing. I’ll come up with a melody, a collection of pitches, some harmonic and rhythmic ideas, a concept around which to structure the piece, instrumentation, etc., usually with my piano or sometimes my guitar, but once I have the main elements in place, it’s just a matter of playing with those. By this point, I know enough about how different combinations of intervals sound that once the building blocks are there, I don’t really need the piano anymore, I start to let my instincts guide how the piece will move, as I recycle the piece’s structural elements in different ways.
What inspires you the most about the Kansas City classical music community?
I’m most inspired by how we support one another. I’ve been in and heard tales from others about environments that were hostile and toxic… If you receive an award or get recognition, people might offer lukewarm congratulations to your face, but behind your back they’ll be bitter and resentful about it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world so I can understand that to an extent; it’s like someone else receiving recognition means you DIDN’T get that recognition.
Conversely, the attitude I’ve experienced here is one of genuine and honest support, and that is much more positive and makes me more inclined to put my heart into what I do. If you don’t get an award or recognition but your friend does, you genuinely congratulate them with no envy, and you feel happy knowing they would do the same thing for you: there’s just a nice sense of community here. Classical music for the moment seems like a dying art form, and if we’re all going down on this sinking ship together, we might as well cheer each other on as it sinks. That might sound like a bummer note to end on, but I laugh at and relish the absurdity (and perhaps futility) of it all. If people listen to and connect with my music on some level, that’s amazing. If they don’t, it at least feels nice just to create something, and I’m happy with that.
Dillon's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
This Is Spinal Tap (DVD)
This is an absolute must-see for anyone who is a fan of music and comedy (which I hope is everyone?), and if you've already seen it, it demands you re-watch it. It is a landmark of the mockumentary genre, and the fact that the majority of the film's dialogue was improvised pushes its brilliance to stupefying levels. I grew up on this film, can quote it pretty much in its entirety, and I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with my parents in the past decade that DIDN’T involve any Spinal Tap quotes.
L'Etranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus
This isn't the most uplifting book, but I love it and find it to be bleakly hilarious. Something about absurdism resonates with me, this notion that no matter how hard we struggle to find meaning in our lives, there just isn't any to be found. It's both liberating and insanely depressing, and I can't help but laugh at that! Seriously though, Camus manages to create the single most apathetic character in literary history and makes you connect with him, and there's something powerful and thought-provoking about that.
Darjeeling Limited (DVD)
I love all of Wes Anderson's movies for the uncanny-bordering-surreal worlds they create, and this film is almost criminally underrated. The writing is witty and the character interactions are humorous but heart-wrenching. Anderson is a master at blending humor and drama, and the cinematography here provides an added layer of brilliance and depth to this oft-overlooked film. The color palettes are mesmerizingly ubiquitous, and Anderson's hallmark use of symmetry is paradoxically both off-putting and welcome here. There are subtleties and symbolism in the film that reveal themselves further with repeated viewings, giving it a great replay value. Also, how can you not like Jason Schwartzman?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
This is a play, barely over one hundred pages long, and it could easily be read in a single sitting (which I have done more than once, no shame!). Here, Tom Stoppard uses his acerbic British wit to spin a gut-busting existentialist yarn with two fringe characters from Hamlet at its focus as they ponder their own existence, which seems only to be necessary as it pertains to the life of Hamlet. It also features one of my favorite literary exchanges: "We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?" "No, no, no ... Death is ... not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat." "I've frequently not been on boats." "No, no, no - what you've been is not on boats."
Symphony No. 1; Hymns; Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives (CD)
Really anything by Charles Ives is worth listening to, but his fourth symphony in particular is a masterpiece. Ives was one of the first composers to craft a uniquely American sound in an art form mired in Western European tradition and taste. Ives's fourth symphony, like much of his output in general, is at times serene yet wistful, and at other times face-meltingly chaotic, with very little in between. He piles layer upon dissonant layer of material to build tension and excitement, but his frequent quotation of Protestant hymns, popular tunes of the day, and American patriotic songs keep it within the realm of accessibility, and imbue his works with a particularly American brand of both fervor and nostalgia. Ives’s proclivity toward layering disparate thematic material has heavily influenced my own works. There are so many sounds and styles of music bombarding us constantly, it’s almost baffling that so many artists choose to stick within the confines of one single genre in any given work.
Pinkerton by Weezer (CD)
Although I was late to the party in getting this album, when I finally listened to it in my late teens, I was blown away. Rivers Cuomo's songwriting here is raw and almost uncomfortably emotional and confessional. The gritty, purposefully unpolished accompaniment and production on Pinkerton only enhance the album's feelings of desperation and self-deprecation, and it is gripping. Pinkerton is the perfect example to show that technical showmanship and sleek, polished production aren't always preferable to a product that is so full of torment that it NEEDS to be sloppy, sludgy, and visceral, which is a lesson I heed constantly in my own compositions.