New compositions convulse with beauty.
A last-minute, post-high school decision led Hanna Benn from her native Indianapolis to Seattle eight years ago; esteemed instructors at Cornish suggested she switch from studying music performance to musical composition. Several years after graduation, Benn is deeply enmeshed in the city’s music scene, and her previous vacillation seems natural—the diverse passions of a genuine polymath.
Twenty-six-year-old Benn composes and arranges music for piano, choir and chamber orchestra, plays in art-pop band Pollens and performs folk and jazz solo on piano and guitar. Oh yeah—she also has a stunning singing voice. When she performs on Sept. 28 at the Chapel in Wallingford, she’ll explore each of those modes, though right now, at six weeks before go time, she’s not sure how.
“André Breton, the surrealist poet, has a book called Nadja,” she says, sitting down with an Americano at a café near her apartment in Pioneer Square. “It’s a 10-day romance with a younger woman who’s maybe mentally unstable, who he’s obsessed with. And it ends with this quote. He says, ‘Beauty will be convulsive or won’t be at all.’”
Call it seat-of-the-pants craftsmanship, or planned spontaneity. This is how Benn operates. Moving between the worlds of classical composition and jazz improvisation, sacred music and rock ’n’ roll, she’s free to form a mercurial identity, one that the Seattle music scene easily accommodates.
“This place doesn’t have a name,” she says of the city. “It’s OK to be ambiguous here.”
Benn’s musical partner for the Chapel performance is Kelly Wyse, a former member of the Seattle Pianist Collective who also performs in Pollens. Without giving specifics—she hasn’t figured them out yet—Benn says the pair will intermingle their work, including arrangements for women’s chorus, strings, piano and maybe electronic samples. She’ll perform a few vocalese settings of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and debut a piece called “Kabir’s Swing: A Thirst Which Still Spins.”
Kabir, Benn explains, was an Eastern poet; one of his works inspired the title a long time ago, and now she’s applying it to a new work. “He’s talking about being between worlds,” she says. The piece’s several movements might—and here she emphasizes its unfinished-ness—include a processional and recessional, the choir moving in and out of the Chapel’s austere space.
As for Kabir, the 15th-century mystic has been on her mind for years.
“It’s almost like, ‘The fish in the water that is thirsty needs professional counseling,’” Benn says with a laugh, reciting one of the ancient poet’s most famous lines.
Photo by Miguel Edwards
Hanna Benn performs Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. at Chapel Performance Space